Friday, April 21, 2017

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Form of Fine Art

[247] Chapter II: The Forms of Works of Fine Art

The Notion of Form

“Form” Is an Analogical Term

If we are ever to think clearly about the problem of “form” in art we have to realize that this word has many meanings; it is an analogical, not a univocal term.
In the broad sense of the word, “form” is relative to “matter,” so that whenever we have some sort of material, some elements or parts put together in a sort of an order, arrangement, or structure, we may call that structure “form.” In this broad sense, all the nine kinds of accidents […] are “forms,” because all of them give some kind of order to the thing in which they exist.
Among the accidents, however, the one which most truly deserves the name of “form” is quality, the category which answers the question, “What kind of thing is it?”
Hence among the kinds of quality the proper sensible qualities of things which directly affect our different senses may be called “forms.” Color is the form of things perceived by our eyes, sound the form of things perceived by our sense of hearing. Of these, [248] color and sound especially deserve to be called “forms” because it is by sight and hearing that we can best discriminate one kind of thing from another.
In the last chapter (see page 242) we saw that color and sound are forms of the common matter of the fine arts; the reason for this is that they give different qualities to paint, or glass, or stone, or to vibrating strings and columns of air. But although they are forms of the common matter, they are themselves the proper matter of the fine arts.

The Most Proper Sense of the Word “Form”

Although the term “form” may be used in these broad senses to apply to any accident, and particularly to any kind of quality, in the strictest sense it belongs only to one species of quality, namely, to figure.
If we ask most people what “form” means, they will spontaneously answer: “shape” or “figure”; and they will probably be thinking of the shape or figure of a beautiful woman. Thus “form” means “figure.” If we wish to distinguish the connotations of the two words, we may say that “form” means a perfect regular figure. Figure and form are kinds of qualities, but they are qualities very closely related to quantity, and may be defined as follows:
Definition: a figure is a quality which is the boundary of a quantity.
Thus in geometry we construct and study such figures as the straight line, the curved line, the triangle, the polygon, the circle, the cube, and the sphere. Each of these is a quantity having a definite boundary. For example, the circle is an area (quantity) bounded by a curved line equidistant at every point from the center. These boundaries of quantity are its figure, and this figure is not itself quantity but a quality of quantity; it is a form of the quantity.
Closely connected with quantity and figure are four other categories: place, position, vestition, and timing […]. If I draw the figure of a triangle on a sheet of paper, I can put it in various places on the page. I can also turn it in various positions; for example, with the vertex upward or downward. Similarly, the human [249] figure may be in various places, and in various positions (sitting, standing, lying down), and it may also be clothed (vestition) in “form-fitting” or in baggy garments. Finally, as the hands of a clock move through various positions on the dial, we can mark out parts of time to correspond with the parts of the circular figure; or as a runner speeds to his goal, we can mark off parts of the time to correspond with his progress along a straight line. Thus timing and the other categories we have just mentioned are closely related, and we can think of a series of events in time as arranged in a sort of pattern or figure.
Thus “form” strictly means figure, but it may also be applied to other categories closely connected with quantity. Quantity and the other categories which we have just mentioned all provide a foundation for the various relations […] of equality and inequality, similarity and dissimilarity, nearness and distance, before and after, so that in describing figure we must also take into account these various relations.
We often refer to figure in painting, sculpture, or architecture as a “pattern” or a “design.” In music the analogous arrangement of different tones in time may be called by the same names.

Design Is Essential to Fine Art

It should now be evident that a work of fine art that does not have form in the sense of good design could not possibly achieve its purpose. A work with poor design would lack the most basic type of beauty. It might have expensive materials, beautiful colors, or rich sounds; it might portray an interesting subject, or tell a moving story, but it would lack form. It would be the material of a work of art as a pile of bricks is the material of a building, but it would not be the completed work. A girl may be healthy without being very beautiful.
Oddly enough, many people miss this point. Girls are sometimes admired for beauty who really do not have it. A girl with bright eyes, a glowing complexion, or a pleasant manner is often thought beautiful, although actually she does not have regular features nor a good figure. Similarly, in judging works of art many people are inclined to think that a work of art is good if it has bright colors, or if [250] it is about some subject that they personally like. A man who likes hunting is likely to think that a brightly colored photograph of the woods is a fine work of art; and a woman who likes children is likely to think that a picture of a sweet baby painted in lovely pastel shades is a masterpiece.
This is not unnatural, and we need not object to people enjoying bright colors and pleasant subjects. But we must recognize that it is not the work of art itself they are enjoying, but merely something accidental to it. That is why the opinions of the public and the opinions of experts in matters of art sometimes seem so far apart. The public cannot understand why a prize at an exhibition should be given to a rather dull looking picture of some apples on a table cloth, while a flashy picture of a beautiful girl is passed over by the judges. The difference is principally in the fact that the judges are looking for the form of a work of art, and in the picture of the apples they find a most complicated and interesting design, while in the flashy picture of the girl they find very little design at all.
The public, on the other hand, has perhaps not learned to look for design and probably does not even realize that it is the very essence of art. Good design may be greatly aided by brilliant, beautiful colors, and it should tell us something interesting and human (as we will see below); but without it all the colors and subject-matter in the world cannot produce a work of art. The same is true of music; brilliant or rich sounds, or easily memorized tunes, or a great deal of lively and noisy rhythm does not make a good piece of music, nor does the fact that the music is patriotic, or romantic, or tells a clever story. Without musical form or design such music is like a collection of pretty silks and laces that has not been cut and sewn to make a dress. It is the possible material of a work of art and nothing more.

Abstract Art

It is the growing recognition of this true conception of art that has led to the surprising development of abstract painting and pure music in the last fifty years, a development which has outraged the public and which they find it very difficult to regard as anything but “insane art,” or “boiler-factory music.” In an abstract painting [251] or sculpture the artist gives us a pure design which seems devoid of all meaning (“What in the world is it supposed to be?”) and which frequently is devoid of appeal in color or careful finish (“A child could do as well!”). By giving us a work which seems “crude,” sketchy, unfinished, the artist is trying to get us to forget about the mere superficial qualities of color and neatness, and by not picturing anything definite he is trying to get us to concentrate on the pattern. It is rather like a football coach deciding that the crowd is becoming more concerned about the hot-dogs, the pennants, the chrysanthemums, the marching bands, the majorettes, the cheer-leaders, and the mascots than about the game of football itself; so he decides to cut them all out and give the spectators nothing but a hard-played game by a team in dirty uniforms. The public would not like that, but the real sport fans wouldn’t mind at all. They would be happy to concentrate on the game. In similar fashion abstract art and pure music are intended to be works of fine art cut down to the essentials with little appeal to the ignorant public, but with a very direct and strong appeal to those who really know what art is all about.

Significant Form

We have just given the case for abstract art, but we hasten to add that the public is not altogether mistaken in its astonishment at this type of art. The figure or shape or design of things is only an accident. The human mind, however, is made to know reality, and the accidents of things, although real, are only the most superficial aspect of reality. Reality consists of things, of substances which exist in themselves. Accidents cannot exist in themselves but have reality only because they exist in substances. Until our mind penetrates accidents and grasps the substances of things it is unsatisfied. Perhaps at a circus or fair you have bought a paper cone full of pink “cotton-candy” spun out of sugar, and you remember that when you bit into it you found it was hardly more than slightly sweet air. The world of accidents is just as unsubstantial to the appetite of our mind.
Accidents are the natural signs […] of the substantial nature in which they exist. A man’s color, height, shape, weight, [252] etc., are the outward signs of his human nature. When our senses take in these accidents our mind at once begins to try to read their meaning and to discover what they signify. Of all the accidents those which are most significant to us are the figure, the sounds, and the motions of things. If we see the shadow of a dog, hear its bark, or see it streak across the lawn after a rabbit, we recognize it immediately and we understand what its nature is.
So habitual is it for us to read the natures of things through their figures that when we sit idly watching the shifting forms of the clouds or the fire, or when a psychologist shows us an ink-blot, we immediately see in these random shapes the likeness of animals or human faces. The same is true of sounds, for if we listen to the wind or the waterfall for some time, or the sound of the wheels of the train on the track, they may begin to suggest words and voices to us. The tendency of children or of insane or delirious adults to see figures in the shadows and hear voices in the wind is only an exaggeration of a universal human tendency to seek for meanings in every shape and sound.
A form which quickly reveals a nature and which thus acts as an effective sign is a significant form, in contrast to one which seems meaningless. The reason we resent abstract painting and music is that it seems to promise a meaning which we can never discover. Purely abstract art is inhuman, because it offers us a mere surface, a flow of phenomena instead of the reality we naturally crave.
It certainly is legitimate for the mathematician to abstract from all reality except the accident of quantity, because he is a scientist, and science sometimes gains by sacrificing depth for the sake of exactitude […]. The artist, too, may feel that by making his picture very mathematical he is gaining in clarity of form what he is losing in richness of content, but this sacrifice becomes too great when nothing but mathematical pattern is left. The history of art shows that cultures like that of the Jews or the Mohammedans (who, for fear of idolatry, banished the use of representation in art and confined themselves to abstract designs) did not achieve artistic greatness.

[253] The Function of Emotion

Emotion and Abstraction

As a matter of fact, the abstract art of today is really not so abstract as it appears. Most of it actually has some meaning or significance because it conveys emotion. Very little music has even attempted to reproduce natural sounds (except as an incidental novelty); yet music does convey emotion, and has a rich emotional meaning. In an analogous way, visual design which seems to resemble nothing in particular may have a definite emotional content, and may convey a sense of joy or gloom, agitation or serenity. If it were not so, then architectural designs would not convey any mood to us—and they obviously do. Who has not felt the sense of serenity in the façade of the Parthenon, or the sense of prayer in the interior of the cathedral of Chartres? Abstract painting is a visual design which signifies emotion in somewhat the same way as music does.
What then about pure music, which seems to be free of any obvious emotional content? When we listen to the music of Bach, we do not sense, to be sure, the same violent and obvious emotions as in a piece by Tschaikovsky [sic], or Wagner. We say that the music seems “intellectual.” The reason for this lies in the fact that there are two kinds of emotion. Some emotions are so violent that they carry us along, blinding our intelligence and clarity of thought. Other emotions are controlled, measured by our intelligence, kept in balance and harmony by our thought. Such emotions do not blind us, but rather sharpen our intelligence and help us to think more acutely.
This is not a difference in the intensity of emotion, but in its discipline. Controlled emotion can be much more profound and intense than sentimental, dissipated emotion. Many people who compare the music of romantic composers like Wagner to classical composers like Mozart and Bach at first find the classical music “cold,” “intellectual,” a mere pattern of sounds; but after they know it better they come to see that it signifies most intense and deep emotion.

How Can a Design Have Emotional Significance?

Granted that “abstract” designs and musical patterns often signify emotion, it is rather difficult to explain how this can be. We need to recall what an emotion is:
Definition: An emotion is a movement of our sense appetites toward an object presented to the imagination as pleasant or away from an object as presented to the imagination as unpleasant, with an accompanying physical change.
So, for instance, when we imagine a delicious dish of food we have a hungry impulse that moves us toward it, and we feel our stomach begin to get active and our mouth begin to water. […]
In order to signify these emotions by a musical pattern we need to produce a series of notes that move toward or away from sounds that are pleasant and unpleasant. A pattern of concordant or related notes seems pleasant, a pattern of unrelated notes seems unpleasant. The pleasant pattern seems restful and suggests a state of bodily relaxation; the unpleasant pattern is disturbing and indicates bodily tension. When a design is suggested but not completed, then we are in a state of anticipation and tension until it is completed. In this way a piece of music is a constant alternation between the building up and tearing down of a musical design, and this movement to and from an expected pattern or order signifies the emotions. If we see an expected design dissolving or incomplete, the emotions of sorrow are signified; if we see it building up in spite of obstacles, the emotions of joy are signified.
In dancing we have a similar alternation of visual patterns. In painting, sculpture, or architecture there is no actual movement, and at first it might appear that they could never signify the flow of emotion. But every motion begins and ends in rest, and in a static design it is possible to indicate that a motion is about to begin, or has just ended, by showing a design which is not quite complete, but suggested. Hence a picture in which a design seems to be dissolving or ready to fall apart suggests something sorrowful, and a picture in which the design seems just to be arriving at completion suggests triumph and joy.

[255] Ugliness and Beauty

We can now understand why a work of art, if it is to have emotional meaning, must not be simply a perfect geometrical design or pattern; why it must contain something which is imperfect, incomplete, ugly, and disordered. It is not possible to present the pleasant in an effective and intense way without also suggesting the unpleasant, or at least the less pleasant. A piece of music which was all sweet chords, or a picture which had a perfect balance of pure colors, would seem emotionally empty because they would not suggest to us the movement of emotions from the unpleasant to the pleasant. A story with no villain, no conflict, no danger is bound to be insipid. That is why good works of art at first sight sometimes seem shocking or strange or depressing. It is because we have noticed the unpleasant element, and have not yet perceived how this unpleasant element is present only as a means to intensify the emotional movement toward the pleasant. The apparent disorder exists only to bring us to a profound order, just as in the universe sin and sorrow exist only to awaken us to the pursuit of true happiness.
This does not mean, however, that there must always be something ugly for there to be something beautiful. God is Beauty without ugliness of any sort because he is Eternal Beauty. But creatures arrive at beauty and goodness only by a long journey, and every journey not only has a goal, but also a place of departure. We journey toward Beauty only by leaving ugliness behind.

Natural Signs of Emotion

It may appear very surprising that we are able to read the emotional meaning of a piece of music or a design just by looking or listening to it, even when we have had no training in these arts. And yet people spontaneously understand the joyfulness or sadness of a great deal of music and design. The reason is that we are naturally inclined to read this visual or musical language of the emotions because the appearance of our bodies and the sound of our voices are natural signs of our emotional states.
Even a small child soon learns to read its mother’s emotions from her facial expression, from her calm or nervous gestures, and from the tone of her voice. When we watch a fine actor we are amazed to [256] see how his body and his voice seem to reveal his interior feelings by their slightest changes. Thus the human body in its movements, postures, expressions indicates the interior tension or repose that accompany emotion (see definition above, page 254), and so does the human voice which is so affected by the muscular tensions of the face, throat, and chest, and by our breathing.
When our body is in repose (standing or sitting easily), it forms a perfect symmetrical pattern; and so, in a similar state, does our face. When we are moved by emotion, this pattern is disturbed and goes through a series of shifting appearances until we return to repose. In dancing or acting we see this alternation of repose and movement. The voice also has its rest and repose, silence or a clear, even tone. When we are moved, the voice rises or falls, grows stronger or weakens, and then returns again to repose. It follows, then, that the pattern of design or of music of which we have been speaking is natural to man, so from our acquaintance with the human body and voice we quickly come to read this natural language.

Imitation in the Fine Arts

Art as Imitation

We can now understand the famous saying of the great Greek philosopher, that art is imitation. In Greek the word is mimesis, the same word from which comes our word “mimic.” No doubt Aristotle particularly had in mind the actor who mimics or imitates a character in a story. He says, however, that music also is imitative (Politics, VIII, 1340a, 19), because it so subtly portrays the emotions. By this he means that the work of art is a significant form, as we have already explained, not that it is a photographic copy of the appearance of something. If he had meant the latter he certainly could not have cited music as an obvious example of imitation, since music is no obvious likeness of anything.
Some have argued that “imitation” was taken by Aristotle to mean that the artist does for his work of art what nature does for the things it produces. According to this theory, just as nature helps the seed to grow into a beautiful tree, so the artist develops a design from [257] some germinal idea and embodies it in his material. It is perfectly true that human art does imitate nature in this way, but this is true of all arts—of farming, of medicine, of engineering, of teaching—and would not be especially characteristic of the fine arts. Yet Aristotle uses the term “imitation” as the specific difference of the fine arts to define them in contrast to these other arts.
Aristotle tells us himself (Poetics, IV, 1448b, 4 ff.) that the fine arts are imitations in the sense that they lead us to knowledge. By comparing the work of art with the thing it imitates we come to know something which we did not know before. How is that possible? How do we come to know by comparing the picture of a man with a man?
We can understand the answer to this question if we recall that we human beings learn to define things by comparing similar things and then noticing the differences. It is in this way that we come to distinguish between what is essential and important and what is accidental and insignificant. Hence when an actor “imitates” or mimics someone else, we first make a comparison between two persons who are unlike each other (the actor and the one he imitates) and then we notice their similarity, the tricks of gesture, gait, expression, and pronunciation which make them startlingly similar.
When we recognize this similarity we are very interested, because previously we had never realized the distinctive personality of the person who is being imitated. But when we see these traits put on by an entirely different person, we see them plainly and clearly and appreciate them as we never appreciated them before. The mimic has said to us, so to speak: “Here is the very essence of Mr. So-and-So. Now you know what Mr. So-and-So is really like, although you never realized it before.”
An imitation, therefore, is just the opposite of a photographic copy. The photograph is the unselective reproduction of the mere appearance of a thing. An imitation is the selection of a significant form, of those appearances which reveal the nature or essence of something. A photograph is made by a machine that is without intelligence. An imitation is the work of an intelligent man who sees through the accidents to the substantial reality of things and produces a sign that enables us to do the same. That is why a melody, [258] or an abstract painting, can be a true imitation, although they are far from a mechanical reproduction of anything. Between the melody or the design and the emotion which they imitate, there is a real similarity, a selective and interpretative likeness of movement and pattern existing in utterly different materials.

The Scope of Imitation

Emotion and Action

Up to this point we have shown how even when works of painting or music seem very abstract or “non-objective” they may actually imitate the emotions. But emotions do not exist of themselves, they exist in human beings. It is the human being who is a substance, and emotion is only one of his activities. Nor is it the highest human activity. Man fully lives, not merely in feeling and suffering, but rather in thinking, willing, loving, choosing a course of action, and executing it. Furthermore, it is not merely in some passing experience that he truly lives; rather it is in his habitual, deliberate way of life that his character and personality are truly realized. If art were confined to imitating man’s emotions, it would be able to show us only a very fleeting and superficial aspect of reality.
Hence it is that in poetic works, which are the fullest and most complete type of art, the writer does not merely portray emotion (this is paramount only in lyric poetry, see page 216), but deals with human action, that is, with human life as a whole. The scope of the imitation of a poetic work, therefore, extends beyond emotion to the whole of man’s nature and life, and to the world in which he lives.

The Scope of Music

Is it possible for the arts which do not use words to go beyond emotions in their work of imitation? It would seem that music cannot go further, unless it is united to words or drama as in a song or opera. Music represents emotion, and in that emotion we sense the control of reason and of virtue which gives that emotion its own balance and symmetry. But music alone can never tell us the objects of these emotions (the thoughts), nor the characters that feel them, nor the situation that provokes them.
[259] In hearing a piece of music we witness someone’s noble sorrow, or exultant joy, but we do not know who it is that feels these emotions, nor why. On this account music is very limited in its scope, although it compensates for these limitations by its extreme subtlety and power in imitating what it can imitate. The words of a poet or the expressions of an actor fall far short of music when it comes to imitating the shades and changes of feeling.
It is for this reason that music is so often used in connection with other arts, along with words, or as an accompaniment to acting or dancing. This is also the reason why it has such intense appeal to people of deep emotions, while it may seem tedious and empty to those who are more interested in the other aspects of life.

Limitations of the Other Arts

Architecture, which has been called “frozen music,” has even narrower limitations. It cannot show the shift or changes of emotion, but only a certain mood or atmosphere of grandeur, or peace, or comfort, or whatever it may be. It may be said to imitate a habitual state of character or emotion, rather than the emotion itself. Abstract design has these same limitations, and in spite of the great fashion at the moment for such designs, we may be sure that people and artists will soon tire of so limited a medium. Abstract design has neither the power of music, nor the scope of representational art.
Why is it so popular at present? Partly, it would seem, as a reaction to the mechanical, materialistic, photographic ideal of art which is so prevalent in our mechanical age, but mainly because the artists of today are very ignorant of the fulness [sic] of reality. Like so many experts, they are narrow specialists and they find nothing to imitate which they know well except their own emotions. It is well known that among writers lyric poetry is the one field in which the young writer can excel, since it requires a minimum of knowledge and experience with life, and only a sufficient sensitivity on the part of the young poet. Abstract painting and sculpture are the lyric form of the visual arts, and today’s artists, cut off from the fulness [sic] of life by their lack of education and general culture, tend to devote themselves to it. This is by no means all their own fault; it is largely due [260] to the fact that in modern life the fine arts have lost their social function and have become very narrow […].
Acting and dancing have a much wider scope, since vision is the most informative of all our senses. Before the “talking picture” was invented, the silent movies had proved that it is possible to go very far in telling an effective story without words. Nonetheless, everyone is aware that the silent movies were very limited in their dramatic scope. Without words it was difficult to express the shades of motivation, and the story had to be confined to very broad simple effects. The same is true of the ballet which can tell a simple story and express the related emotions very clearly—more clearly than can a play. Yet a ballet becomes confusing if the story takes on any complication or subtlety of plot, character, or thought.
In painting and sculpture even motion is eliminated. Hence these arts cannot effectively tell a story. The efforts of some painters to suggest a story in a picture is more clever than successful. To be sure, the technique of the comic-strip may be tried. In Chinese painting, in illustrations for manuscripts and books, in some primitive Italian and Flemish painting, and in certain large groups of mural paintings, successful efforts have been made to portray the separate incidents of a story in a succession of pictures. Even here, however, each picture has to have an interest of its own, and a single picture conveys a story only feebly.

The Imitative Function of These Arts

What these arts can do is to portray the repose that completes precedes action, and by showing this repose as imperfect to suggest the action which is coming to rest or about to begin. In the famous Greek statue of the discus thrower, for example, we see the athlete poised to release the discus. In Michelangelo’s statue of Moses we see the great lawgiver just about to rise from his seat in righteous anger. In the “Winged Victory” in the Louvre we see the goddess of victory just coming to rest on the prow of a ship and ready to fold her wings, and in Michelangelo’s Pietà we see Our Lady gazing in silent grief after receiving the body of her Son. The history of Egyptian and Greek sculpture or of the painting of the Renaissance shows the gradual development of the art by which the artists learned to [261] suggest, in a static design, this beginning or coming to rest of motion. In the later periods of Greek and Renaissance art this skill was so abused that the static design was destroyed by motions too violent for successful portrayal without actual acting or dancing.

The Matter of the Arts as Limiting Principle

In fine, each of the arts tends to be limited in its scope by the effective possibilities of the matter. It pertains to the perfection of these arts to widen their scope, but not to do violence to it. The great musician tries to give a dramatic and intellectual quality to his music. The painter and sculptor attempt to suggest action in repose. The poet seeks to give a vivid pictorial and sound impression in his poem. All, however, if they respect their own art, will not attempt to compete with the other arts, nor try to do within the limits of one material what could be better done in another.
The musician who tries to paint a picture or tell a story, the painter who tries to turn his poem into a piece of music or a painting—all are striving to do the impossible, and thereby violating the nature of their own art.

Objects of Imitation

Since an imitation receives its form from the object imitated, we need now to ask: what objects are imitated by the fine arts? The answer must be given in terms of two principles:
1. An artist should seek to imitate what is most beautiful in itself insofar as he can.
2. But he is limited in this by the kind of matter he uses.

The Beauty of the Divine

If we consider the first principle, then, of course, the most beautiful of all things is the One God in the three divine Persons. God’s Being is seen especially in the Father, his Truth especially in the Son, and his Goodness in the Holy Spirit. Since beauty is a kind of goodness (namely, the good of knowledge), the Beauty of God is seen especially in the Holy Spirit. Since beauty is the splendor of truth, it is especially especially as the Holy Spirit is the very splendor of the Word of God that he is Beauty.
[262] After God the most beautiful reality is the Triumphant Church (taking its Head and its members together) as it will be after the last judgment. This Church will then include all glorified rational creatures and the whole glorified physical universe as its temple. The damned in hell will remain to render this glory more clearly, in the same way that something of ugliness remains in a work of art as the sign of the catharsis achieved. In this Church our divine Saviour [sic] and Our Lady are most beautiful. By reason of his human nature, our Lord, who is a divine Person, is fitted to our knowledge, and is thus most beautiful to us. But even more evident than the beauty of our Lord as man is his sublimity, whereas his beauty is found most clearly for us in Our Lady, who so perfectly resembles him. Our Lord’s beauty appears especially in his actions, his life, since it is by these that his Person is manifested to us. For this reason the history of the Church (and in it the story of our Lord’s life) is the most beautiful of dramas. The life of Christ is also strongest in its catharsis, since we can completely identify ourselves with him who has become our brother, and his life moves from the extremes of sorrow to those of perfect joy. It is in the Sacrifice of the Cross and in the Resurrection that this catharsis attains its goal.

The Beauty of the Human

Among other human beings, the saints, who most resemble Christ, are most beautiful; and their heroic actions, especially martyrdom, share the tragic power of his own life. But it is particularly in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (which is a sacramental imitation of the Sacrifice of Calvary, truly re-presenting it) that this beauty is found at its highest.
It is also found, however, in the humble life of the home where he lived in Nazareth, and in his daily contacts with weak humanity. In these incidents is found the comic spirit, ranging from the burning satire of his exposure of the Pharisees, to the gentle humor with which he dealt with his disciples. The sublime sorrow of his life, however, prevents the comic from being seen there fully, but it is fully evident in the life of his members in the Church, who alone of men can afford to laugh at themselves. The sublimity of our Lord’s life, on the other hand, is fully seen only in the entire panorama [263] of history outlined in the Bible and filled in by the details of secular histories.

The Chief Object of Imitation

Thus it is human action (whether tragic or comic) which is the chief object of imitation in fine art. For this is the highest object which appears perfectly adapted to our understanding and sympathy, and hence the one which produces in us the most perfect purification of our emotions (catharsis, see pages 152 ff.) and the most perfect contemplation of the beautiful. Divine things and cosmic things are represented, but as they are reflected in human action, as its law and goal. When we see human life in relation to its ultimate consequences beyond this life, in its relation to God and the society of the universe, we have a tragic vision. When we see human life in relation to the less consequential affairs of everyday life in human society, we have the comic vision. In the former the catharsis is more profound, because it is a lasting joy attained by conquering sorrow. In the latter the joy attained is less perfect and final; it is the commonplace joy of daily life.
When we consider things below man we consider them as ordered to man and reflecting human life, as similar to man and sharing in his beauty or ugliness. Sometimes they appear as obstacles to his action (hence as ugly), sometimes as the instruments and appropriate setting of his action (hence as beautiful). Such humble things also have a sublime aspect, since they reflect the cosmic order of which man is not the highest part. They suggest to us man’s subordination to the Creator who made both man and ant. Thus in looking at apples on a table, not only do we see a design, but also a reflection of man in his daily domestic life, and, further still, a reflection of the mystery of the universe in which man finds himself as a part. Seeing the reality of the apples in sunlight we realize that the world is not our work, but the work of someone greater than ourselves whose art is infinite.
Consequently, the landscape painting, the still-life, the picture of animals, the poetic description of the weather, are subordinate and minor objects of imitation in art which take their meaning from their relation to human life and to God.

[264] The Division of the Fine Arts

Since human action is the principal object of imitation in the arts, especially as it reflects the divine action, we can now consider how we can give a classification of the fine arts. We can do this by seeing the ways in which this object can best be imitated in the different materials of words, color, or musical tone, which we have seen are the proper matter of the fine arts. The division rests on the three possible objects of imitation: action, character, thought, and on the three possible kinds of matter: words, musical design (which includes both melody and rhythm), and visual design (spectacle). Words and musical design must include movement, but visual design may be either moving or static. Words have their significance by convention, musical and visual design by the natural expressiveness of the human voice and body.
Finally, the difference between the dramatic and non-dramatic manner is basically a difference between the joint use of the arts to produce a synthetic work (in which human action is represented on the stage in all its aspects) and the individual work of poetics (where the other arts are omitted). Thus Aristotle’s division of the arts (Poetics, I) according to objects, means, and manner is observed in the following division:

Classification of the Fine Arts

A. The synthesis of the fine arts, the drama:
Definition: The drama is a work of fine art whose form is the representation of human acts in their relation to divine and human law, along with the characters who act and their thoughts about their acts,
and whose matter is words, along with moving musical and visual designs whose significance is derived from the natural significance of the human voice and body in repose and motion.
B. The individual fine arts, each of which produces a part of the drama but which may produce independent works:
I: Literature (poetics):
A poetic work excels in representing the element of thought by means of conventional signs or words, along with spoken musical design.
II: Music:
A musical work excels in representing character as it shows itself in emotion, by means of a pattern of sounds.
III: Visual Art:
1. Dancing excels in representing character as it shows itself in the movements of the human body, by means of a visual design using such movements.
2. Painting and sculpture excel in representing character as it shows in the repose of the human body, by means of a visual design using this repose.

3. Architecture and the crafts provide an appropriate setting or instruments for human motion or repose, by a visual design adapted to these.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 247–264.

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