"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Goodness and Greatness in Art

S. T. Karnick's essay on greatness in art, specifically in literature, is worthy of extended reflection. (At the least, it was enough to pull your Curmudgeon out of retirement, though whether this is a good or a bad thing is for each Reform Club reader to decide for himself.) The problem is particularly intriguing for your Curmudgeon, as he holds to an unusual thesis: that there exists a universal aesthetic -- perhaps "meta-aesthetic" would be a better term -- that circumscribes our judgments about beauty. (This departure from the received wisdom that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" has caused your Curmudgeon to be disinvited from all the best parties and discussion salons. Despite the pall this has cast over his Yuletide, he's resolved to soldier on.)

A truly universal principle of any sort is a thing both exalting and terrifying. Exalting, because it hints at absolute knowledge, never to be contradicted nor doubted; terrifying, because it imposes an absolute boundary to some aspect of human action. For the claim to universality is a claim that the principle's domain of application is unbounded. One cannot escape its fetters no matter how far one wanders. Being impatient with constraint, we tend to dismiss such claims with prejudice, even when the evidence for them is ample and strong. So your Curmudgeon's notions about a universal aesthetic would remove individuals' option of judging an item beautiful if it failed the criterion. Needless to say, one can expect such an assertion to be resisted, especially in the nihilistic wasteland of contemporary "art." But if the principle is accepted, then beauty, which is one form of the property of goodness, becomes an objective matter. "Different strokes for different folks" might still apply to non-artistic activities and pleasures, but would no longer carry weight in judgments of artistic merit.

Broadly, there are three great questions before us:


  1. What is beauty?
  2. What is greatness in art?
  3. Are beauty and artistic greatness related in an objective way?


"What is" is the most dangerous question in aesthetics. It presages an attempt to define, and every attempt to define is simultaneously an attempt to exclude. So merely to ask "What is beauty?" puts one at odds with those whose conceptions differ, and of course with those who refuse all aesthetic restrictions. But let's imagine that we could assemble some non-trivial group of assessors who agree, without reservation, on what beauty is, whether intensively or by tabulation. Would they necessarily agree upon what items in their sphere of agreement are great art?

Art begins with artifice; a work of art must be a thing made by human ingenuity and effort. (Note how cleverly your Curmudgeon slipped the genus past you. Watch for the differentia; there'll be a lot of spin on it.) The judgment of whether an artifact is a work of art depends largely upon whether it has significant qualities beyond the utilitarian. For example, one would incur great hazard by deeming a commode, even American Standard's finest, to be a work of art. Such an object is all but consumed by its function. It might be beautiful, but its beauty will emerge from how well it melds its form with its function. Few art galleries would put a commode on display for their visitors to ponder; if you find one such, you've likely wandered into a Blackman's showroom by accident.

Art, therefore, must depart from the strictly utilitarian, even when the object under consideration is universally judged beautiful. Interestingly, this implies that the less useful an artifact is -- for anything -- the more likely it is to be allowed art-candidate status.

We have come to a critical juncture: Must art have a purpose of any sort, other than the depiction of beauty?

Your Curmudgeon believes that it must. Human beings do everything for a reason, which the great Ludwig von Mises captured in what he called the axiom of action: Men act only to create conditions better than those that currently exist, or to prevent worse ones.

The creator creates art for a reason. He chooses his genre for a reason. He selects his subject matter for a reason. He molds his production in a particular way for a bevy of reasons. Those reasons, in aggregate, constitute the purpose of the work. By the differentia stated above -- hah! You missed it, didn't you? Got him with a curve ball -- the work of art is not merely a useful item, and not merely a component in some such item. So the artist's purpose must stand outside the utilitarian domain.

The category of potentially non-utilitarian purposes is fairly narrow:


  • The communication of an idea;
  • The evocation of an emotion.


Your Curmudgeon would argue that the first of these is utilitarian at a remove; ultimately, there's nothing more useful than truth. That leaves us with emotional evocation: great art is art that's greatly affecting. For a quick test by contradiction, contrast this conception of greatness with one founded upon beauty alone. Many items of mere beauty, such as the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, touch the emotions not at all. They neither exalt nor disturb. Few would sincerely call them great.

Greatness is inseparable from achievement of one's purpose. Great statesmen bring peace and prosperity to their nations; great commanders triumph brilliantly even when the odds are against them; great scientists unearth important truths, to the advancement of knowledge and of Mankind; great athletes exceed the feats of their contemporaries, for our amazement and delight. In art, greatness must be measured by the artist's success in achieving his purpose: the communication or evocation of profound emotion. That success can have three dimensions:


  • Breadth of audience;
  • Intensity of reaction;
  • Longevity of impact.


A work of art that reaches few but affects all of them powerfully has a slender, unidimensional greatness. A work of art that reaches many and affects them all powerfully has attained a more robust, two-dimensional greatness -- and it need not be beautiful to do so. The nightmare fiction of Franz Kafka, the best known examples of which are "Metamorphosis" and "In The Penal Colony," is horrifying, yet it has profoundly shaken millions upon millions of readers. Francis Ford Coppola's movies The Godfather and Apocalypse Now are beautiful and ugly at intervals, but both are profoundly affecting; few walk away from them undisturbed.

The third dimension of greatness, persistence over a long period, is the hardest to attain; many artworks are too tightly bound to their spatio-temporal context to "travel well" down the centuries, and many forms of art are designed, deliberately or otherwise, to erode. Those that endure are Man's most precious patrimony. Ludwig van Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and Ninth Symphony will exalt audiences until music is played no more. Auguste Rodin's sculpture "Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone" is painful to see, but it evokes overwhelming pity and admiration for the subject's struggles with her burden, and will do so for centuries to come.

Great art stirs great emotions in its audiences. A great artist is one who can do so repeatedly and consistently.

Ordinary individuals, in assessing works of art, seldom think of these things. If Smith finds that some artwork moves him to joy or tears, he won't much care that Jones is left cold by it. His judgments for his own consumption need not satisfy a more abstract standard. But he who makes art a study of importance must regard technical masteries, conformance to trends, even the opinions of critics to be adjuncts at best, distracting sideshows at worst. He must apply the criteria of emotional effectiveness, breadth of audience, and longevity. There are no others.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I was hoping you'd give me a chance to agree with something you wrote, Fran. Very close to my own thoughts on art; I have a bit of trouble with art for the sake of art rather than the concept that art is a medium to convey some greater truth than itself, be it human or cosmic.