Wednesday, August 17, 2005

"My Six Year Old Kid Could Do Better"

There is much argument about the definition of "art". Part of this is due to the Modern attitude for breaking rules and redefinition, so it is useful to consider the classical definition of art, in the tradition of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, and how Modern art deviates from this standard.

Classical Definition of Art

The classical definition is "Art is the virtue of making things well."

  • A virtue is an acquired good habit of an individual person: there may be some inborn gifts, but learning and practice help develop a skill into a habit. In the classical view, the opposite of virtue is vice: a bad habit. So a rank amateur or a cat with paint on its paws can make an aesthetical pleasing object, but this object is not classically called art because it is not a product of someone with the virtue -- or skill and practice -- of art. Due to individual human nature, some people find it easier to be virtuous in some areas than others; but only if this good action become habitual can we call it a virtue -- consistency is key here.

  • Art is classified as a practical intellectual virtue, along with prudence, which is the habit of conducting oneself well. The intellectual virtues in general, which also include science, attempt to conform the intellect with truth.

  • "Making things well" can apply to both useful or aesthetic items, so we can talk about practical arts or fine arts. The modern tendency has been to only call the fine arts 'art', while the useful arts are reduced to mere craftsmanship, artisanship, or engineering.

  • "A thing well made" has conformity to an objective standard. A drinking cup, for example, is classically well made if it holds liquid without leaking or absorbing the liquid, if it is durable, if it is not made of a poisonous material, if it can be easily drank from, if it rests on a level surface without spilling, and so forth. In other words, a well-made drinking cup conforms to the ideal of what a drinking cup ought to be. A well-made fine arts object, say a painting, conforms to its subject: for example, a painting of a flower should elicit the same aesthetic response that one would have from viewing the flower itself. It is in this sense that art tries to conform to truth: conformity to reality, or conforming to an objective ideal.

  • The virtues of Art and Science are virtues only in a restricted sense. We say that someone is a good painter, or a good physicist, but not good in a moral sense, for example, if someone is courageous, just, or temperate, we can say that they are at least somewhat morally good: and the moral virtues build upon each other, but art and science do not build up the moral virtues.

  • Beauty is objective, although the perception of it is influenced by our subjective perceptions; good truth-seeking attempts to filter out these subjectivities and find the universals. Classically, we don't say that something is beautiful because we merely perceive it as beautiful; sometimes novelty can influence us, among other factors. Evaluation of beauty requires a certain rationality, in a broad sense, and not emotionalism. As with other moral judgments, the perception of beauty is influenced by objective beauty itself, the circumstances of the perception, and the mental state of the perceiver. Beauty comes from order, symmetry, and scale.

  • The purpose of art is "the imitation of nature", which is not to be taken to mean a mere copying of natural objects, but seeing the higher and more perfect forms or ideals embodied or shadowed in these natural objects.

  • Beauty exists in mathematics in a very pure form. Music, our most abstract art form, is beautiful if it conforms to certain mathematical forms and ratios found in arithmetic and geometry. Some of these ratios are also cosmic, such as the "music of the spheres". Pope Benedict makes these points in his book Spirit of the Liturgy. These ideal mathematical ratios correspond to certain musical harmonies and scales. Classical architecture also conforms itself to these basic mathematical and musical ratios.

  • Truth, goodness, and beauty, are of the same substance, while also paradoxically remaining distinct from each other, in a kind of Trinitarian fashion. Separating one off from the other is considered disordered.

  • Good art can be found everywhere in the world in all ages because of the universality of human nature. Cultures that practice virtue have good art, neccessarily. Classical Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Islamic, and Byzantine arts have a conception of art strikingly and deeply similar to the Western Classical Tradtion, with art as a virtue, and artwork embodying or shadowing eternal or spiritual truth. These great world art traditions are radically at odds with the Modern conception of art, which deny virtue and truth. Societies that lack virtue will have bad art, neccessarily.

Modern Definition of Art

The Modern definition of art -- or perhaps I should say the Postmodern definition, which is the name used by many of its practitioners -- stands these principles on their head, inverting them in some way in a sense of subversion.

  • Art is not a virtue. An outsider without training or formal influences can do art. Little children can do art. A cat can do art. A computer can do art. Some artists are born brilliant, and make art without any practice or acquired skill. An artist can change his style or medium and immediately produce art.

  • Art is doing whatever an artist says is art. The artist conforms to no one but his own will. The more useless an item is, the more artful it is. Making a product for sale is drudgery, unless you can get rich from it. If the common people hate the artwork, the better it is. Art is for the approval of the elite or politically conscious.

  • "What is truth?" There is no objective reality, or objective reality is unknowable, or reality is strictly and incommensurably relative to the artist. An artist can make a cup that leaks, is made of dung, and is 200 pounds in weight, but the artist can still call it a drinking cup. The artist does not have to conform his work to any kind of reality, and resort to pure abstraction or parody.

  • A famous artist is a person worthy of imitation and deserves fame, without regard to his character, and that good art makes the artist good.

  • Beauty is subjective. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". It is claimed that someone may find a dismembered body beautiful, and some even have been placed on display as an art exhibit. Emotions are what makes art powerful, especially the emotional reaction of the bourgeois.

  • Modern music rejects fixed scales and harmonies. Sounds do not have to be pleasing, nor do they have to be tonal. The music of the 'people' is higly prized over formal musical styles.

  • Imitation is to be avoided at all times, except when doing parody. Creativity -- creation of new things out of nothing, in a random, spontaneous fashion -- is highly prized. The word 'creativity' in its modern sense is a Marxist term, describing the primordial energy of the proletarian artist.

  • You can make a beautiful film about a bad man, and random violence can be beautiful. An art work completely at odds with its subject is still art.

  • Art of other cultures and times is prized if it is primitive, or if it is by an artist who rejects his society, or if his society is in decay.

The classical definition of art is close to common sense, or to what the non-Modern-art-educated person on the street would think. Imagine an everyman in a Modern art museum, and his reaction to the artwork there: "My six year old kid could do better." "This is junk." "They call that art?" "This is ugly." "What is this supposed to be?" These reactions stem from having a classical conception of art, and are not due to ignorance, as is often suggested. This classical conception is commonsensical and rational. The Modern inversion of the classical standard of art was a self-conscious attempt to subvert the meaning of the word 'art', in a revolutionary gesture of visual violence against the old world order. I think that this may be a reason why it is so hard to define art nowadays: we are trying to define it on its own apparent terms instead of seeing it in terms of what it is defying. The Moderns are attempting a revolution of the entire political and social order, and art is merely one of its weapons.

The Catholic view of art is that it is a rooted in truth, goodness, and beauty. It requires skill and spiritual contemplation. Our current art is degraded and ugly because it rejects truth, goodness, and beauty, or attempts to redefine those words so as to make them meaningless.

Clearly, art made with the Modern mentality is not compatible with Christian worship. Let's try not to patronize bad art anymore, but instead try to cultivate the Virtue of Art again.


  1. A member of an Aegean people who settled ancient Philistia around the 12th century B.C.

    a. A smug, ignorant, especially middle-class person who is regarded as being indifferent or antagonistic to artistic and cultural values. b. One who lacks knowledge in a specific area.

    Of or relating to ancient Philistia.

    often philistine means Boorish; barbarous: "our plastic, violent culture, with its philistine tastes and hunger for novelty" (Lloyd Rose).

    [From Middle English Philistines, Philistines, from Late Latin Philistn, from Greek Philistnoi, from Hebrew Plitîm, from Pleet Philistia.]
    Word History: It has never been good to be a Philistine. In the Bible Samson, Saul, and David helped bring the Philistines into prominence because they were such prominent opponents. Though the Philistines have long since disappeared, their name has lived on in the Hebrew Scriptures. The English name for them, Philistines, which goes back through Late Latin and Greek to Hebrew, is first found in Middle English, where Philistiens, the ancestor of our word, is recorded in a work composed before 1325. Beginning in the 17th century philistine was used as a common noun, usually in the plural, to refer to various groups considered the enemy, such as literary critics. In Germany in the same century it is said that in a memorial at Jena for a student killed in a town-gown quarrel, the minister preached a sermon from the text "Philister über dir Simson! [The Philistines be upon thee, Samson!]," the words of Delilah to Samson after she attempted to render him powerless before his Philistine enemies. From this usage it is said that German students came to use Philister, the German equivalent of Philistine, to denote nonstudents and hence uncultured or materialistic people. Both usages were picked up in English in the early 19th century.