What is Art? On Art

Jesus

By William Deatherage, Executive Director

The following article is based around what we call Theoretical Applied Theology and should not be taken as dogmatic or doctrinal Church teaching. Its intention is to provoke thought by bringing in outside subject interests to interact with Theology and propose ideas that stretch the imagination, even if someday proven wrong. Clarifications to questions regarding this article will be posted sometime in the future. I appreciate all feedback but would rather wait a little to discern better responses, rather than immediately answering. 

Hello there and happy Summer! Traditionally, we at Clarifying Catholicism enjoy giving our writers some time off during this time of year. However, since I’ve been researching philosophy quite intensely lately, I figured it might be appropriate to share some of my thoughts and findings throughout the Summer. Keep in mind that most of these weekly posts will primarily draw upon philosophy, social science, and current events, but will circle back to theology towards the end.

Abstract: Not all art is beautiful, as the purpose of art is to expand a person’s worldview and horizon, almost as if art itself becomes language. Beauty is a common sense that can be refined, and all humans share. Charm is the appeal that something has in a utilitarian sense. The best art uses beauty and charm to draw in the observer to immerse themselves in its world. By recognizing this, Christians can see art as a way we can understand our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Terms Discussed

  • Form (Platonic): the set of heavenly bodies that are merely imitated by objects in our material world.
  • Neoplatonism: A religion which set many of Plato’s idea of Form into religious forms. St. Augustine borrowed many ideas from this movement.
  • The Renaissance: A time period beginning around the 15th Century characterized by individualism and science. It ultimately concluded with the Reformation.
  • The Enlightenment: A time period in which the individual skyrocketed, the natural sciences were established, and philosophy became distinct from theology. During this age, secularism greatly rose, and the Church was relegated to a private institution by the end of the French Revolution.
  • Immanuel Kant: Often considered the greatest phenomenologist influencers, if not one of the greatest philosophers, who ever lived. Kant became famous by suggesting that we live in and interact with two worlds: the noumenal and the phenomenal.
  • Phenomenology: the study of how humans perceive their surroundings
  • The Noumenal: reality as it actually is, we will never realize this because our senses are flawed
  • The Phenomenal: reality how we perceive it
  • The Agreeable: anything that gives us pleasure, though usually from utility
  • The Good: that which is ethically sound
  • The Sublime: anything that elicits an awe or terror of an object
  • The Beautiful (Kantian): that which elicits a feeling of pleasure and harmony. It is a distinct feeling that is difficult to define but can be categorized as a sense of peace, serenity, and unity with the world.
  • Charm: a quality that tricks the person into investing interest in an object. For example, a rap song could have a nice beat, but such a beat tricks us into getting some primeval pleasure out of it. Or a depiction of a man being crucified might also engage interest when the person wonders what’s going on.
  • Nietzsche: skeptical philosopher who claimed that truth is merely a set of human constructs and relations. Beauty, by extension, is whatever we make of it.
  • Heidegger: the father of existentialism. Heidegger delved deeper than almost any modern philosopher into what it means to be.
  • World: a person’s constructed reality.
  • WorldBuilding: the act of forming a person’s outlook. Art’s purpose is to create a world for the observer to immerse themselves in and stretch their imagination.
  • Beauty (Final Definition): a distinct feeling that is difficult to define but can be categorized as a sense of peace, serenity, and unity with the world.
  • Art (Final Definition): anything that broadens the observer’s perspective by immersing them in a worldview.
  • Good Art (Final Definition): anything that effectively draws in the attention of the observer and encourages them to expand their horizons by offering a familiar charm or beauty while pushing or innovating their worldview at the same time.

SUMMARY (TLDR) OF THIS ARTICLE IS BELOW IF YOU SCROLL DOWN ALL THE WAY

“Art is subjective.” This phrase uttered by unassuming teens and young adults always makes me roll my eyes. It holds a similar status as: “Well, that’s just their opinion.” “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Beauty. The irony lies in the very word itself. When we say “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” we assume a commonly accepted definition of what beauty is. The fact I can describe something to someone else as “beautiful” insinuates a common understanding of what beauty is. After all, is there any person who would deny the beauty of a sunset? How about the beauty of a starry sky? But what exactly is beauty? How does this affect art? For millennia, philosophers have debated these very questions. In this article, I would like to explore how man’s definition of art has changed throughout history, how this led to the modern philosophy of art, and my argument for how art and beauty are defined and, perhaps more importantly, related.

Starting with the Classics

a1Such a… beautiful man? well then.

“When a beautiful soul harmonizes with a beautiful form, and the two are cast in one mold, that will be the fairest of sights to him who has the eye to contemplate the vision.” This was Plato’s vision of what art should be: reflective of the ideal form. It is precisely why Greek and Roman sculptures seemed to accentuate features that seemed appealing, such as muscle and physique. Essentially, it’s why buff guys and naked women were so popular during this time period. Seems a bit superficial at first, but there is indeed something appealing about certain features. Freudian psychologists would later make the case that such an interest in these features were driven by a sexual desire (e.g. the ancient statues merely resemble our ideal mate). That said, form wasn’t all about sex. Far from it. Form, in the Platonic sense, was the set of heavenly bodies that are merely imitated by objects in our world. Thus, when we see the color red, it is merely an imitation of the heavenly “Form of Red.” This allowed for philosophers to abstract specific concepts from larger objects. If form belongs to the heavens, then matter is what imitates it, but it does so imperfectly. This means that objects in our Earthly realm, being imitations, can never encompass true perfection. For example, a perfect circle or straight line have never been crafted, yet somehow every human has the ability to understand, or recognize, perfect form of a circle. This implies that we are naturally attracted to certain features, which serves as the basis for what art should be.

The Romans continued with this vision until Christianity became a thing. And while the Romans had their gods who were revered, us Christians decided to take it to another level by engaging in this little thing called “cultural appropriation.” This was especially seen in what we did to the Roman basilicas, which were initially constructed by the Romans as government facilities whose mighty columns, impressive stature, ornate decorations, and architecture centered around praising the emperor. Sound familiar?

a2So like this but with a lot less Jesus.

Eventually, a guy named St. Augustine rose to prominence in the intellectual Christian scene. And with him, he took borrowed a few pages from the Neoplatonist movement, which was centered around bringing back a fresh, more spiritual view of Plato’s ideas. Plotinus, head of the Neoplatonic movement, writes “Being is desirable because it is identical with Beauty, and Beauty is loved because it is Being. We ourselves possess Beauty when we are true to our own being; ugliness is in going over to another order; knowing ourselves, we are beautiful; in self-ignorance, we are ugly.” Neoplatonism put forth the idea that all of us mortal beings are united, via the soul, to a greater cosmic power known as the One. The One is the source of all creation, and our central purpose in life is to achieve greater unity with the One. While this may sound familiar, it gets a bit wacky quite fast, as Neoplatonism professes different levels of the soul, some which are immortal, others which are not. Throw in Hypercosmic gods, The Demiurge (the actualizer of reality), and Cosmic gods, and we get a bit complicated. Point is, Neoplatonism followed this trend of artistic beauty that aligned with divine forms, only it took on a greater theological meaning. Following this, art wasn’t just about transcendent form; we were dealing with the One, or in Christianity’s case, God.

A Few Centuries Later… The Renaissance

Alright. I’m skipping ahead quite a bit. Let’s actually start with the state of affairs before the Renaissance. If you were an average Giuseppe living in 1300s Italy, you could expect this:

a3It’s like they photoshopped the same face to save time…

Notice the distinct… lack of facial features. In most pre-Renaissance art, the whole One/God craze was in full swing. It was not sufficient to put any mere mortal’s face on a canvass. If someone made a painting, it was a painting that featured God incarnate, Jesus Christ. If anyone else was in the picture, they bore Christ in their hearts and wore Him on their faces. If this wasn’t the case, people looked quite… plain to say the least. Music around this time period also reflected the focus on God. In the early Medieval ages, musical style was mostly confined to monophonic (meaning only one melodic part) chants that were found in monasteries. Music was almost all vocal, so that the emphasis was placed on the sacred words chanted; instrumentation and complex vocal arrangements would only distract from the words.

With the Renaissance came individualism, which broke through the idea that God alone (or bishops/kings who were God’s handymen) should be the focus of art. Instead, the beauty of God can best be seen in His creation. This also came with the advent of the artist. Before the Renaissance, artists didn’t really enjoy the fame that came with the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.

a4Also, nudity made a comeback.

Notice that while this image conveys religious themes, every character has their own distinct style. It’s also not an inherently Christian portrayal, as it features the goddess Venus. The average Giuseppe from this time period could walk by and admire the beautiful qualities of this painting, without worrying about its theological implications. It’s thanks to the Renaissance that art began portraying scenes that could have been considered more mundane in a more aesthetically pleasing light. And while many classicists see the shift away from a Christocentric mindset as a detractor of the Church’s cultural stronghold (which culminated in the Reformation), I would argue that this new vision of art, being fully realized in the next era we address, opened up a new paradigm of possibilities. God was no longer confined to His literal portrayal; now God could be found in whatever beautiful scene was depicted. Admittedly, though, this was not the mentality that citizens of the time acknowledged, as the purpose of art started shifting away from praising God, which culminated in…

The Enlightenment and Phenomenology

Alright. If I had to detail every Enlightenment philosopher’s idea of what art is, we would be here all day. As artistic independence grew, so did the bounds of what it meant to be beautiful. So, let’s focus on one of the premier figures of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant.

a5I’m guessing this painting wasn’t made in the first time period I mentioned. I Kant imagine that’s what Jesus’s face looked like.

Not gonna lie. Kant is perhaps my favorite philosopher when it comes to phenomenology (even though he was considered a precursor to phenomenology). Here’s the basic rundown. There are two realms of existence: the noumenal and the phenomenal. The noumenal is things as they are, in their total reality. The phenomenal, on the other hand, is how us imperfect mortals perceive the real world. Think of it like this:

  • Ariel (one of our Columnists) is wearing a pair of stylish purple sunglasses.
  • Ariel walks up to a cat and, because of her sunglasses, believes that the cat is purple.
  • From Ariel’s perspective, her phenomenological experience, the cat appears purple.
  • However, in reality, the noumenal world, the cat is not actually purple.

I actually adore this model of reality, as it forces theologians into an interesting quandary, and says something humbling about the philosopher. You see, before Kant, philosophy and theology were considered intertwined in many cases. In scripture, God unveils His perfect word to us. This divine revelation could be considered a noumenal experience, as God Himself is truth. Kant’s philosophy, however, concerns the phenomenal primarily, as the philosopher must rely on their flawed observation. Just as we can never make a perfect circle, as Plato said, we can never grasp the full reality of an object. This is important to the sciences, as it demonstrates that no matter how much we study an object, we can never fully understand everything there is to know about it like God can. Humbling, indeed.

Kant is fairly dense, so let’s break down one of his signature quotes in his Critique of Judgment.

“It is then one thing to say, ‘the production of certain things of nature or that of collective nature is only possible through a cause which determines itself to action according to design’”
Translation: It’s one thing to say that something is the way it is because its composition makes it behave like that (e.g. the steak has a size and weight)

“and quite another to say, ‘I can according to the peculiar constitution of my cognitive faculties judge concerning the possibility of these things and their production, in no other fashion than by conceiving for this a cause working according to design,’”
Translation: It’s another thing to say something is the way it is because my judgment makes it appear like that (e.g. the steak tastes good) 

“In the former case I wish to establish something concerning the Object, and am bound to establish the objective reality of an assumed concept; in the latter, Reason only determines the use of my cognitive faculties, conformably to their peculiarities and to the essential conditions of their range and their limits.”
Translation: In the first scenario, I can say the steak’s size and weight concerns its objective qualities. No matter who interacts with the steak, these factors are constant. In the second, reason can tell me how to interact with the steak, but judgment has a more subjective nature. 

“Thus the former principle is an objective proposition for the determinant Judgment, the latter merely a subjective proposition for the reflective Judgment, i.e. a maxim which Reason prescribes to it.”
Translation: The second scenario is subjective, since it relies on the person’s taste, however it relies on certain objective bases. However, the enjoyment of the steak is contingent on its objective structure. It would be pretty hard for someone to subjectively enjoy an objectively rotten steak.

That took me a good ten minutes and I’m still not certain I got it totally right. Sigh. To really understand Kant, take a class on him. Kant’s book outlines four categories of aesthetic judgments: the agreeable, the sublime, the good, and the beautiful. The agreeable is purely subjective, as it relies on simple taste. Ariel eats the steak and claims it tastes “good.” If Tommy (A Cinematographer) comes up and says the steak tastes bad, it would be pretty pointless for Ariel to argue that it is not agreeable to Tommy. The good has to do with ethics. The sublime concerns that which we derive awe from.

Beauty, then, is similar to the agreeable in the sense that we derive pleasure from it, though it, like the sublime, elicits a common response from observers. Unlike the agreeable, though, we tend to view beauty as objective. It is also not like the sublime, which causes the person to quake in terror or observe with wonder. Beauty elicits a feeling that I can only describe as peace, serenity, and unity. There is a desire or yearning that a person has, to share their experience of seeing a beautiful sunset. This doesn’t happen when eating a steak, or sitting in a comfy chair. To see beauty, there must be a total lack of self-interest. Again, we eat the steak for the sake of nourishment, or sit in the chair for the sake of comfort. Additionally, when a person sees something beautiful, they should not become interested in what exactly is happening in the art. Beauty is all about feeling. No contemplation allowed. When it comes to beauty, we admire beauty for the sake of this feeling we get from it. Modern neuroscience might have something to add to this emotional understanding of beauty, though that’s a subject for another day. Beauty, in essence, is a sixth sense. All people are born with certain a priori, or first, principles (e.g. mathematics and logic) built into them. Beauty, along with the other senses, for Kant, is one of these. However, there is so much variation in our sensibilities (e.g. Ariel wears glasses while Tommy does not), that there can be great variance as to what people think is beautiful. No matter how noumenally fantastic an object may be, it will always be observed by flawed human sensation, who can only perceive the flawed phenomenal version that our minds construct. Art, then, is universally subjective. When Ariel and Tommy see a statue that elicits different levels of emotional response from the common sense of beauty, this is exactly what happens. The beauty of an object, then, originates in the noumenal world, and can be best detected by the acute sensibilities of the phenomenal world.

“When he puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were the property of things.” Kant says that beauty is something we enjoy sharing and can come to agreement over. This makes sense when you look at something serene and peaceful like this:

a6So Serene… Don’t question it.

In summary, Kant’s vision of art is all about feeling; not a feeling of terror and awe, but a feeling of peace and tranquility that sets the mind at ease. It’s also worth noting that Kant acknowledged charm as a deceiving quality that leads back into agreeableness. For example, is that rap song really beautiful, or does it just meet the need to get us dancing or make us feel good in our primeval sensuality? This sounds great and all. In theological terms, one could say that the purpose of art was to admire the beauty that man can create. At this point, Kant’s vision of art and beauty sounds quite attractive. We are given by God this ability to detect the beautiful. Through sheer blessing, our human hands can create art. We see beauty in nature, God’s creation. That’s great! Sounds good! One problem. What do we make of this…

Peachy Nietzsche

a7If I weren’t a Christian, I would have soooo many questions…

In what conceivable Kantian world could this painting possibly be beautiful? This horrifying image depicts an event that disturbs the mind and provokes many questions. “Why is he hanging? What did he do? Why is the guy’s shirt too small?” How on earth does this possibly elicit the same emotional response as a serene watercolor countryside, an elegant melody, or a lovely statue? Welcome to Nietzsche’s world, where it’s all about the feeling, but none of the good kind.

a8Nietzsche wasn’t bonkers. According to him, all of us are. This is true beauty.

In Nietzsche’s world, man is the arbiter of truth. All meaning is what we make of it. He writes “Nothing is beautiful, except for man alone: all aesthetics rests upon this naïveté. Nothing is ugly, except the degenerating man.” For Nietzsche, the purpose of art is man’s self-reflection. Essentially, art becomes a vehicle through which we look inward. Of course, as with all Nietzschean reflections, the darker and more disturbing, the better. True art, in Nietzsche’s opinion, highlights all of man’s qualities, including the darkest and most horrifying ones. Art is a tool for expression, not glorification of the ideal form, God, or emotional response. Beauty is whatever reflects man’s deepest turmoil and inner chaos. Beauty can be quite dark.

Nietzsche’s aesthetics, much like most of his writings, seem quite reductionist. Beauty is what we make of it, basically. That’s no fun. However, he may have been onto something with the whole reflection thing, This brings us to…

Martin Heidegger

a9Last article I promised I’d talk about this guy. Here we are.

Yes, he was kind of a Nazi. But he is also considered one of the greatest minds to ever grace the world. Don’t ask me about his writings, because I struggle to understand basic sentences of his. His books should be marked by “Do Not Try This At Home (Without a Professor)” label. According to his students, he had the essence of a king. He is the pioneer of modern art, and his writings (whether you know it or not) most likely influenced how you understand and interact with media today. This man is Martin Heidegger.

Let’s start off with a quote:

““In the work of art the truth of an entity has set itself to work. ‘To set’ means here: to bring to a stand. Some particular entity, a pair of peasant shoes, comes in the work to stand in the light of its being. The being of the being comes into the steadiness of its shining. The nature of art would then be this: the truth of being setting itself to work.”

Phew! That’s a lot. Heidegger is considered the father of existentialism. His philosophy was dedicated to what it meant to exist or “be.” So, keep in mind that when he says the word “being,” it carries a heavy significance. Heidegger, in a similar vain (yet very different approach) to the epistemology of Kant, believes in the power of perspective. However, unlike Kant, Heidegger doesn’t stop in studying the difference between perception and reality. Heidegger believes that a person’s perspective constitutes their reality: their world.

How do we communicate between worlds? Language. Yet no matter how hard we try, it is difficult to encapsulate the full perspective of our world with mere standard language alone; this is where art comes in. To Heidegger, art succeeds where language fails. Whereas language relies on words with commonly agreed upon meanings, art conveys greater senses of emotion to immerse the observer in the artist’s experience. Likewise, while Descartes tells us that we think therefore we are, Heidegger says that we care therefore we are. Art dares us to care.

a10Great. Another dictator.

Who is this man? Why is the background pink? What are the lines squiggled around the place? Why does this look poorly colored in? Perhaps the most distinguishing feature from Kant is that Heidegger encourages engagement with art. In fact, the best art immerses the observer in the world it creates by coaxing them into asking questions. This marks the culmination of the art world’s shift in what I’d like to call the burden of beauty. When we began with Plato, it seemed as if beauty depended on the object’s ability to project form. The Renaissance showed that beauty can be found in any person or situation. Kant broadened this so that beauty was an instinctive reaction to objects, yet the burden of beauty still fell on objects that are noumenally beautiful. Nietzsche saw beauty as a reflection of man’s inner feelings, but Heidegger was the one to take this concept to new levels. With Heidegger, anything can be beautiful, so long as it illustrates a world. This means that there is truly beauty in everything; we just need to be insightful enough to notice it.

As you can imagine, this can lead to interesting results…

a11The same guy who drew Mao drew this… Beautiful?

This leads to some pretty mindnumbing conversations in the modern art world. “Yes, it’s art. You’re just not sophisticated enough to understand it.” That’s the excuse I always hear when some gum wrapper is sold for thousands of dollars. I remember walking into an Italian modern art museum where there was a room with a single red ball in it. The exhibit was worth tens of thousands of dollars, and I guess I was too stupid to understand why.

My Definition

In my studies of the philosophy or art, I’ve come to appreciate various aspects of each philosopher I’ve mentioned. Starting with Plato and Plotinus, the idea that art reflects a greater beauty of God’s divine form is quite compatible with Christianity, to say the least. But is the beauty of God’s creation limited to the divine? The Renaissance artists begged to differ. And what exactly is it that tells us that attracts us to beauty? I’ll give it to Kant here. There’s just something intrinsic that informs us that we are truly experiencing something special. It is not utilitarian and is not purely subjective. When something is beautiful, we expect others to recognize it, somehow. But is this the point of art? Can only the things that put us in this state of ease and unity with the noumenal be considered art? Or is there a greater purpose of art? Is it just anything that is considered aesthetically beautiful, or is it a language that opens up new perspectives on the world? Remember that film, music, and animation are considered art. So, is a film considered artistic if it is aesthetically pleasing, or is it artistic if it makes viewers expand their worldviews? That’s comparing Michael Bay to Christopher Nolan, and I would have to go with the latter. World building is what makes art art. They immerse the observer in a totally new environment that draws them in. But I still like Kant’s idea of a feeling-based beauty.

Thus, my solution to this would be to say that beauty and art are totally different things that can work together. If an artistic piece contains elements that are beautiful, they will only succeed in inviting a viewer to immerse themselves in its world. At this, I would like to bring Kant’s idea of charm back into play, as charm also can draw in observer, even if it’s from a superficial perspective. In doing this, an equal burden is put on the artist and critic. To illustrate this idea, I’ll put forth three examples:

 

 

 

On the left, we have this dot I found. This dot is worth thousands of dollars. I say that this dot is a case of very bad art. Can it create worlds? Sure. But how effective is it in encouraging people to engage with it. Where’s its Kantian beauty and charm? The one in the center is certainly not beautiful by Kantian standards, but it has a certain charm to it that draws the reader’s attention in by appealing to their curiosity, however morbid it may be. This is good art. The one on the right isn’t so much as charming as it is beautiful. There’s something about it that puts our minds at ease. The calming colors. The round and fluid shapes. The resemblance of a changing sky. It is truly beautiful and can be quite immersive. It is also good art.

How would I define art? Well, art is anything that is assigned an artistic value to it. The minute an ordinary object piques our interest and expands our horizons, it has become art. What I’m more interested in is what “good art” is. At this, I would say that good art is anything that effectively draws in the attention of the observer and encourages them to expand their horizons by offering a familiar charm or beauty while pushing or innovating their worldview at the same time.

The Ideal Art (In My Opinion)

Before we wrap things up, I’d like to give three examples of what I would call modern art masterpieces. Perhaps some of you have heard of these songs, though one in particular is obscure. Let’s start with a modern classic.

If I were to name any modern musician who represents what it means to be an artist, it would be the Beatles. They started off paving inroads in the rock n roll style, and in the span of ten years they introduced the world to countless musical innovations. The key to their success, in my opinion, was their ability to build upon pre-existing musical styles that people found beautiful or charming, and push said styles to their limits by integrating innovative new sounds that people had never heard before. They even did this with their own music. First they brought a couple classical instruments into their music, within years they had full orchestras integrated into rock n roll. Give them a sitar in one song, and suddenly they’ve invented Raga Rock. Every album nurtured the seeds planted by the last. “Strawberry Fields Forever” features uses just enough familiar beats and melodies to get your toe tapping. It catches the attention of the listener by provoking their interest. Its orchestrations ooze beauty. But it’s the nonsensical lyrics, wacky and unpredictable patterns, and unorthodox instrumentation that take the listener on a wild ride they could have never expected (certainly not prior to the 1960s). Thus, this song excels in charm, beauty, and innovative worldbuilding. Since then, artists adopted many of the styles that the Beatles invoked to the point where such styles are no longer considered as envelope-pushing. But at the time, this was unlike anything that had ever been produced, adding to its merit. There’s just something amazing that a piece this avante garde was able to reach as many people as it did. It was something only the Beatles could do, and it will never happen again in the same fashion.

Skipping ahead to the year 2000, Radiohead was making waves with its revolutionary new album, Kid A. “Everything is in its Right Place” is the first song in this highly experimental work. The entire concept album has been described as a “rewarding experience” by many critics. This is because unlike “Strawberry Fields,” I think Kid A is a little bit more difficult to get invested in. It definitely hinges more on the charming side rather than beauty, provoking interest in the lyrics, as well some pretty catchy patterns. The chords are often dissonant and eerie, though when they hit a harmony, my goodness is it beautiful. The artistic genius of Kid A is that you can’t listen to it just once. The first time listening to it, you will be confused, if not a little disturbed. But there’s something that piques the curiosity of our minds that brings the listener back to better understand, or immerse themselves in, the album. So, Kid A has its beautiful moments. It has its charming ones. But above all, it builds an almost hour-long world that is a roller-coaster of an experience. It’s quite unlike any album I’ve ever heard before, and to my knowledge it hasn’t been replicated since.

The last musical piece I will talk about is quite obscure to us Americans. Kashiwa Daisuke is a Japanese musician who specializes in blending classical music with techno sounds. “Stella” is considered by many as his crown jewel, and it is absolutely mindboggling. It begins with a basic monophonic piano melody, which is quickly interrupted by loops, distortions, the sound of a girl laughing, and irregular tempo changes. One second, you’re hearing a beautiful melody; the next it’s interrupted by a wave of static fuzz. The dynamics shift rapidly, as the intensity of the piano and sound effects descends into a chaotic mess, followed by a relaxing return to soothing ambient noises. Somehow, in the midst of all this chaos, a coherent melody is present throughout the entire half hour track. That’s right. This one song runs over thirty minutes. If I were to pick one song to represent what I envision as true art, this would be it. In fact, every time I write a major essay, I always have it playing in the background to get my creative energy flowing. I could listen to this song again and again, and still never grasp everything that was going on. It is immensely challenging, as the untrained ear might be scared off by the sudden changes in style, but just like “Strawberry Fields” and Kid A, it is just as rewarding. When you listen to such pieces, you ask yourself “what emotion does this convey? What world does it construct around me?” Remember that Heidegger emphasized that we are because we care, not because we think. It is this emotional investment in the pursuit of knowledge and beauty that is the basis of our humanity.

What This Means…

Alright. This blog is supposed to be about theology. How is this relevant? Well, for starters beauty is NOT in the eye of the beholder. Beauty comes from God, and there is something to say about a natural attraction to the ideal. We are called to admire the beauty of God’s creation, while also acknowledging that the dark and grotesque has a role in expanding our horizons and perspectives. I’ve written in the past how I believe that theology needs to be challenged in order to expand. My view carries through to art as well. Art should challenge us to reflect on our own lives by immersing ourselves in another point of view. In this manner, art works through our environment but impacts us inward. As we stretch our imaginations, we start to see beauty and charm in the most unexpected places, and said properties draw us towards knowing and loving them and their creator by extension.

A final proposition I would like to make is a classification of beauty. The Greeks are famous for having three different words for love: Eros, Agape, and Philia. Each presents a different type of love that we would otherwise use a single term for. After all, to love your wife is quite different than loving your job. In a similar respect, I am entirely open to the idea of refining our language to recognize these different types of beauty. Kantian beauty is almost always what I personally mean when I call something beautiful. But this doesn’t mean that the other traditions should be relegated to using other terms. It’s a stretch, but in an ideal world, I think we would have different words for different types of beauty; I know that other cultures have such terms.

Well, that was a lot. I’ve been aching to write an article on the philosophy of art, and I’ll be impressed (and grateful) if you took the time to make it this far. So, what do you think about all this? Do you align your view with Plato, Plotinus, the Renaissance, Kant, Niietzsche, or Heidegger? Whatever the case, as the latter would say, that’s just your worldview. But worldview and perspective drive us to understand our brothers and sisters in Christ (Not a Heideggerian concept entirely. The dude was kinda a jerk to certain cultures and engaged in a little Aryan superiority). Anyways, please share your thoughts in the comments below. In a week or so I’ll respond to a few of them. Thank you very much for hearing me out. God bless!

Summary: TLDR

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

  • When we say something is “beautiful” we expect whoever we are speaking with to share a common understanding of what beauty is.
  • This leaves us asking what exactly beauty is? And for that matter, what is art?

Plato/Plotinus

  • Art reflects Form, which is the ideal spiritual version of what our flawed material world seeks to imitate.
  • Christianity came along and adopted this vision of what art is supposed to be.
  • The Neoplatonists associated art with a more spiritual sense of unity to the life-force/deity they called The One. Thus, good art is that which leads to unity with The One.
  • Christians took this theory too and applied it to God. We can thank Augustine for borrowing a lot of Neoplatonic ideas.
  • Because of this, art centered on showing the beauty and glory of God.
    • Paintings from this time only show God/Jesus with distinct facial features. If other people are in the painting, their faces either look generic or share the same face of Christ.
    • Music was also quite plain. Chant was the predominant form of song, and it was mostly monophonic, meaning there was only one vocal part. This was so people were not distracted by complex music and could focus on the lyrics that praised God.

The Renaissance

  • Individualism rose during this period, as the beauty of the individual reflected God’s divine creation.
  • In many ways, this was a return to Form, as the beauty of God’s creation is highlighted, but the Renaissance allowed for darker or even mundane themes that were certainly not always “Godly” by conventional standards.

The Enlightenment and Kant

  • Individualism and secularism really skyrocketed to new levels here. Immanuel Kant was at the helm of separating philosophy from theology. According to Kant, philosophy should focus on what we can perceive, understanding that our perception is flawed, but knowing that truth exists in an unattainable reality that we can try to study.
  • Kant basically says that beauty comes from a feeling: a common sense of sorts.
  • Beauty is universally subjective. This means our judgment of it relies on our subjective opinion, but unlike a comfy chair or a tasty steak, we act as if our opinion is objectively correct and seek to share it with others.
    • In this vein, to discern if something is truly beautiful, it cannot be a utility (e.g. the chair can’t be beautiful because it’s comfy) and its purpose must be to elicit feelings of beauty (e.g. the toaster can’t be beautiful because it has a cool design).
  • Beauty is not agreeable, good, or sublime (see definitions at the beginning of the article). It should also not solicit any feelings of curiosity or wonder. One should not ask themselves “what is going on in the painting?” If it is beautiful, they simply appreciate its unitive qualities.
  • Sensing beauty is a refined talent. This is because no matter how beautiful a thing may be noumenally, its observation relies on our flawed senses which construct a flawed phenomenology of the object.
  • Lastly, Kant warns us to be wary of charm. Charm is basically a response that tricks the person into investing interest in an object. For example, a rap song could have a nice beat, but such a beat tricks us into getting some primeval pleasure out of it. Remember, the last thing we want is for people to think about art…

Nietzsche

  • Nietzsche keeps the feeling of Kant’s vision, but throws away the serenity and peace that come with it. Instead, art is meant to provoke inward reflection of man’s deepest emotional state.
  • The purpose of art is to challenge man’s self-perception. Basically, the more disturbing the better.

Heidegger

  • Every person constructs a worldview based on their experiences.
  • Art’s purpose is to broaden and expand a person’s worldview by immersing the observer in a new experience.
  • Anything can be art, as anything can expand a person’s horizon if they contemplate it enough.
  • Because of this, art becomes language itself, as it better communicates a worldview when compared to limited words.
  • The charm that Kant so detested is actually praised by Heidegger, as charm helps to immerse the person in art by forcing them to ask questions or enjoy the art in an almost utilitarian sense.

My Philosophy of Art

  • Beauty and art are totally different things. This is because Kant’s emotion-based idea of beauty still seems to hold steady. While I would call both a painting of a sunset and Peter’s Crucifixion art, I don’t know if I could get behind calling the crucifixion of a man as “beautiful” when I use the same term to describe a serene sunset. Both, however, create worlds that broaden our perspectives.
  • Thus, not all art is beautiful, but everything beautiful has the potential to be art.
  • Charm is also a good thing. Charm might trick people into appreciating art for the sake of understanding it, but that is not a bad thing, since it invites people to immerse themselves in the art more.

References

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s