I was inspired to write this by a wonderful post by Connie du Toit titled Something to Live and Die For where she argues that freedom is not enough, that our society must have a commitment to high culture. I agree with this unreservedly and encourage people to read the whole article. However I have a few reservations about Mrs. Du Toit piece which I want to explore.
Let me say that a few reservations does not mean I think she is wrong about her general thesis. She is dead right. It is not enough to simply have material abundance, as conscious entities the spiritual is as real for us as the material.
What worries me is that she seems to be falling into the trap of the mind body dichotomy which has plagued our culture. It is no more to be desired that we have high culture but no material wealth, than that we have wealth but no high culture. In fact our material wealth is the necessary precondition for a widespread high culture. One of the glories of our civilization is that a line worker in a factory or a farmer have the material means to become educated and to fulfill an educated taste for literature and great works of art. Our shame is that many of our fellow citizens have not used that opportunity to better themselves intellectually, but instead have only striven for material consumption.
On a related topic that Mrs. Du Toit did not discuss but that Albert Jay Nock does in his essay which she links to, “The Disadvantages of Being Educated.” That is the prejudice against athletics in education. This is a manifestation of the mind body dichotomy. I believe that athletics and outdoor activities such hiking or hunting are essential to a liberal education at least for men and probably for both sexes.
Secondly I think it is important to distinguish between beauty and art. Art is a means of communication. It has a vocabulary and grammar. If a work of alleged art does not communicate with the viewer then either the viewer is uneducated or the artist is no good. This is the part of art that can be objectively judged without reference to either values or subjective ideas of beauty.
Something can be ugly as sin and technically be good art. For example I hate Jackson Polick’s work. It is dreadful. I once was dragged to an exhibit of his work at MoMA. It literally gave me a headache. I would not willingly subject myself to his work in mass again. However this does not mean that he was a bad artist. It is clear from his early work that he could create art that communicated. It is clear from his later work that he had good color sense. Thus he either became lazy or he is communicating something by means of his splattered paint. If he is trying to convey something it must be either, a) I am avant guard and have no respect for my viewers, b) the world is chaos, or c) communication is impossible.
An example of a better work is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken. The subject of this painting is a great sailing ship being towed by a small steam tugboat. The sun is setting over the water infusing the painting with reds and golds. The clouds scatter the light and give the painting an ethereal quality. Only the sailing ship and the tug seem fully real. Even the sailing ship painted in whites and golds has a washed out or faded quality. The reflections on the water only emphases the sold reality of the tug and the half faded quality of the sailing ship. A sunset is the end of the day and by extension is a symbol of endings. We might thus deduce that this painting is about the passing of the great age of sail and its replacement by steam power. Of course the title of the painting helps with this understanding. The ship is being tugged to her last berth to be broken. That is to torn apart and have some of the parts thrown away and others put to a new use. The fact that the painting is of HMS Temeraire shows that the painting was a general statement, because she had led the van of the second British column at Trafalgar. Her being towed to the breakers was a symbol of the passing of the age of sail.
Since Turner’s work is easily understood by the educated viewer, while polic leave us scratching our head and wondering what he meant, Turner is the better artist. That is his work communicates better. That does not necessarily mean that he has a better message or that his work is more beautiful, though to my mind it is and he does.
Like the ability to communicate, the values an artist tries to convey can at least in principal be objectively judged. Values are those things that we act for the sake of, that is we act to achieve them. As my favorite living science fiction writer wrote, “His mother had often said, When you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action. She had emphasized the corollary of this axiom even more vehemently: when you desired a consequence you had damned well better take the action that would create it.” Since life and flourishing is the only logical final end, all values can in principal be judged in relation to the achievement of that end.
Thus of the three ways to evaluate a work of art, two of them can be judged objectively. The third, subjective ideas of beauty is real, but fairly limited. Much of what people think is subjective beauty is in my judgment usually low order value issues or minor communications issues that cumulatively make the work unattractive to the viewer. However, the question that came up in Ms. du Toit’s blog regarding the Piss Christ, is an excellent example of a work where absent the title, the work would be highly ambiguous.
The work in itself conveys little it is an image of a crucifix with a golden glow around it and a brownish yellow background. What does this mean? I am not sure but it could be a reference to the mystery of the crucifixion or the glory of god. However the title adds knowledge, piss is an extremely crude term for urine. The title makes the work a slap in the face, the worst form of empatour la bourgeois. But suppose instead it had no title or suppose if had the title “Christ through the product of his creation.” Is it beautiful in itself? That would depend on what message the viewer though was being conveyed and how well he thought it was being conveyed. Personally I think it is interesting, but not beautiful.
A good example of subjective beauty is music. Why do we find some noises beautiful and others dreadful? Now sometimes it is the message in lyrics that we find dreadful, but that is not the whole story. One can disagree with the message of the lyrics and still find it beautiful and one can agree with the lyrics and find it dreadful. I am not a Christian, but I find this rendition of Oh little Town of Bethlehem absurdly beautiful. The fact that rationally I do not believe in the historically of the birth of Christ or the reality of God is completely irrelevant. Indeed it is music like this that brings me half way to believing.
In sum, art and beauty are not the same thing and we should be wary of the mind body dichotomy, but Mrs. Du Toit’s is a wonderful and rewarding post.