The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, August 27, 2011

This and That No. 16: De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est

Today is the final day of the state funeral for Jack Layton who passed away from cancer on Monday. It is only a few months since the election which was a historic victory for both Stephen Harper and the Conservatives and Jack Layton and the New Democrats. Harper, finally won the majority government he had been hoping for. Under Layton's leadership, the New Democrats won the largest number of seats they had ever obtained at the federal level. It was only a few months after replacing Michael Ignatieff as the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition that Layton announced that his cancer had returned and that he would be taking a temporary leave of absence. That leave of absence turned out to be permanent. One suspects that Layton actually knew at the time that it would be as it was slightly less than a month later that he died.

Jack Layton was not a man with whom I agreed on much. The New Democratic Party is Canada's official socialist party (as opposed to Conservatives and Liberals who are the unofficial socialist parties). I am an old-fashioned Tory - a supporter of royalty, aristocratic leadership of society, the institutional Church and the Christian faith, and traditional families and communities. A Tory is neither a liberal (an individualist who believes that society is or should be based purely upon voluntary contractual arrangements between individuals) nor a socialist (a collectivist who believes that the wealth a society produces should be collectively owned and pooled and distributed to the members of society by the government). George P. Grant, another old-fasioned Tory like myself, believed that when forced to choose between the two, the conservative should choose socialism. I disagree, thinking liberalism is the lesser of the two evils. That pretty much places Jack Layton and myself at the opposite polar extremes of the political spectrum.

Having pointed out how our views differed, I say farewell to Jack Layton, and pray that he will find mercy and grace before the Throne of God. Since we will all stand to be judged there one day, it behooves us to wish for everyone, that they will find the mercy and grace for which we ourselves look. To Mr. Layton's family, his widow and his two children, and all of his loved ones, let me say that it is a terrible thing to watch a loved one die from cancer. I know because twenty years ago I watched my mother die from liver cancer shortly after my fifteenth birthday. I would not wish that experience on anyone else. May God be with you in your time of sorrow.

I will leave it to others to comment on Prime Minister Harper's decision to offer a state funeral to Mr. Layton's family. Instead I congratulate Mr. Harper on his government's decision to restore the word "Royal" to the titles of our navy and air force. Evelyn Waugh once complained that "the Conservative Party have never put the clock back a single second". This was spoken in the context of Sir Winston Churchill's return to the Premiership of Great Britain. What Sir Winston failed to do, Stephen Harper has succeeded in doing and that is truly worthy of praise. It was the Liberal Party that removed "Royal" from the titles of our navy and airforce back in the 1960's. They removed "royal" from quite a few titles back then. The opposition to these changes was led by John G. Diefenbaker and you can read what he had to say about it in Those Things We Treasure, a collection of some of his speeches, that was published by Macmillan in 1972.

The attitude of the Liberal leadership of the 1960's is reflected in the juvenile comments of columnists who have criticized ther Harper government for restoring the old titles. They have complained that it is a return to our "colonial past" and an insult to the millions of Canadians whose ancestors did not come from the United Kingdom. It never seems to occur to such people that it might be an insult to the millions of Canadians whose ancestors did come from the United Kingdom to remove all the symbolism that our country inherited from the UK. Nor does it seem to occur to them, that people who move to Canada from other parts of the world are making a deliberate choice to join a society that is a parliamentary monarchy that recognizes Queen Elizabeth as its sovereign, and that therefore the real insult to such people, is to profess to be speaking with their interests at heart when you abolish the traditional symbolism of the country they have chosen to join.

As for this nonsense about our "colonial past", Canada left that behind in 1867. That was the year we became a country. We chose the title "Dominion of Canada" for ourselves - it did not denote colonial status. Our Fathers of Confederation chose the term "Dominion" out of the Bible when the British pointed out to them that their original choice of title "Kingdom of Canada" might be offensive to the Americans. Our country's proudest moment was when we stood beside Great Britain in her war with Nazi Germany. We entered that war under our own Parliament's Declaration of War. It was the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force that fought against Hitler - under the Red Ensign, the flag that the Liberals two decades later would sniff at and condemn as a "colonial flag".

So Mr. Harper, I salute you. It may seem small to many but the restoration of the historic titles of our armed forces is a reconnection with the tradition our country was founded upon, the tradition which Liberals like Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau tried so hard to bury and replace. Reconnecting to our roots is a vital step in the restoration of our country. An excellent next step, speaking of Lester Pearson, would be to restore the honour of our military by ending the arrangement whereby they serve the interests of the increasingly corrupt United Nations.

Having praised Mr. Harper, it is now time for a negative note. Mark and Connie Fournier, the founders and administrators of the conservative internet message board Free Dominion, have been bravely fighting for freedom of speech for years. Yesterday they were informed that the Ontario Superior Court had denied their appeal in the John Does case. That is the case in which Richard Warman demanded that they turn over all information they have on 8 members who post under screen names at Free Dominion so that Warman might take legal action against those members for things they have said anonymously. As it currently stands, the Fourniers will have to turn the information over to Warman and pay his expenses. This is an unjust ruling. The Ontario Superior Court was and is wrong. The Fourniers have been harassed and persecuted and it is they who should have their expenses paid by the serial litigator who is suing them.

The situation will only get worse, however, if the Omnibus Crime Bill passes when Parliament resumes. Mr. Harper, after having undone one wrong the Liberals inflicted on our country, do not make another wrong worse.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Things which Inspire Love and Awe

“A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” by Edmund Burke, pp. 7-140 in Edmund Burke (Harvard Classics Deluxe Edition) edited by Charles W. Eliot, New York, P. F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1909, 1937, 1969, 421 pages.

When you examine a well-illuminated, softly-coloured painting by an inspired master, walk through a well-tended flower garden in summer, admire a beautiful woman, take a drive in the country in the fall to look at the golden fields being harvested and the brightly coloured autumn leaves on the trees, or through a residential neighborhood in winter to see the Christmas lights on snow-covered houses, the sensation you get from all of these marvelous things is one of pleasure. This kind of beauty is easy on the eyes, it is comforting to look at, and it fills the heart with contentment and gladness.

Suppose however that you are standing at the bottom of Niagara Falls watching the water come rushing down, looking up at the highest peak in a range of mountains, exploring a vast cavern where the stalactites and stalagmites, barely visible in the thin ray of sunlight penetrating the cavern through a small opening in the ceiling of the cave, are larger than yourself, or just gazing up at the moon and stars on a clear night. These sights could hardly be described as “ugly” but they produce in you a very different sensation, one that has little to do with ease or comfort but is more akin to fright. It is a sensation of awe, of being overpowered by that which is vastly, perhaps infinitely, greater than oneself. That which produces sensations of this nature is beyond the beautiful – it is what is called the sublime.

The concept of the sublime is an old one, going back at least to the first century AD when the Greek writer Longinus wrote a short treatise about the sublime as a characteristic of certain kinds of language and literature. It was in the eighteenth century, however, that the sublime as we understand it today was placed in contrast with beauty in an essay seeking to explain the difference between the two and why each produces the effects that it does. This essay was A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and its author was Edmund Burke.

Burke is mostly remembered as a statesman today. The son of an Irish lawyer, he was born and educated in Dublin. He abandoned his legal training to pursue a literary career but in the 1760’s became a member of the House of Commons where he gained fame as an orator. As an MP he was a member of the classical liberal Whig party, although he was also a friend of such noted Tories as Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell, and part of Dr. Johnson’s circle of literary and intellectual heavyweights, which also included poet/novelist Oliver Goldsmith and painter Joshua Reynolds. He championed his party’s position, and that of the American colonies, in the American Revolution in the 1770’s, but following the 1789 revolution in France, wrote his most famous work Reflections on the Revolution in France. In this book, appalled by the brutality of the French Revolution, he upheld the principles of tradition and order and supported the institutions of the Crown and Church, defending the age of Christianity and chivalry against modern innovation. This espousal of what was essentially the Tory position created a distance between him and his own party but led to his reputation as the “Father of modern conservatism”.

The Sublime and the Beautiful, was written in the years prior to his political career when he sought to establish himself in the world of letters. 1756 was a big year for Burke. He was married that year, that spring saw him published for the first time with a satire entitled A Vindication of Natural Society was published. Later that year The Sublime and Beautiful, which he had written many years previously, also saw print for the first time . He would expand it slightly in the second edition, which included a new preface and an introductory discourse entitled “On Taste”. The second edition came out in either 1757 or 1759 (1). Burke’s essay became very influential in the field of aesthetics, its theme being picked up by a number of thinkers, including Immanuel Kant.

Burke opens his essay by discussing various human emotions and experiences and their external stimuli. He begins with curiosity, our “first and simplest emotion” which is “whatever desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in, novelty” and moves on to pleasure and pain, arguing against those like John Locke who understand these in relative terms as the absence of the other. Pleasure and pain are both positive experiences, he maintains, and the condition we are left in when each ceases, is different from the positive experience of the other. All of these passions, he observes, have one of two ends – self-preservation or society. The strongest are those which serve the purpose of self-preservation. The stimuli which work on these are those which threaten pain, danger or death. Up close they are terrifying, but from a distance they can produce a sense of delight. This is the cause of the sublime.

There are other occasions in which we deliberately enter into an experience which reason should tell us will be disagreeable in order to obtain a positive sensation. Take the person who puts extremely hot pepper sauce on his food or talks big in situations where it might provoke a fight. Why does he do so? One possible reason is that that these displays of toughness provide him with a boost to his ego, turning a negative experience into a positive experience of sorts. This is completely different from the experience Burke describes as the sublime. Then there are people who jump off bridges with bungee cords attached to their legs or who go on roller-coaster rides that include sudden steep drops. This is closer to what Burke is talking about because the pleasure one gets from such experiences is directly derived from the terror involved. It is still not quite the same though, for the one is terror experienced but controlled, whereas the other is the terrifying viewed and contemplated from a distance. The one experience is made possible by man’s power and control over that which terrifies him. The other arises out of a revelation of the powerlessness of man in the face of that which is truly great.

The sublime and the beautiful are alike in that they are the subjects of contemplation. The beautiful, however, reaches us through the other set of passions, those which facilitate social intercourse. Of these, Burke sets the passion called love aside for special comment. There is a love which, serves the society of the sexes, which itself serves the end of the reproduction of the species. This love has beauty as its object, for men are attracted to women in general “by the common law of nature; but they are attached to particulars by personal beauty.” There is also a love which operates in human society in general, although this love is unmixed with sexual desire. It too has beauty as its object.

So far we have only considered what Burke wrote in the first part of his essay. There are five parts in total, the second and third of which are a more extensive look at the sublime and the beautiful respectively, in particular the traits in external stimuli which produce these effects in us. The fourth part tries to explain the mechanics of how these effects are produced within us. A major weakness of this part of the essay is that it is written as if the internal way in which we experience the sublime and beautiful in feelings of love, fear, and awe can be explained as an automatic physical response to such stimuli. The fifth and final part looks at how ideas of the beautiful and the sublime can be generated by words rather than images.

In the second part we are given a more extensive look at the sublime, at the effects it produces in us, and its causes. The chief of these effects, Burke says, is astonishment and he defines astonishment as “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” This definition might strike many of us as being odd. We are used to thinking of astonishment as a sudden arrest of our mental activities but not necessarily because of fear. A synonym for astonish is “startle” however and this still carries the overtones of fear Burke utilizes in his definition. He points out that in many languages the same word is used to mean both “fear” and “wonder” indicating the close relationship between these two senses or feelings.

What sort of things cause the sublime? Burke identifies a number of characteristics which tend to produce the sublime. There is the simple fact of being dangerous, like a poisonous snake, but there is also greatness of strength and power, and vastness of size. Obscurity, such as that caused by the darkness of night, produces fear and therefore the sublime. So, however, do certain kinds of light, such as the light of the sun. Emptiness of various sorts – such as silence and solitude – which Burke calls privations are causes of the sublime, and so is magnificence, such as that of a star-filled sky. Certain colours contribute to the effect of the sublime but others do not so that “in buildings, when the highest degree of the sublime is intended, the materials and ornaments ought neither to be white, nor green, nor yellow, nor blue, nor a pale red, nor violet, nor spotted, but of sad and fuscous colours, as black, or brown or deep purple, and the like”.

When he turns his attention to beauty in the next section, Burke has a much longer tradition of interpretation behind him than existed for the sublime. Longinus’s essay had only recently been rediscovered and published and Burke’s immediate antecedent was a series of articles for The Spectator by Joseph Addison (in good classical tradition, Burke only seems to acknowledge Addison when he is disagreeing with him). Beauty, on the other hand, had been a topic of constant discussion and writing for over a millennium. Therefore, much of his discussion of beauty in part three is written negatively, as a refutation of concepts put forward by other people.

It had been suggested, for example, that proportion was a feature which contributes to beauty, and Burke argues that this is not the case for things vegetable, animal, or human. He points out, for example, that the most beautiful things in the vegetable kingdom are flowers, and that proportion can hardly be said to apply to the relationship between their various parts. The swan and the peacock are both considered beautiful birds, but their proportions are both quite unusual for birds and radically different from each other. Burke also challenges the ideas that utilitarian fitness and perfection can be regarded as causes of beauty.

If proportion, fitness, and perfection are not causes of beauty, what does Burke say are?

Things which are beautiful, he says, tend to be small in size – he notes that most languages use the diminutive to express affection. The property of smoothness is “so essential to beauty, that I do not now recollect anything beautiful that is not smooth”. Gradual variation in line, he says, is a sign of beauty as opposed to continuous straight lines or sharp angular variation. Mild, clear, colours, such as “light greens; soft blues; weak whites; pink reds; and violets” contribute to beauty, as does clearness and fragility.

It is here that Burke’s analysis of beauty is at its best. His argument against proportion as a cause of beauty is subject to a number of objections. It could be argued that he has only demonstrated that proportion is not essential to beauty, which is not quite the same thing as demonstrating that it does not significantly contribute to it. Then there is the question of the distinction between natural and man-made beauty. Burke rejects the idea, proposed by Vitruvius in the first century BC, and latter held by Leonardo Da Vinci, and, in Burke’s own day by Joseph Addison, that buildings are beautiful because architects have borrowed their proportions from those of human beings. It may be true, as Burke maintains, that this relationship is a myth. It does not follow from that that proportion does not contribute to the beauty of buildings. Proportion is a key element in architecture, not only for the utilitarian reason of structural stability, but for aesthetic purposes as well. A building that reflects well the classical ideals of proportion, harmony, and balance is almost always more pleasing to the eye than a building that does not.

When it comes to the things which Burke asserts are causes of beauty it is harder to object. What emerges, from Burke’s analysis of the causes of the beautiful and the sublime, is that the contrast between these are greater than those between the beautiful and the ugly. While the experience of the beautiful and the sublime are both positive experiences, they are positive experiences of very different kinds. The experience of the beautiful and ugly are the same experience in its positive and negative forms. Burke stresses the difference between our responses to the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful invites us to respond to it with love. The sublime invites the response of being overwhelmed with awe. The sense of danger or threat in the causes of the sublime is what makes the difference, and Burke says that we can never love the sublime.

Is he right in that assertion though?

Consider an interesting question which the strict dichotomy that Burke has drawn raises. Can something be both beautiful and sublime at the same time?

Burke’s description and analysis of the two would seem to suggest the answer “no”.

But what about God?

In the section of Part Two where Burke explains that power is a cause of the sublime there are several paragraphs in which he talks about God’s power as a source of fear:

But whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him. And though a consideration of his other attributes may relieve, in some measure, our apprehensions; yet no conviction of the justice with which it is exercised, nor the mercy with which it is tempered, can wholly remove the terror that naturally arises from a force which nothing can withstand…When the prophet David contemplated the wonders of wisdom and power which are displayed in the economy of man, he seems to be struck with a sort of divine horror, and cries out, Fearfully and wonderfully am I made. (bold here within italics represents italics in original)

Burke, however, was an orthodox Christian. Christ taught that the first and great commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”. If God is a cause of the sublime – indeed the ultimate cause of the sublime – and the sublime cannot be loved, only revered, how does Burke deal with the Lord’s commandment which he, as a practicing Anglican, would have heard recited at every Holy Communion service as prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer?

Burke does not seem to be bothered by this apparent conflict between his theory and his faith. Perhaps it did not occur to him. He does write “Before the Christian religion had, as it were, humanized the idea of the Divinity, and brought it somewhat nearer to us, there was very little said of the love of God”. In context, by “love of God” he means love human beings possess for God rather than God’s love for human beings, but the context also indicates that the purpose of saying this is to further support his argument that God is a cause of fear and the sublime. There is a hint of a partial answer to the dilemma in the sentence, however. If the Christian religion “humanized the idea of the Divinity” it was because the Incarnation is central to Christian revelation – God became man in Jesus Christ. If the great commandment is to love God, it is the Incarnation which makes love for God possible.

That can only be a partial answer, however, for if it were the whole answer it would suggest that God is not beautiful in His divine essence but only as He took human nature upon Himself, a suggestion which would seem to be blasphemous, particularly if we hold with Plato that there is an intimate connection, approaching an identification – between the good and the beautiful. Either Burke has drawn too strict a dichotomy between the sublime and beautiful and has too narrow a concept of love and its causes or God, as the Creator and therefore the ultimate source of both the beautiful and the sublime, must therefore contain both qualities within Himself.

Whichever is the case, the concept of the sublime has become an important part of aesthetic theory, although few today would understand it in quite the same way as Burke did. Burke’s essay is important because it drew our attention to some different facets of the world we live in and the way we experience it, laying a foundation upon which others have built. It displays classical learning and is an excellent example of writing within the British empiricist tradition.

(1) According to the Harvard Classics edition of Burke’s writings in which I read the essay the first edition of The Sublime and Beautiful came out in 1756, the same year as A Vindication of Natural Society. The biographies of Burke that I have consulted, such as John Morley’s (London: Macmillan and Co., 1918) agree with this, although some internet sources date the first edition to 1757. There is more disagreement over the second revised edition. The Harvard Classics edition and many other sources date in to 1757, but others date it to 1759. There is widespread agreement however that Burke had begun writing the essay when a student at Trinity College in Dublin years earlier.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What is Beauty?

Beauty is the only finality here below. – Simone Weil

Art is the production of things which are beautiful. Beauty is what the artist strives to create. Beauty is what we seek to enjoy and contemplate in works of art. But what is beauty?

If asked to define beauty we might start by saying something like “the property of being pleasing to the eye”.

This definition is insufficient, however, because it is not only visible objects that are beautiful. Sound can be beautiful too. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, Haydn’s Creation, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and Beethoven’s 9th symphony are all works of tremendous beauty. Yet none of them can be seen.

We could solve this problem by expanding our definition to “the property of being pleasing to the eye and/or the ear”? This then begs the question of why the other senses are not included as well. We have other words to describe what is pleasing to our senses of taste, smell, and touch. Why do we conceive of that which is audibly and visually appealing as a single category?

That is a difficult question to answer but that is what we do.

There is another question which our expanded definition of beauty raises. Is beauty “the property of being pleasing to the eye and/or the ear” or is it “the state of being considered pleasing to the eye and/or the ear”?

Note the importance of this distinction. If beauty is the former, then it has tangible existence as a quality of things which are beautiful. If it is the latter, it is a projection of our own minds.

The saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” would seem to suggest the second understanding of beauty. People do differ in what they consider beautiful. Yet they also agree.

In some circumstances, two people will disagree over whether a particular person or a particular painting is beautiful. In other circumstances, there is virtually unanimous agreement that someone or something is beautiful or is not beautiful. Sometimes, disagreements about beauty appear to be entirely subjective. They are matters of personal taste. On other occasions, the disagreement indicates that something is wrong with one person’s perception.

Naomi Wolf, in her best-selling book The Beauty Myth, (1) took the position that beauty is an artificial construction. The concept of beauty, Wolf wrote, was created to support the male power structure of society and keep women in a subservient position. The emphasis upon beauty in advertising, the cosmetics and fashion industries, and surgery, she argued, is that male power structure’s response to the blow it received from the triumphs of feminism earlier in the century. Wolf’s book helped launch what is called “Third Wave feminism”.

It is undoubtedly true that many young women have been led into unhealthy behavior patterns by an obsession with beauty that magazines, television, and movies have in part contributed to. In this Wolf was correct, although the statistics in her book appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Is there merit then to her idea that beauty is a social construct the purpose of which is to maintain male dominance?

Not really. Beauty is far too universal a value for it to be explained as an idea invented to serve as a political tool. The fact that differences of opinion as to what can be considered to be beautiful exist from individual to individual, society to society, and at different eras in a society’s history, does not negate the universality of beauty. As Matt Ridley has pointed out:

And yet this flexibility stays within limits. It is impossible to name a time when women of ten or forty years were considered “sexier” than women of twenty. It is inconceivable that male paunches where ever actually attractive to women or that tall men were thought uglier than short ones. It is hard to imagine that weak chins were ever thought beautiful on either sex. If beauty is a matter of fashion, how is it that wrinkled skin, gray hair, hairy backs, and very long noses have never been “in fashion”? The more things change, the more they stay the same. (2)

How then does Ridley explain the phenomenon of beauty? He says that it is in our genes.

There is a reason that beautiful people are attractive. They are attractive because others have genes that cause them to find beautiful people attractive. People have such genes because those that employed criteria of beauty left more descendants than those that did not. (3)

This is the explanation of evolutionary psychology. (4) The concept of sexual selection goes back to Charles Darwin. The basic gist of it is that among species that reproduce sexually, genes which produce traits which are considered attractive by the opposite sex are more likely to be passed on to subsequent generations than genes which do not, which also ensures that the genes which cause someone to consider those particular traits to be attractive are more likely to be handed down than others. Thus, a particular image of beauty is reinforced and refined through evolutionary selection over a long period of time. Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain why these traits would have been considered attractive in the first place in terms of reproductive fitness. Since females are by biological necessity the sex which bears, gives birth to, and nurtures the young, it has been the role of the male to provide for and protect women and children. This, the evolutionary psychologist says is reflected in our concept of beauty. The physical traits men find attractive in women are indicators of fertility (5) and the physical traits women find attractive in men are indicators of strength.

This explanation of beauty, arising as it does out of evolutionary theory, displays the strengths and weaknesses of that theory. Materialistic science is good at discovering and explaining how things work. The connections which evolutionary psychologists have found between physical beauty and reproductive function are real. When treated as the final and complete explanation of why people are beautiful – or why we find them beautiful – it seems to be extremely reductionist, however. Long ago the Socratic school of philosophy reacted against the materialistic reductionism of the earlier Milesian school, rejecting its early scientific emphasis on questions about the makeup of the physical universe in favour of an emphasis upon questions about the higher truths of goodness, virtue, truth, and beauty. The result was a golden age for philosophy and culture in Greek civilization that would be foundational to the later Roman and Christian civilizations.

In his book Beauty, (6) English aesthetician and philosopher Roger Scruton argues that evolutionary psychology provides us with an insufficient and unsatisfactory explanation of beauty. He reasons that because sexual selection could have occurred in a different way that “we cannot use the fact of sexual selection as a conclusive explanation of the sentiment of beauty, still less as a way of deciphering what that sentiment means.” (7) This does not mean that beauty and sex are unconnected. Indeed, Scruton suggests, they may be “more intimately connected” than the causal relationship proposed by evolutionary psychology implies.

What does he mean by this?

Scruton contrasts the theories of the evolutionary psychologists with the ideas of Plato. Beauty was an important topic of discussion in a number of Plato’s dialogues. Plato considered beauty to be the object of eros. According to Plato, eros (love) exists on a higher and a lower plane. The lower eros is sexual desire – the wish to sexually possess the person whose beauty has inspired one’s eros. The higher eros seeks to contemplate beauty itself, i.e., beauty in the abstract, the idea or “form” of beauty.

There are problems with Plato’s theory too. Scruton writes:

[I]t requires only a normal dose of skepticism to feel that there is more wishful thinking than truth in the Platonic vision. How can one and the same state of mind be both sexual love for a boy and (after a bit of self-discipline) delighted contemplation of an abstract idea? That is like saying that the desire for a steak could be satisfied (after a bit of mental exertion) by staring at a picture of a cow. (8)

That is a good point, and Scruton expands upon it by questioning whether it is proper to speak of beauty as the object of desire. Beauty leads us to desire another person, but our desire is not fulfilled by our coming into possession of that beauty. “What prompts us, in sexual attraction, is something that can be contemplated but never possessed”. (9) This observation separates eros from other forms of desire and links the beauty which leads to sexual attraction with other kinds of beauty, such as the beauty of art. A thirsty person, has a desire for water which can be quenched by any glass of water. Eros is not like that. You fall in love with a particular person and your desire for that person cannot be fulfilled by another person. It is a particular person you want and not a generic member of a class for whom any other can be substituted.

There is another way in which eros is different from other desires. If you fall in love with someone, and that person reciprocates your love, the two of you may give yourselves completely to each other, but this will not cause the desire to go away, the way drinking water causes thirst to go away. Scruton writes:

And maybe this has something to do with the place of beauty in sexual desire. Beauty invites us to focus on the individual object, so as to relish his or her presence. And this focusing on the individual fills the mind and perceptions of the lover. (10)

This elevates human eros above the level of the merely biological sex drive we share will all other sexual animals. Eros is further elevated when we understand the beauty of the loved one to reside not in body only, but in the soul as well. (11) We would do well to ponder what this says about the powerful trends in contemporary culture towards the dragging of eros back down to the level of mere animal instinct. That is a subject for another essay however.

It is the contemplative element which the beauty which inspires eros shares with the beauty we find in nature and the beauty we create in art. Beauty inspires us to ponder and reflect, and this leads us back to look at it, or listen to it again. Perhaps here we have at least a partial explanation of why we conceive of that which appeals to sight and sound as a single category distinct from that which appeals to smell, taste, and touch.

Philosophy takes us further in our understanding of beauty than science does or can. Philosophy can only take us so far, however. After that we must rely upon theology.

In her essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God” published in the posthumous collection Waiting for God, Simone Weil wrote that before the soul is visited by God and can give or refuse Him direct love the soul can only love God indirectly through other objects. This is what she calls the “implicit love of God” which she says:

[C]an have only three immediate objects, the only three things here below in which God is really though secretly present. These are religious ceremonies, the beauty of the world, and our neighbor. Accordingly there are three loves. (12)

Immediately before expanding upon each of these in reverse order, she writes of this “veiled form of love” that:

At the moment when it touches the soul, each of the forms that such love may take has the virtue of a sacrament. (13)

That is strong language. A sacrament is an event in which something ordinary, everyday, and earthly is transformed by the presence of God so that His love, mercy, and grace are communicated to the soul through it. Weil repeats the comparison a number of times in her discussion of how the soul can love God through the beauty of the world. Man, she writes, has been an “imaginary likeness” of the power of God, to empty himself of in imitation of the kenosis of Christ. This emptying consists of renouncing our claim to be the centre of the universe. This the love whereby we love the true centre of the universe, God, through our neighbor and “the order of the world” which is the same thing as the “beauty of the world”. The beauty of the world is the “commonest, easiest, and most natural way of approach” of the soul to God, for God “descends in all haste to love and admire the tangible beauty of his own creation through the soul that opens to him” and uses “the soul’s natural inclination to love beauty” as a trap to win the soul for Himself. (14)

The idea that through beauty the soul connects with God is the next step beyond the Platonic notion that we progress from love of beauty on earth to contemplation of the higher beauty which exists in the realm of the forms. Weil goes on to say that the beauty she is talking about belongs to the universe itself, which is the only thing other than God which can properly be called beautiful, all other things being called beautiful in a derivative sense because they are part of the beautiful world or imitate its beauty. “All these secondary kinds of beauty are of infinite value as openings to universal beauty” she writes “But, if we stop short at them, they are, on the contrary, veils; then they corrupt.” (15) This is similar to Plato’s view of those who are satisfied with the consummation of the lower eros and do not go on the higher eros which is the contemplation of beauty itself.

It is here that Weil makes the observation that forms the epigram to this essay. “Beauty is the only finality here below”. (16) What she means by this, is that beauty exists for its own sake rather than as a means to another end and that it is the only thing in this world of which that can be said. This, she contrasts to all other things, saying that “all the things that we take for ends are means” and that beauty “seems itself to be a promise…but it only gives itself; it never gives anything else”. It is because of this, she argues, that beauty “is present in all human pursuits”. It is present in the pursuit of power, for example, and it is present in art, science, physical work, and carnal love. (17)

Of art she writes:

Art is an attempt to transport into a limited quantity of matter, modeled by man, an image of the infinite beauty of the entire universe. If the attempt succeeds, this portion of matter should not hide the universe, but on the contrary it should reveal its reality to all around. (18)

Weil does not hesitate to take this to its logical conclusion:

Works of art that are neither pure and true reflections of the beauty of the world nor openings onto this beauty are not strictly speaking beautiful; their authors may be very talented but they lack real genius. That is true of a great many works of art which are among the most celebrated and the most highly praised. Every true artist has had real, direct, and immediate contact with the beauty of the world, contact that is of the nature of a sacrament. God has inspired every first-rate work of art, though its subject may be utterly and entirely secular; he has not inspired any of the others. Indeed the luster of beauty that distinguishes some of those others may quite well be a diabolic luster. (19)

It is interesting, upon reading these words about art, to reflect upon the familiar verse from the Book of Genesis which tells us that God created man in His own image. We are God’s workmanship, His art. What does it mean that we are created “in His image”? Theologians have puzzled over that question for centuries. Where is the “imago Deo” to be found? Is it in our rational faculties as many have proposed?

Dorothy Sayers did not think so. In an essay on the subject of “the image of God’ in her book The Mind of the Maker, she wrote:

It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the "image" of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, "God created". The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things. (20)

This characteristic, creativity, manifests itself in what we call art. If God’s image in man lies in his creativity this surely lends weight to the idea that there is something “of the nature of a sacrament” about true art. It is interesting that these two women, one an orthodox Anglican, the other a very unorthodox convert to Christianity who refused baptism on the grounds that God wanted her to identify with the unbeliever (21), writing at approximately the same time, would strike upon thoughts that in a strange but fitting way complement each other.

We have pursued beauty, from the scientific explanation of a trait which generates reproductive fitness by attracting sexual partners, to a philosophical view of beauty as an object of contemplation which elevates man from the level of the beast, to a spiritual view of beauty as a meeting place between the human soul and God. There is no higher ground to seek.

(1) Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (New York: William Morrow, 1991)

(2) Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003) p. 281. The first edition of this book was published in hardcover by Penguin in 1993.

(3) Ibid, p. 280.

(4) A layman's introduction to evolutionary psychology is Robin Wright’s The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

(5) Ridley discusses the late Devendra Singh’s research into the correlation between the “hourglass figure” and fertility, and also points to the connection between feminine beauty and youth.

(6) Roger Scruton, Beauty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). This book was reissued this year in paperback as part of Oxford’s “Very Short Introductions” series, now bearing the subtitle “A Very Short Introduction”.

(7) Ibid, p. 32.

(8) Ibid, p. 35.

(9) Ibid, p. 36.

(10) Ibid, pp. 38-39.

(11) Ibid, pp. 39-43

(12) Simone Weil, Waiting For God, (New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 2001) p. 83. This is a reprint of the translation by Emma Craufurd first published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1951. The French edition came out in 1950, seven years after her death in England.

(13) Ibid, p. 84.

(14) Ibid, pp. 99-103, quotations taken from pages 99, 100, and 103.

(15) Ibid, p. 104.

(16) Ibid, p. 105.

(17) Ibid, pp. 105-112, quotations taken from pages 105 and 106.

(18) Ibid, p. 107

(19) Ibid.

(20) Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (London: Methuen, 1941) p. 17.

(21) Simone Weil was born Jewish but converted to Christianity. Waiting for God is a collection of letters and essays that was published after her death. Most of the letters were written to her friend Dominican priest Father Joseph-Marie Perrin explaining why she was turning down his pleas for her to be baptized. These were written around the time of her flight from France in 1942.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The History of Human Creativity

Art: A New History by Paul Johnson, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003, 777 pages,

No single volume could ever properly do justice to the history of art. Art has been produced by every human society, from the most simple to the most complex, throughout mankind’s long history. Even if we narrowed the subject matter to the history of one kind of art, lets say sculpture, in one civilization, that of Italy for example, the story would be far more than could be condensed into one book even if it were a thousand pages long.

Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History is not a thousand pages long although it falls short by only a couple of hundred pages. Nor does Johnson limit himself to a single civilization. For while he focuses upon the art produced by the various Western civilizations and their antecedents in the near East, he also brings far Eastern, African, and native American art into the picture as well. Everything from cave art to the anticipated art of the 21st century is covered.

Which is not to say that Johnson covered everything that could conceivably be included in a history of art. The art that he writes about consists of the visual arts – architecture, pottery, sculpture, painting, and basically any sort of activity in which the appearance of the items made is an important consideration in their creation. You will not find a history of literature, music, or the theatre here, although specific writers and musicians do appear when needed to illustrate movements and trends that cross over into their territory.

The necessary limitations on a book of this nature are such that any one-volume history of art must be considered an introduction to the subject. This is something Paul Johnson himself would undoubtedly agree with. He has the humility to know and acknowledge that his work is not the final word that could be or has been written on the subject of the history of art. As an introduction, his history is excellent. This is what we would expect from the historian who provided us with the superb introduction to the history of the 20th century that was his Modern Times.

Painting must have a pre-eminent place in any history of the visual arts and it has that place here. Johnson, the son of a painter and a painter in his own right, marvelously shares with us his knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of interest in his subject. Architecture, however, plays as important a role in his history. The chapters on the construction of temples, mosques and churches are among the most interesting in this book.

The repugnant phenomenon which has come to be known as “political correctness” is avoided like the plague which is a pleasant relief. In chapter 16, “The Golden Century of Spanish Art”, for example – the century which included Spain’s colonization of the New World, Johnson does not shy away from describing the ugly side of the indigenous cultures encountered by the Spanish colonists nor does he treat the actions of the European settlers as unpardonable sins. This does not mean that he does not appreciate the creations of the indigenous peoples, particularly their architecture. Interestingly, in discussing their architecture he explodes a popular myth:

Both Aztecs and Incas seem to have understood vaulting. In some areas they were superb masons. At Cuzco in Peru and elsewhere, there are Inca walls of irregular polygonal blocks, some of great size, which are carved and fitted together to the point of perfection. It is not true, as is often said, that a knife blade cannot be passed between the stones—I have tried and it can.

That came as a surprise to me as I had always heard that that was true.

A good book of art history must in some ways be like other history books. It requires basic facts – people, places, dates – that are brought together in a story told in a lively and interesting way. In other ways it differs from history books in general. Illustrations, which are optional in most history books, are indispensable in art history books. The more the better.

Then there is opinion. It is widely considered to be bad form to include a great deal of personal judgment in the writing of history. This is not a universally accepted standard, is perhaps impossible on the level of practicality, and is ignored by some of the best history books. In art history, at any rate, opinion can not be exorcised. An inevitable element of any art history book will be art criticism.

Johnson’s history is excellent when it comes to the facts. He knows his subject well and has clearly “done his homework” as the expression goes. He talks about architecture that he has personally visited, at one point even giving his readers advice about the best way to experience a particular building, and paintings and sculptures that he has seen in person. His book is fairly well illustrated although there is room for improvement here. An editorial decision to throw in a few hundred more reproductions of paintings, even if it brought the page total up to a thousand, would not have been amiss.

It is in opinionating, however, that the author truly shines. Johnson is a born opinionist and his judgments on artists and their art are both interesting and entertaining. His judgments sometimes appear rather singular. “Who commissioned the Mona Lisa? Whoever he was he must have been disappointed” he writes, and then two pages later he invokes Samuel Johnson’s assessment of Milton’s Paradise Lost to say of the Sistene Chapel “No one ever wished the ceiling larger.” There is nothing wrong with that, however, and as his history draws to an end he lets his readers know where he ranks the opinions of art historians, presumably including himself – only slightly above art critics on a scale of knowledge that has the critics at the bottom and the restorers of art at the top.

One of Johnson’s opinions which stands out in this history, is his conviction that the system of classification into various periods and schools utilized by most art historians is of little worth. He does not structure his book around it and dismisses it on several occasions. To give one example, he dislikes the term Impressionism, which he says has “confused art history ever since it came into vogue.” The term was derived from the title of one of Claude Monet’s paintings and applied by hostile critics to a number of artists associated with Monet in rebellion against the art establishment at the French Salon. Edgar Degas in particular, he makes a point of emphasizing, had little in common stylistically with the others and with the common idea of what “Impressionism” was.

Johnson is not the only writer to take this position. Indeed, in researching the matter further I found more writers who tried to distance Degas from the Impressionists than who supported the supposedly routine inclusion of him in the school. Impressionism is not the only classification that Johnson writes off however. He takes a very individualistic approach to art, stressing at several times throughout his history, that artists are individuals and that it is in this light that their work must be viewed.

Johnson uses Degas’ own terms for himself – “realist” and “naturalist”. These are terms of high praise in Johnson’s vocabulary, and rightly so. In his chapter on the northern European art of the late medieval to early Renaissance he argues that the influence of Christianity at this time produced individualism among artists who made the depiction of reality their ideal. He writes:

Realism meant stressing individuality. The artists perception of how people differ, in body, mind and soul, the essential foundation of any great art based on human beings, inevitably made him more self-conscious. The fifteenth century, especially in northern Europe, is the first occasion in history (so far as we know) in which the self-portrait becomes frequent.

This chapter, in which the early Flemish masters are discussed, culminates in the career of the German Albrecht Dürer who, a century and a half before Rembrandt, routinely painted self-portraits of himself. Johnson thinks very highly of Dürer who is his bridge to the Italian Renaissance in the next chapter.

It is in his assessment of the Renaissance and those who subsequently followed its tradition that I would most question Johnson’s judgment. He points to humanist writers like the art biographer Vasari and the scholar Lorenzo Valla who dismissed the cultural and artistic output of the centuries between the fall of Rome and the Italian Renaissance as being worthless because it was “gothic”.(1) While I agree with Johnson that this was a huge flaw in humanist thought I think that he allows it to overly colour his assessment of the value of the Graeco-Roman revival in art.

This is especially noticeable after he moves beyond the Renaissance itself. When he comes to the seventeenth century he writes that Caravaggio “achieved one of the most important revolutions in the history of painting” and that the era of realism that began with his work was “both the climax and the golden age of European art”. While Caravaggio was certainly deserving of this praise, we we find later in the chapter that the Bolognese Carracci family are cast in a very negative light.

Johnson writes: “It is arguable, however, that Italian painting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would have flourished more healthily if the Carracci methods had never been taught”. He goes on to write “All three main Carracci drew well but their sense of colour was defective, their composition painstaking but ultimately dull, and none of them seems to have been capable of creating an arresting image”. This is not how I would describe what I have seen in reproductions of Annibale Carracci’s paintings for the gallery ceiling of the Farnese Palace in Rome. Perhaps they look worse when viewed in person.

Johnson’s treatment of Nicolas Poussin in the chapter on “The First Great Landscape Paintings” is less harsh than his treatment of the Carraccis but is along the same vein. Here the contrast is with Peter Paul Rubens, who is described as the “eventual successor” to Titian and “not only one of the greatest, he was also one of the happiest of artists”. As with the contrast between Caravaggio and the Carraccis, it is difficult to disagree with Johnson’s assessment about those he lauds, but he gives the impression of being less than fair to the others. He describes Poussin as being too bound by rules and too engrossed with his books to notice the real world around him and allow it to influence his art. In this we hear an echo of Johnson’s earlier work The Intellectuals but it is by no means clear that his assessment is valid in this instance.

The difference between realism – the depiction of things as they appear, and classical idealism – the depiction of things in perfect form, is less important in the later history of art, when the very idea that art should be representational at all was challenged, a development that Johnson is not at ease with, nor am I. When he gets to the twentieth century, he discusses “one of the key developments in the history of art: the rise of fashion art as opposed to fine art”. The distinction, he notes “is not absolute”. “All that can be said is that fine art becomes fashion art when the ratio of novelty and skill is changed radically in favour of novelty”. He identified Cubism as “the first major instance of fashion art” and writes that fashion art “inevitably produces more fashion art since, when the novelty wears off and the low degree of skill becomes apparent, there is a demand for fresh novelties, and a new phase of art is produced to satisfy it”. I can see some people being quite furious with these remarks although I tend to think they sum up the 20th Century rather nicely myself.

Many of the early chapters of this book were devoted to architecture and it is to architecture that Johnson returns in his last chapter. He looks at the accomplishments of architecture and structural engineering in the production of skyscrapers and suspension bridges as the true marvels of artistic expression in the 20th Century. In architecture there is the good, the bad, and the frivolous and here Johnson distinguishes between what he calls “High Frivolity” and “Low Frivolity” in architecture. He offers Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as an example of the former, and the buildings in Los Angeles and Las Vegas as examples of the latter. “Low Frivolity” is ephemeral – “built to entertain but not to last”.

Despite this, Johnson ends on a positive note, expecting greater things from architects, engineers, and artists in general in the century to come.

(1) “Gothic” was originally used as a pejorative because it is derived from the name of several of the tribes who sacked Rome in the last days of the Roman Empire. It literally means “German”. The Gothic revival of the 19th Century, which Johnson discusses in his chapter on Romanticism, was an architectural movement that looked to northern Europe in the medieval period for its inspiration, just as the classical movements looked to Graeco-Roman civilization for theirs.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is Art?

Art in the singular, is a more difficult concept to grasp and to define, than that of the arts plural. We can arrive at a fairly reasonable understanding of what the arts are by simply naming them – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature and so on. We only run into difficulties when differences of opinion arise as to whether something should be classified as an art or not. Some people speak of every human endeavour as being, at least potentially, an art. Others restrict the term to activities which are creative. There are those who would restrict it even further by distinguishing between two kinds of creative activities. The first kind are activities in which something is created to serve a practical utilitarian function. An example would be the act of making a chair for somebody to sit in. The second kind of creative activities involve the creation of things that do not have that kind of practical use but which are rather intended to be enjoyed for themselves Those who make such a distinction would call the first kind of activities crafts and the second kind of activities arts.

However widely or narrowly we choose to draw the circle around what we include in the category of the arts we tend to agree that the arts are human activities which involve the exercising of skill and knowledge. Even the person who seems to trivialize the concept by speaking of “the art of twiddling one’s thumbs” does not, by this expression, mean to include every individual who in a moment of extreme boredom takes to distracting his attention in this manner. Rather, he is suggesting that there is a kind of skill which can be applied to thumb-twiddling , which elevates the thumb-twiddler who masters it to a degree of superiority over the amateur who merely dabbles in thumb-twiddling.

“Art” is more difficult to grasp than “the arts” because it is a more abstract concept. Philosophy professors tend to use geometrical illustrations in explaining Plato’s concept of the Forms to their students. The Form of a triangle is an abstract three-sided figure as opposed to an actual triangle drawn out on a piece of paper. We frequently use the word art in such a way that the relationship between art and the arts is similar to that between the abstract concept of a triangle and a triangle you can see on a page before you. From this perspective art is the category to which each of the arts belongs. We also, however, use the word art to refer collectively to that which is produced by the arts. Thus, if we were in a museum filled with sculptures and paintings we could make a gesture taking in all the objects on display and say that they are art, although this second meaning would probably be more properly expressed by “works of art” or “artwork”.

Another way in which we use the word art is as a standard by which we qualitatively judge works of art. We might look at a painting that we really admire and say “Now that’s art!” Conversely, we might look at a museum exhibit that we find loathsome and say “This is supposed to be art?”

It is not always clear what exactly we mean when we use the word art this way. It is common today, to treat such judgments as being simply an expression of one’s personal likes and dislikes and therefore having little to no objective value. Now there is obviously some truth to that. There is always a subjective element in our evaluation of works of beauty. We call this element taste and arguing about matters of taste has long been considered to be a pointless exercise.

There is a difference, however, between a pointless argument about matters of taste and a discussion about the quality of a person’s sense of taste. If I say “I like this and dislike that” and you say “I like that and dislike this” we may give reasons for our likes and dislikes but by doing so we will not be able to prove the other person “wrong” or ourselves “right” in our opinions. “Right” and “wrong” are not judgments that apply to cases of “I like” and “I dislike”. This is what the person who first coined the Latin adage de gustibus non est disputandem obviously had in mind.

We do, however, speak of people having “good taste” and “bad taste”. Is this also a completely subjective judgment or can we arrive at an objective standard by which we evaluate people’s tastes?

We should not be too quick to answer no. There is another way of looking at our use of the word art as a qualitative judgment. When we look at two paintings and say that one is art and that the other is not, we may simply be saying that we like the one and dislike the other, but we might also be saying that we see indications of skill, talent, expertise, and inspiration in the one painting that are lacking in the other painting. If it is the latter we mean then our judgment is not entirely subjective but is an evaluation of specific qualities that we are looking for in the paintings and measuring against a standard.

If that is the case then when we say a person has good taste we may be saying more than just that his likes and dislikes are similar to our own. What we describe as good taste might be simply a high degree of correlation between someone’s personal likes and dislikes on the one hand and the standard of excellence by which we judge the quality of an artist’s work on the other.

Now a case can be made that the standards by which we judge such things as skill, knowledge, and talent are also subjective. If, after having spent an evening at the concert hall listening to a Bach concerto and a Haydn symphony, I come home and find that my neighbor is listening to a recording of some punk screaming obscene lyrics about sex, drugs, and violence to the accompaniment of screeching electric guitars that sound like chalkboard scratches and the heavy pounding of drums that produce an instant headache, I would not be inclined to use the word “music” to describe my neighbor’s acoustical preferences. “Cacophonous noise” or “bloody awful racket” would be the descriptive words that I would most likely use.

Is that simply a matter of taste?

Many would say yes, and on actual occasions where a situation resembling the one which I have described above has occurred I have had it pointed out to me that the band that I, with my prehistoric opinions on music was so rudely dismissing as untalented noisemakers, consisted of members who had actually studied music at a conservatory from an early age and possessed masters degrees in music.

Such arguments do not usually impress me because for someone with such training and talent (you need talent to get into a conservatory) to waste their skills in this way strikes me as being blasphemy of a similar nature to that of an ordained Christian priest celebrating at a Black Mass. There is an interesting point to be made about this kind of argument however. The person who points to the orthodox musical education of someone who has made a career out of generating noise pollution does not appeal to any intrinsic quality or value in the product of their preferred artist. They rather, appeal to the fact that he has the established capacity to produce music that meets the standards by which I have negatively assessed the music he actually does produce.

Does this argument not therefore uphold the very standards it seeks to dismiss as arbitrary, subjective, and artificial?

The idea that good art requires skill which involves a mixture of innate talent and acquired learning which can be evaluated by a set of standards points to the root meaning of the word art. It is derived ultimately from the Latin word ars. This word, like its Greek equivalent techne, refers to a productive skill that was generally passed on from father to son. There was no distinction originally between an art and a craft. The meaning of art has evolved and been refined over the centuries. It is only in the last couple of centuries however that it has been in danger of being cut off from its root meaning entirely.

Those who dismiss the idea that art can be judged as good or bad on the basis of established societal and cultural standards frequently embrace the recent idea that the primary function of art is the external expression of the artists inner feelings. This idea can produce some pretty strange ways of thinking.

My maternal grandmother is a painter, mostly of watercolour landscapes of the terrain around the farm in southwestern Manitoba where she lived most of her life. She has frequently told me that others have said that her painting is “not art”. When I asked her what the reasoning was behind this bizarre assessment she said that it was because she just painted places that she saw whereas a real artist paints what is on the inside.

Think about what that implies if taken to its logical conclusion. The landscapes of Peter Paul Rubens, Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Thomas Gainsborough would have to be dismissed from the category of “art”. So would Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s drawings of wooded corridors and paintings of waterfalls and beautiful gardens. That is not all. Still-life painting would be excluded by this and much portrait painting as well.

The ideas that art exists only or primarily to express the inner feelings of the artist and that art can only be judged subjectively are in major conflict with the reality of art, the function it has historically served, and how the best art has been produced through the centuries. Art is a vital part of culture, which is the product and life of a community and society. The health of a society’s culture is reflected in it’s art and art which exists for no reason other than to express the feelings of narcissistic and egotistical artists does not reflect a healthy culture. It reflects the culture of a society where social atomization has taken place and the sense of community has been terribly compromised.

Historically, the great masters created works of art depicting religious and classical themes for the palaces of the royalty and aristocracy and for the churches which were the cultural centres of traditional societies, and portraits, landscapes and still-lifes for middle class clients. It was commonly and universally understood by the artists and by their patrons and clients that the purpose of art was beauty. Beauty is what artists sought to create and beauty is what patrons and clients wished to purchase.

Beauty, it has commonly been said, is in the eye of the beholder. Undoubtedly, there is a great deal of truth to that. If beauty were entirely subjective, however, art would be impossible. If a culture did not possess a common understanding at some level of what is aesthetically pleasing artists would not know what to create and their patrons and clients would not know what to buy.

The idea of beauty has come under attack in recent decades. The attacks are generally overreactions to ways in which the concept of beauty has been misused. Beauty is a quality that we look for in people as well as in places, objects, and what we call art. Some people greatly exaggerate the importance of beauty in relation to other personal qualities. This kind of exaggeration can manifest itself in a number of negative ways. Vanity can arise out of obsession with one’s own beauty. Or, if one is obsessed with attaining beauty this can lead to self-destructive behaviour such as starving oneself. People who value physical beauty over all other desirable qualities display the trait we call “shallowness” which is a negative trait.

These tendencies have been present among human beings since the earliest times and the traditional way of dealing with them has been to encourage people to show moderation in balance in how they how they look at beauty in themselves and in other people. You are beautiful? That’s good but it doesn’t mean much if you are spoiled, arrogant, and inconsiderate of others. You do not think you are beautiful? Then look at the other good qualities you possess and maximize those. In your assessment of other people place greater value on character traits like honesty, dependability, and kindness than upon physical traits.

This has always been the sensible approach to human beauty but some now feel that the problems described above require the radical solution of challenging and overthrowing the very concept of beauty itself. This has tremendous implications for how we understand art. For we cannot separate the concept of physical human beauty from the concept of beauty in general. The depiction of human beauty has been a part of art for millennia. Moreover, the depiction of human beauty in an idealized rather than a realistic form was one of the primary goals of some of the most important artists in the history of Western art.

This was what ancient Greek and Roman sculptors sought to achieve and what the artists of the Renaissance, who looked to the Greeks and Romans for their inspiration, also sought after. When art seeks to depict beauty in a balanced, harmonious, ideal form that is a perfected version of the beauty we see in the world around us, this is called classicism, after the Classical Era in ancient Athens. Classical idealism has historically been balanced by other competing tendencies. Caravaggio introduced a kind of realism into art by depicting ordinary people in everyday situations as they look in real life, even using this style in his depiction of people in extraordinary situations, such as his paintings of the conversion of St. Paul and the crucifixion of St. Peter. The balancing of the ideal with the real itself achieved in a way the classical ideal of balance.

Whichever vision guided the artist however, of the ideal, the real, or something that was not quite either or a combination of both, his goal was to show people, places, and objects which other people like would want to look at and which would draw them back to look at them again and again. This is what defines beauty – the quality of being desirable to the senses of sight or, in the case of music, sound.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the 20th century revolution in the arts was the rejection on the part of many of the idea that art should be beautiful. Throughout history, art has been made depicting things which are not beautiful. The Last Judgment is a common theme in religious art and the damned being sent off to Hell, or dragged there by demons, is not something that can be depicted in an aesthetically pleasing way. The purpose of such paintings is to produce moral and spiritual reflection. Quentin Massys for some reason painted the portrait that has come to be known as The Ugly Duchess. The entire oeuvre of Hieronymous Bosch could not be described as beautiful in any conventional sense of the term. These kinds of painting, however, were understood to be exceptions to the rule. They depicted ugly subjects for reasons which were considered sufficient to overrule the general understanding that artwork was to be beautiful.

That is very different from the later 20th Century idea that there is no necessary connection between art and the beautiful, that the latter is entirely subjective, and that art exists as a vehicle of the artist’s self-expression which is apparently so valuable to society that it deserves to be funded from the public purse. This idea is fatal to the concept of art for the only justification for thinking of art as something unique within the general category of the application of human knowledge and skill to the making of things (the original meaning of the word “art”) is that art is the making of things which are beautiful.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What is Culture?

Notes towards the Definition of Culture by T. S. Eliot, London, Faber and Faber Limited, 1948, 1962, 124 pages.

Culture is a word that we use all the time but we seldom put much thought into what it means. We take for granted that we know what “culture” is, although we use it in very different ways depending upon the circumstances. Sometimes, when we speak of culture, we mean something that includes the fine visual arts, literature, theatre, architecture, and serious music, and we will speak of someone who appreciates these things as being “cultured” or “having culture”. Other times we use the word culture to mean something that includes our language, religion, and way of living. This is how we use the word when we speak of our culture as opposed to that of another people.

These meanings of culture are clearly different from each other, yet they are obviously related to each other as well. We would not go too far astray in understanding the first meaning to be a narrower, more specialized version of the second. To describe, however, is not necessarily to define. What is it that a people’s way of life and the higher products of their civilization have in common that we use the same word for both?

This is question that T. S. Eliot put a lot of serious thought into around the end of the Second World War. Eliot was a leading literary figure of the early 20th Century. He had been born an American, in St. Louis, Missouri twelve years before the end of the 19th Century, was raised in the United States and then educated in the prestigious American Harvard University, but in 1915 he moved to London where he would live for the rest of his life. This was during the first World War, the war which shattered the progressive, utopian illusions of the 19th Century. “Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold/mere anarchy Is loosed upon the world”, as a contemporary and colleague of Mr. Eliot’s, W. B. Yeats put it. A few years after the end of the War Eliot himself became famous for his poem “The Wasteland”, edited by his friend and fellow American ex-patriot Ezra Pound, and widely understood to be an expression of the hopelessness and disillusionment of that era.

The T. S. Eliot of the late 40’s however, was a more rooted and mature man than the modernist poet of the early 1920’s. In 1927 he had become a British citizen and had been baptized and confirmed into the Church of England. The following year he described himself, in a collection of essays entitled For Lancelot Andrewes, as “royalist in politics, Anglo-Catholic in religion, classicist in literature”. He had become, in other words, a thoroughly conservative man. He had become an editor for the publishing house Faber and Faber which would be the job that paid his bills for the rest of his life. He continued to write though, poetry, as well as several plays and a great deal of literary and social criticism. His Notes towards the Definition of Culture was written towards the climax of his writing career.

So how did T. S. Eliot define “culture”?

We must keep in mind that this book is titled “Notes towards the Definition of Culture” which is not exactly the same thing as “A Formulation of the Definition of Culture”. In the early decades of the 20th Century much ink had been applied to contrasting culture with civilization. While this debate continues to be revived from time to time, Eliot, wisely, chose to ignore it saying only, in his introduction, that “I have made no attempt in this essay to determine the frontier between the meanings of these two words: for I came to the conclusion that any such attempt could only produce an artificial distinction, peculiar to the book , which the reader would have difficulty in retaining, and which, after closing the book, he would abandon with a sense of relief”.

In his first chapter, “The Three Senses of Culture”, he began by saying that culture exists on three levels, that of the individual, that of the group or class, and that of the entire society. The culture of the individual depends upon the culture of the group, and the culture of the group depends upon the culture of the society. Therefore it is culture at the societal level that needs to be defined because it is the most basic, the most important meaning of the word.

This assertion will go against the grain of the individualist who sees culture as the product of the creativity of the individual rather than the group but Eliot explained and defended his position well. Culture pertains to the “improvement of the human mind and spirit” and the achievements that are considered culture by and in different groups of people vary. Refined manners, learning, philosophy, the arts – all of these, Eliot pointed out, are “culture” in different kinds of people. No one of them, however, can be said to contain all of “culture” within itself, neither can any one individual be fully accomplished in all of these areas at once. We must find culture, therefore, “in the pattern of the society as a whole”, for only in an entire society can all the different achievements of individuals and groups be found and harmonized into the whole which is culture. Culture is more, however, than just the presence of all these different things among a group of isolated individuals. Culture requires cohesion which requires “an overlapping and sharing of interests” and “participation and mutual appreciation”.

Eliot noted that in societies which have achieved higher levels of civilization the various areas which make up culture are specialized fields awarded different honours and that this leads to the formation of classes. A gradation of classes he regards as an essential part of civilized society. He made the curious assertion that “I do not think that the most ardent champions of social equality dispute this: the difference of opinion turns on whether the transmission of group culture must be by inheritance—whether each cultural level must propagate itself—or whether it can be hoped that some mechanism of selection will be found, so that every individual shall in due course take his place at the highest cultural level for which his natural aptitudes qualify him.” This seems to be a strange assessment. Egalitarian thought in the present day has far more in common with the Procrustean leveling of the world described in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Harrison Bergeron than the meritocratic sentiment Eliot described here and the trend in that direction must surely have been noticeable in Eliot’s own day.

In his second chapter “The Class and the Elite”, Eliot explained more fully what he meant. He acknowledged the widespread progressive notion that society will “overcome these divisions” and that it is “therefore a duty incumbent upon us, to bring about a classless society.” What, however, would be done about differences in aptitude between individuals in such a society? Who would be the leaders of such a society?

In the early 20th Century the theory of elites was discussed by a number of different sociological writers. One version of the theory held that society was transitioning from a hierarchical class society to an elite-led mass society. This notion will seem odd to those who understand “the elite” to mean “the upper class”. The technical meaning of “elite” however, is a group of individuals who are identified by a high level of competency in a particular specialized field. Members of an elite are not necessarily tied to one another by social connections the way the members of a class are. Eliot addresses the idea that elite leadership was replacing social classes and points out that for this to happen elites would have to take over completely the function of classes within society. In reality, however, elites have always existed and tend to attach themselves to classes, generally the dominant class of society. The fact that “the primary channel of transmission of culture is the family” contributes to the likelihood of the continued existence of classes in one form or another.

Moreover, the disappearance of classes and their complete replacement with elites should not be assumed to be something desirable in itself. Eliot did not draw a complete picture of what such a society would look like but we can fill in the blanks. Institutional education would have to take over the family’s role in the transmission of culture, individuals with the capacity to become members of elites would have to be identified and sorted out of the masses at a very early age. This is Brave New World territory.

In asserting the necessity of a hierarchy of social levels for a high degree of culture and civilization, Eliot did not advocate a caste system in which people are locked into their class from birth. Eliot was a good Aristotelian and throughout this book he was always searching for the mean between opposite extremes. In this case a class society combined with a high degree of social mobility and interaction is the mean between a classless society and a rigid caste system. This is also part of the mean between the opposite extremes of an excess of unity and an excess of diversity. The other part of that mean is explored in his third chapter entitled “Unity and Diversity: The Region”.

In this chapter Eliot addressed the difference between local and national cultures and argued against the kind of centralizing nationalism that seeks to eliminate regional and local cultures by imposing a standardized culture on everybody. Eliot acknowledged the importance of a society having a common culture that transcends class and regional boundaries. He wrote about the classes that “they should all have a community of culture with each other which will give them something in common, more fundamental than the community which each class has with its counterpart in another society”. This is the opposite of what was proposed by Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci who urged Marxists to take over the institutions of culture so as to break the “cultural hegemony” that was impeding the general workers revolution.

Unity can be overemphasized, however, and Eliot argued against those who look at the kinds of measures societies take to promote unity in times of crisis such as war, and propose them in times of peace. In words that bring to mind Edmund Burke’s remarks about the little platoons, Eliot wrote:

It is important that a man should feel himself to be, not merely a citizen of a particular nation, but a citizen of a particular part of his country, with local loyalties. These, like loyalty to class, arise out of loyalty to the family.

Patriotic affection starts at home and radiates outwards.

Eliot discussed the relationships between the various regional cultures in the British Isles and argued that the continued existence of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish cultures is a benefit to the English culture and that each of these “satellite cultures” is dependent upon the health of the English culture. If each of these cultures were to be made indistinguishable from the others all would lose – the result would be a lower level of culture than any one of them. Examples of countries that have suffered heavily from the artificial imposition of a standardized national culture were ready at hand for him to point to:

In Italy and in Germany, we have seen that a unity with politico-economic aims, imposed violently and too rapidly, had unfortunate effects upon both nations. Their cultures had developed in the course of a history of extreme and extremely sub-divided regionalism: the attempt to teach Germans to think of themselves as Germans first, and the attempt to teach Italians to think of themselves as Italians first, rather than as natives of a particular small principality or city, was to disturb the traditional culture from which alone any future culture could grow.

How local should culture get?

Eliot wrote: “Ideally, each village, and of course more visibly the larger towns, should each have its particular character”, a sentiment which the G. K. Chesterton who wrote The Napoleon of Notting Hill would undoubtedly have applauded had he lived another twelve years to have read it.

This emphasis upon local and regional diversity should not be confused with what is called “multi-culturalism” today, although the word would serve the purpose if it had not been usurped to describe something sinister. Although this may seem counter-intuitive to some what we call multi-culturalism is actually far more similar to the nationalization programs of Hitler and Mussolini than to the localism and regionalism Eliot is advocating. It is an attempt by a central, bureaucratized, government to break down local culture and cohesion in order to promote a form of unity that consists of loyalty to the central state. This is all that is left to build unity around because multi-culturalism, which involves mass immigration from as many different cultures and nations as possible, breaks down the common national culture as well as all local cultures within the nation. This couldn’t be further from the concept of local and regional culture held by Eliot who wrote “On the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born.”

The need for a balance between unity and diversity at different levels of culture has its counterpart in religion. One of the major themes of this book is the relationship between religion and culture. Eliot did not like the word “relation” (1) as a description of what religion and culture are to each other as he explains when he raises the subject in the first chapter. He believed the word “relation” suggests that religion and culture are separate entities which relate to each other. This, he treated as an extreme to be avoided, like the opposite extreme of identifying religion and culture completely and absolutely. At this point Eliot’s search for Aristotelian balance might seem a little obsessive but it begins to make sense when he returns to the subject in his fourth chapter “Unity and Diversity: Sect and Cult”.

The same sort of things, Eliot had argued, appear to be religious from one angle, and cultural from another, suggesting that religion and culture are different aspects of each other. He suggested that culture might be conceived of as the incarnation of religion. Latin culture, he pointed out in his fourth chapter, is the primary culture of Western Europe, just as the Church of Rome is the primary religious tradition. English culture, while distinct from the Latin culture of Western continental Europe, is derived from the latter and dependent upon the health of the mainstream for its own wellbeing. In the same way, the Protestant Churches are derived from and dependent upon the Church of Rome. In the United Kingdom, the Church of England is the primary religious tradition, but the relationship of the Free Churches to the Anglican tradition is in British society, the same as the relationship of the Protestant Churches to the Roman Catholic Church.

This is not what the relationship between the different branches of the Christian tradition appears looks like from the inside, of course. From the inside differences in theology and practice tend to be what we see first. Eliot, although a devout Anglican himself, had deliberately tried to approach this matter “from the point of view of the sociologist, and not from that of the Christian apologist”.

It is in the chapters on “Unity and Diversity” that the concerns of the immediate post-WWII era in which Eliot wrote this book are most visibly evident. The devastation caused by the two Wars had dampened the optimistic spirit of progressivism but it had also added an element of desperation to progressive schemes to unify the world and end conflict. The United Nations had been established at the end of the War and many people were treating it as the first step towards world federalism. Proposals within the ecumenical movement for the reuniting of the Christian Churches went back to the previous century but were now being looked to with new zeal. Against this desperation-driven zeal, Eliot’s words read like a plea for sanity. Neither unity nor diversity is everything, it is the balance between the two that is important.

In his final two chapters Eliot brought politics and education into the picture. The theme of decentralization is continued into chapter five “A Note on Culture and Politics” as is the theme of a class structure. Within a “healthily regional society”, he wrote “public affairs would be the business of everybody, or of the great majority, only within very small social units; and would be the business of a progressively smaller number of men in the larger units within which the smaller were comprehended”. Within a “healthily stratified society”, he then wrote “public affairs would be a responsibility not equally borne: a greater responsibility would be inherited by those who inherited special advantages, and in whom self-interest, and interest for the sake of their families (‘a stake in the country’) should cohere with public spirit.” (2)

What he has presented here is not two different and opposing models of society. Regional diversity and stratification of class have both been presented earlier in his book as desirable qualities of the same society, as different aspects of how culture within a society can be unified and diverse at the same time. The idea that societies should be the most democratic at the local level with societal affairs being handled by smaller specialized groups at higher levels and the idea that privilege and public, social and civic responsibility should go together in the upper classes of a society are both different arguments for aristocratic leadership.

Towards the end of his second chapter he had made the point that aristocracy and democracy should not be understood as antithetical terms. An egalitarian democracy would be “oppressive for the conscientious and licentious for the rest” so the only democracy that can survive long term is one with a class structure in which aristocracy has “a peculiar and essential function, as peculiar and essential as the function of any other part of society”.

The opposite of a democratic class society led by an aristocracy in which regional diversity flourishes within a common culture is a centralized mass democracy. In such a society, the central government seeks to control and standardize everything (which is why such governments require large bureaucracies), eliminating regional diversity as much as it can, and breaking down social classes and all other local units within society into atomized, isolated, individuals. This is very destructive to a society’s culture. Eliot made the point that politics should be contained within culture as one part out of many. Instead, the kind of societies that he saw developing, were ones in which politics sought to dominate culture. “Culture”, he tells us “can never be wholly conscious—there is always more to it than we are conscious of; and it cannot be planned because it is also the unconscious background of our planning”.

This leads naturally to Eliot’s discussion of education in his sixth and concluding chapter. Eliot critically responded to a number of common progressive assumptions about education all supporting the idea of standardized education provided by the government schools to everybody equally. Does education make people happier? Is education what everybody wants? Eliot challenged the “yes” answer to these questions that so many take for granted. He also demonstrates that the concept of “equality of opportunity” is not as practical or benign as it is often assumed to be. “It is right that the exceptional individual should have the opportunity to elevate himself in the social scale” he writes “and attain a position in which he can exercise his talents to the greatest benefit of himself and of society.” The kind of equality the progressive seeks, however, is “unattainable in practice” and if seriously attempted, would “disorganize society and debase education”. Recent history has more than validated Eliot’s assessment.

Throughout this chapter Eliot reminds us that there is more than one way of understanding “education”. Education can mean “that limited system of instruction which the Ministry of Education controls, or aims to control”. It can also mean “everything that goes to form the good individual in a good society”. If we are speaking of education in the latter sense, Eliot has no quarrel with the idea that education is the vehicle by which culture is transmitted or the idea that it is the means of repairing the breakdown of culture. If, however, we are using education in the first sense of the term to speak of it in these lofty terms is to cheapen and degrade our understanding of culture. If education means the schools and education is the vehicle for transmission of culture, culture then becomes that which is taught in school. That culture is so much more than that, the complete way of life of a society, of which that which can be taught in schools is only a fraction, is the whole point which Eliot was trying to make in this book.

An appendix to the book consists of the text of three lectures Eliot gave in Germany in 1945 after the War. In these lectures, Eliot talked about how the extensive vocabulary of the English language lends itself well to poetry and how that vocabulary developed through the influence of a number of European languages on the development of English and about his experience as the editor of a literary review (The Criterion) in the interwar years. His point was that European cultures, although different, had common roots in the Greco-Roman classics and in the Bible, and how they are enriched by communication with each other. He concluded by talking about how the Christian religion was the foundational core of European cultures, about how it was through the Christian faith that European cultures have received their patrimony from classical antiquity and how, if the Christian religion were to die out, a new culture and civilization would not spring up overnight to take its place but would require many generations in order to grow naturally.

While some of the specifics Eliot discussed in this book are dated, reflecting the conditions of the immediate post-WWII, early Cold War era, the main themes of his book continue to speak to us today. Culture is something produced by a society as a whole naturally and organically. Artificial and mechanical substitutes created by central planners simply will not suffice. The healthy culture of a healthy society is a common culture which multiple regional variations, influenced by and influencing other cultures. Such a culture is most likely to be found in society with many social strata the membership in which is not rigidly fixed but allows for movement so that individuals can find the position most suited to their capabilities. Religion is at the core of the culture of a healthy society, and a religion that conceives of itself as universal, transcending the boundaries of a particular culture and society, the way Christianity does, has greater potential for a higher level of civilization than a religion which is co-terminus with a single culture. These ideas remain vitally important to us today.

(1) Eliot uses the word “relation” in places where we would ordinarily use the word “relationship”.

(2) The italics in these quotations are Eliot’s own.