We are so accustomed to regarding the fine arts as simply a means to pursue or attain the beautiful in the abstract, that we forget that for long centuries there was a close connection between the arts and some public purpose.

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Thomas Storck, as he considers the historical role of art in public life. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

Outside of academia, discussions about theories of art or the relations of art and society are rare enough. Thus I was not unhappy when this past summer Mr. James Baresel penned an essay on The Imaginative Conservative critical of my aesthetic theories as expressed in chapter 8 of my 2015 book, From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond. But although I was not unhappy, I cannot agree with Mr. Baresel’s criticisms nor do I think that he always presents my ideas entirely accurately. Hence this reply.

Before dealing with any of Mr. Baresel’s criticisms, I will briefly sketch my theories so that readers will have something concrete to keep in mind. By way of summary, then, I argue that just as the practical arts have recognized social purposes, likewise the fine arts were understood before the last few centuries to have a social or public end or function. Take music, for example. Composers did not simply write a piece of music, they wrote music for use in divine worship, for dancing, for marching; painting and sculpture likewise had a social role and purpose: adorning churches, palaces, and public buildings. The same could be said in different ways of all the fine arts. Even theatrical performances, both in ancient Greece and medieval Europe, were integral parts of religious festivals, not free-standing presentations. Originally, this was true even of poetry, which was written chiefly for public recitation.

Composers and other artists pursued beauty, of course, but beauty within the bounds of the particular social end of the artistic work they were creating. A composer of church music, for example, could make his work as beautiful as he knew how, but at the same time always had to remember the constraints placed on his work if it were to be used in an actual church service. This agrees with the practice in what we call the practical or useful arts, where designers generally seek after beauty as well, but in subordination to the intended use of the product or item. Designers of automobiles are hardly unconcerned with the aesthetic appeal of their product, and even manufacturers of such humble objects as jars often try to make their designs beautiful.

Of course, not all works of music or painting or sculpture had a direct public end in the past, but the determining majority of them did, and when people adverted to those arts this social purpose was usually in their minds. All this began to change in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at different times for different arts, but by the nineteenth century the change was largely complete. Now music was created mostly for performance in concerts, paintings for display in galleries and museums. These are places which exist solely to exhibit art or artistic performances, whereas in the past the arts were important, indeed essential, accompaniments of public activities which had other aims in view, such as divine worship. When we advert to those arts today, their social purpose is generally not foremost in our minds. Is there anything wrong with this loss of a public purpose?

I think that there is. On the one hand, the lack of a connection between the working artist and the activities of the larger society gave rise to the notion of the heroic artist in his garret, devoted to his aesthetic ideals and scornful of society. Then this lonely artist, originally pursuing beauty, to be sure, after a time, by a curious logic of human psychology, found the unfettered pursuit of beauty too boring, and turned to a pursuit of individuality which, all too often, resulted in something ugly if not perverse. In past ages someone, whether the clergy or princes or guild masters, had to pay the bill, and naturally demanded artistic works that pleased them. Today, artists have convinced the so-called arts community to pay for pretty much anything that can pass for serious art, no matter its lack of any beauty or aesthetic standards. Anyone who questions its value is automatically classed as a philistine.

Likewise when the social purpose of the fine arts was recognized, ordinary people, who today rarely frequent concert halls or art galleries, might have heard the likes of Palestrina or Bach in the context of public worship or some other public event. Because of their public role the fine arts were embedded in the community and its activities. I refer interested readers to my book for a fuller argument together with historical examples.

Now, what of Mr. Baresel’s criticisms? He writes,

Although I doubt that his ideas on this subject will gain widespread currency, I have chosen to respond to them for three reasons: his aesthetics appear to shed light on the trajectory of his social and political theories; his aesthetics constitute an attack on authentic progress within civilization; and his attacks on beauty are too common in contemporary society to go unanswered.

His first point is true, for I do think that my aesthetic theories are connected with my social and political thinking, but I cannot agree with his second and third points, indeed I particularly deny that anything I said could reasonably be considered as an attack on beauty.

Mr. Baresel begins his detailed critique thus:

I confess that in responding to someone who denies that beauty ought to be pursued for its own sake I am at as much of a loss as I would be if attempting to respond to someone who denies that truth and goodness ought to be pursued for their own sakes. The scholastic philosophers place all three among what they term the ‘transcendental properties of being’…. The belief that we ought to pursue beauty only to the extent that it is joined to some function veers dangerously close to utilitarianism.

We are so accustomed to regarding the fine arts as simply a means to pursue or attain the beautiful in the abstract, that we forget that for long centuries—those centuries in which so much that we hold dear in our culture was created—were precisely those centuries in which a close connection between the arts and some public purpose was simply assumed. The scholastic philosophers hardly knew any other use of the arts. The public or social function of art was as much a fixture in their minds as the relegation of art to special events and places is a fixture in ours. It hardly means that one is in any way denigrating beauty to see that its pursuit is more healthy when it is part of a social complex. Nor is it utilitarian to point out that things have uses. Did Lassus or William Byrd or Bach think that their music was somehow less beautiful because for the most part it was written for specific uses? Is beauty diminished because it is part of the complex of actions that go into the worship of God, or of any other legitimate human activity?

Just as a poet’s genius is not constrained by his use of meter or rhyme, but rather they allow that genius to exhibit itself, so an artist’s genius or his pursuit of beauty need not be inhibited by the constraints placed upon him by the social role of his art.

Mr. Baresel continues then as follows:

The fact that something that is meant to have a function becomes useless if it is beautiful but unable to perform its function tells us nothing whatsoever about whether or not it is right to create beautiful things that have no function…. Mr. Storck himself recognizes that some music that lacks a function is more beautiful than some music that has a function, though he argues that the less beautiful music is nevertheless superior art due to the very fact of its being functional. But the fact that we can establish that the non-functional music is more beautiful sufficiently proves that there are standards by which we can judge that which lacks a function.

I never denied that there are aesthetic standards by which we can judge works of art, but that is not to the point. In my book I wrote with regard to the musical works of the nineteenth century designed solely for the concert hall, “Many of them are indeed beautiful in the highest degree.” Beethoven’s 3rd, 7th, and 9th symphonies, for example, contain some of the most exquisite and powerful music ever written. A social role for the arts does not make them more beautiful—nor less beautiful either. Bach’s cantatas are not more beautiful because they were written to be sung in church nor is Verdi’s Requiem less beautiful because it can hardly be used as an actual requiem. It is rather for the extrinsic reasons I described above that I deplore the loss of the social role of art, such as artists’ increasing pursuit of originality rather than beauty, and even an explicit avowal of aesthetic ideals that have no connection with beauty whatsoever.

Mr. Baresel puts his criticism of this point as follows: “I find highly questionable the assertion of Mr. Storck that boredom with beauty for its own sake has led to an abandonment of objective aesthetic principles.” Of course my contention can probably not be absolutely proved. But we find the abandonment of the social role of art largely in the eighteenth century. About a hundred years later we see the arts beginning to turn away from any concern with beauty. Is there no connection? Of course there were other cultural factors at work too, but these other factors arose from the same source, the dissolution of the social order into its disparate elements. Instead of a society that sought above all the glory of God and subordinated all human activities in service to that goal, we now have the arts, the political order, the economy, each pursuing what it regards as its own good separate from the others and free from any overarching end. The separation of the fine arts from a public use was simply part of the huge cultural shift that marked the end of a Christian social order.

Mr. Baresel also accuses me of opposing progress in the fine arts. “It is a matter of indifference to Mr. Storck that the transition from public improvisation to private composition resulted in works of higher literary merit, with superior style, superior characters, and superior plots.” First, let me note that because I hold up the recitations of Homer or the Beowulf poet—what Mr. Baresel calls the “bardic tradition common to primitive societies”—as examples of the kind of social role that I think is important for the arts, this does not mean that I want to limit the arts to their tribal stage of development. I make clear in my book that a public role for the arts continued pretty much into the eighteenth century, so we are talking of Chaucer and Shakespeare as much as of Homer. It is true that the intense focus on psychological interiority that began in the Renaissance did eventually give rise to the great nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels, with their well-drawn characters and complex plots. But how did that trajectory end up? In stream-of-consciousness narratives, which, say, in Ulysses may be coherent and interesting, but in the same author’s Finnegans Wake is already descending into incoherence. The course of literary movements reflects broader cultural trends. The movement toward “superior style, superior characters, and superior plots” which Mr. Baresel praises, did not end with writers such as Tolstoy or Virginia Woolf. In obedience to its own inner laws, and more importantly to external cultural forces, it continued its development until we come to the postmodernism of a Robbe-Grillet. If we object to the cultural stance which he represents, we had best take a critical look at the sources from which it came. Had our unified Christian civilization not broken down in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the arts would doubtless still have embraced new styles and new beauties, though it is impossible to guess what they would have been. But we can say with assurance that they would have reflected the underlying health of their culture, just as the artistic works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflect a culture first in crisis, and then succumbing to dissolution.

One last criticism to be noted. Mr. Baresel appears to think that I want an art that is not only “collectivistic and quasi-utilitarian [but also] egalitarian.” This is because I lament the fact that the high-cultural arts are now largely inaccessible to most people. But one of the main points in my book is that in the past there were different kinds of art, high art and true popular art. I wrote there, “Rustic villagers may not have danced to the works of John Dunstable or Josquin des Préz, but they still moved in a world in which high culture was not cut off from ordinary life but appealed to and sustained the entire people….” Today we speak of “popular music,” but we really mean mass music. Such music and such art rarely have much aesthetic merit. When the high arts enjoyed a public or social role there was a healthy interaction between them and true popular art. This close connection between different artistic levels can even be found in the same works, as in Shakespeare we find slapstick and the most sublime soliloquies within the same scene of the same play. But the banishment of high art to special places, segregated from ordinary life, together with the rise of electronic media, led to the death of true popular arts and to their replacement by mere mass-culture arts. Mr. Baresel wants to contrast my theories with those of T.S. Eliot, but in reality, there is little or no difference. I am by no means opposed to the idea that “members of particular social classes, localities, professions, leisure associations, and so on will develop their own forms of culture.” But I see no reason why such different forms of culture should be kept in watertight compartments, and even regarded by outsiders in a negative light. Who can forget the old jibes at “long-hairs,” when that term still referred to lovers of classical music? Or the contempt which the “arts community” has toward mass-cultural statuettes or prints? Variation, yes; conflict no.

Above, I quoted Mr. Baresel to the effect that my “aesthetics appear to shed light on the trajectory of [my] social and political theories.” As I noted already, he is correct in saying this. When the arts had a healthy public role, then society and the various orders and classes understood that cooperation for the overarching purpose of society, chiefly for the glory of God, united them in all their endeavors. In Quadragesimo Anno Pope Pius XI spoke the following with regard to economic activity.

For it is the moral law alone which commands us to seek in all our conduct our supreme and final end, and to strive directly in our specific actions for those ends which nature, or rather, the Author of Nature, has established for them, duly subordinating the particular to the general. If this law be faithfully obeyed, the result will be that particular economic aims, whether of society as a body or of individuals, will be intimately linked with the universal teleological order, and as a consequence we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good. (no. 43)

The same can be said of all human activity. Whether it was making music or earning a living, in the past our ancestors understood that we were all on a journey together to eternity, and that, to the extent possible, it was our task to link all our activities “with the universal teleological order” so that “we shall be led by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good.”

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in October 2017.

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Editor’s note: The featured image is a detail from “Self-Portrait with Two Pupils” (1785), by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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