To maintain sanity and perspective, we must recognize that beauty is a transcendent ideal in which art imperfectly participates, and thus hold beauty above art. The wrong turn is due to a conflation of beauty with art and the related tendency to see art as an end in itself.
As conservatives we often undertake to argue for the importance and necessity of beauty. But it is common in discussions of aesthetics not to distinguish clearly between beauty and art. This can be a fatal mistake, and a strong reminder comes from the great cultural historian Jacques Barzun in The Use and Abuse of Art, a series of lectures given at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Barzun, with his biting Gallic wit, brilliantly charts the shift in Western culture from art to aestheticism. Considered from one vantage point, art has replaced religion in the life of man (one of Barzun’s chapters is entitled “Art in the Vacuum of Belief”). A signal of the change was when the word “creative” was first applied to art and artists, where it never had been before. Liberated from being servile craftsmen, artists were now creators. By the twentieth century, artists were popularly regarded as gurus possessing the deepest secrets of life and second only to scientists on the social scale.
The shift occurred in the nineteenth century when Romanticists first started talking explicitly of art in quasi-religious terms. Of course, there were earlier roots to this, as the bonds between art and religion had been gradually loosened since the Middle Ages and through the humanist Renaissance. Disenchantment with the industrial age and with scientific rationalism made many 19th-century people yearn again for transcendence and mystery; but for many of the intelligentsia who could not return to orthodox religious belief, art became a natural religion-substitute. It was around that time that Romantic art was emulating qualities of the infinite, the absolute, eternal longing, and similar emotions and aspirations that are traditionally evoked by religion. The boundaries between art and religion began to be blurred, so that one could, for example, make a “pilgrimage” to Wagner’s opera house at Bayreuth as to a religious shrine.
Previously it was understood that art was not completely autonomous; there were higher values to which it was responsible. During the ages of faith, art was the handmaiden of religion, illustrating the Christian mysteries in fresco and stained glass. By contrast, the aestheticist or “art for art’s sake” movement of the Victorian era tended to see art as answerable only to aesthetic standards. Barzun describes the strategy of many aestheticist writers and artists as one of representing art as “the core reality, by which all other things were shown false and artificial.” This involved the divorce of aesthetic and moral values. Artists were a special caste who lived by a different code, one far removed from “bourgeois morality.” While ordinary people lived by moral values, artists lived by aesthetic values. Arguably, it’s a small step from this attitude to dismissing the validity of value judgments in art.
The problem with giving a quasi-divine status to art is that it confuses beauty, a universal quality, with art, our participation in the beautiful. To say that art leads to God is different from saying that beauty leads to God. Whether art leads to God or not depends on the character and quality of the art. For art is not heavenly but earthly; it is an activity of homo faber, man as maker, and we know that man is just as capable of making trash as beauty.
Barzun argues that the deification of art led to much that was destructive in modernity. It’s what allowed us to pass from the frescoes of Botticelli to, say, piles of tin cans being labeled as art. This might seem curious at first glance. But the veneration of art implied that it was a self-subsisting reality not dependent on other values, including moral ones. This was a tenet of aestheticism, suggested in John Ruskin’s claim that “taste was the only morality” and in some of Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms that exalt the aesthetic. We might call this attitude “Beauty without truth.” Once the search for truth is excluded from artistic creation, it’s easy for the search for beauty to fall away too, and thus the Beautiful is replaced by the Interesting as the standard category of value. Now all that is left is the artist’s will or ego, and his art becomes a projection of his ego. Art is merely self-indulgence of the artist, an effusion of his transient feelings and emotions. It is “self-expression,” as opposed to expressing universal truth in one’s own way.
Beauty without truth cannot long survive. Without the support of truth, beauty will wither, and all that will be left is an attitude. This indifference to objective truth and to beauty has been encouraged by a mystique that surrounds artists and makes them society’s truth-tellers and sources of authenticity. Moreover, the relentless drive to overturn “bourgeois values” poisoned much of modern artistic activity by fostering an atmosphere of constant negation and subversion of commonly held beliefs.
A musician friend told me of rehearsal she attended in which a young organist was playing and conducting Bach. Finding himself in need of something to prop up his music—and as the audition was being held in a church—he grabbed a Bible and joked “just as long as you don’t believe in this stuff,” to the chuckles of some of the other musicians. All too often, questions of ultimate truth or meaning don’t seem to matter in art. Serving the ideals that Bach cherished—which are part of the objective message of his music, whether one personally subscribes them or not—recede behind a screen of either subjective feelings or professional routine and technique.
Barzun poses a quote by Albert Camus: “only the artists have never harmed mankind.” He asks us to think seriously about whether this is true or not. We have absorbed many pieties about art, artists, and the artistic process. One of these is that art is a universal good and source of healing, regardless of what values it embodies. But given the ubiquity of art and our easy access to it, we must ask whether the spirit embodied in an artwork is beneficial or harmful. Does art extol love, hope, and faith, or does it teach us that life is meaningless, morality a sham, and human beings a mere collection of impulses? Does a work of art point to something beyond itself, or is it only about the play of its materials (color, sound, or words)?
The most egregious example in history of the abuse and false worship of art was surely the aestheticism of the Nazis. Divorced from any moral concern, art was looted from museums and private collections to feed Hitler’s appetite for art, construed merely as material objects and valued above human life. Although the Nazis despised modern art, their actions were an outgrowth of a modern aesthetic philosophy that separates art from ordinary life and from the ultimate values that we ought to serve.
At root, the wrong turn is due to a conflation of beauty with art and the related tendency to see art as an end in itself. To maintain sanity and perspective, we must recognize that beauty is a transcendent ideal in which art imperfectly participates, and thus hold beauty above art.
Perhaps Aldous Huxley put it best in The Perennial Philosophy, a book not primarily about aesthetics but with plenty of fine insights into the spiritual life:
The goods of the intellect… and the imagination are real goods; but they are not the final good, and when we treat them as ends in themselves, we fall into idolatry.
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The featured image is “The Artist’s Studio” (c. 1740) by Pierre Subleyras (1699–1749) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.