Sleeping on Beauty

Practicality and the Point of Art: A Response to “Art & Literature for Dissidents”

There is a commendably practical sort of notion prevalent on the Right: that artists and art should aim at things like “winning the culture war,” “supporting national pride,” “cultivating piety,” “perfecting traditional techniques,” et cetera. Occasionally, these notions are accompanied by arguments entailing either the disavowal of beauty as the proper end of art (decrying it as a tinseled lodestar of Disneyish sentimentality) or far more commonly the transmogrification of it into a sort of transcendental ornament. But there is a problem with such arguments: art’s orientation is not coincidental.

Throughout its history — from cave paintings to Calder’s mobiles — art as a coherent domain of activity has been and remains solely sensible in relation to love of beauty, though that not everyone shares this sensibility is perfectly understandable given that the nature of that relation has fluctuated dramatically. At first — at the very beginning of recorded history — art, like religion and politics, was relatively indistinct in the same way that beauty was from goodness and justice. But in time our relationship in the twin realms of activity and thought to these things differentiated, manifesting in progressively familiar forms and concepts: around the 10th century, art began to move from the realm of the technical into that of the creative and beauty from the throne of goodness to its own singular perch — to the extent that centuries later it became possible for aesthetes to be at odds with clerics and more broadly romanticism with Christian piety.

Certainly, there are varied, even opposing philosophical accounts of this grand narrative concluding in contemporary art: e.g., Agamben’s “The Archeology of the Work of Art,” which presents it as ultimately a tragedy resulting from “the disastrous transposition of the theological vocabulary of creation onto the activity of the artist,” as well as my own “The Art of Madness and Mystery,” which rebuts that conclusion and argues from similar premises that contemporary art “was always art’s fate and is its redemption.” But the logic, tone, and even the verdicts of such philosophical squabbling do not really matter as regards the merit of the practical notions in question. As with arguments presented on either side of a criminal case, though they differ, they all have enough in common to shed light on the nature of the creature in the dock.

This is perhaps why practically-minded arguments regarding art — on those occasions when they exceed op-ed length — tend to eschew exhaustive historical accounts of the subject, instead treating it in narrowly economic or political terms as a sort of peculiar occupation or hobby. That is, from a genealogical perspective it is evident that even if the practically-minded were to wrangle artists into pursuing their prescribed aims that the effort would probably come to naught: insofar as it worked it would be working in a way other than that by which art has always worked (and by which it acquired its identity as such) and insofar as the characteristic impetus for art persisted, then art, albeit by another name, would undoubtedly also persist. In other words, if art’s existence has thus far been predicated on, sustained by, and aimed at beauty — there is little use in messing with it. However, for the practically minded this inseparability, even if it is granted, must seem dismal: after all, they think that their aims are quite clearly practical, whereas beauty in itself in the context of the genealogical account just given does not seem particularly practical — or even clear.

In the heyday of classical civilization, beauty was variously characterized in harmonious terms. In Metaphysics, Aristotle boils it down to “order, symmetry, and definiteness,” noting with superlative classical aplomb that it is something “the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree.” Plotinus, in a loftier and more poetic strain, describes it in The Enneads qua Ideal-Form as participating in the world by grouping diversities into unities, rallying “confusion into cooperation,” and generally rendering things into “harmonious coherence.” But perhaps more famously — and concretely — the classical notion of beauty is exemplified in Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, a statue of a spear-bearer sculpted in demonstration of the principles of his renowned now-lost Kanon (a treatise on the ideal proportions of the human body). To modern eyes, it is elegant, though a bit wooden.

But in the fullness of time beauty became conceptually less austere and more sensuous. By the 13th century, even Aquinas in Aristotle’s frayed mantle, pronounced in The Summa Theologica that beauty was a matter of “integrity,” “consonance,” and “clarity” — explaining the last condition by noting, “things that are brightly colored are called beautiful,” perhaps unaware of the extraordinary significance of his conceptual innovation. To wit, the Argives gloried in open fields under the sun, but their heirs preferred the closed passions of stained glass. Eventually, the whole classical conceptual framework gave way; Burke in his inimitably named, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime, assails harmony and proportion as conditions of beauty, vividly citing instances to the contrary: e.g., flowers of different and opposing shapes; swans, which are plain with disproportionately long necks and short tails; peacocks, which are contrarily constituted, and the like. Soon thereafter, Kant, in The Critique of Judgement, with characteristic milquetoast precision, accounts for beauty as a matter of “disinterested” pleasure. And then, at long last, there came the full flower of Romanticism, investing the concept of beauty with a Sturm und Drang vitality fundamentally antithetical to that of classical civilization. Thus, presently, when philosophers try to describe it (save for attempts at reviving dog-eared concepts), they tend to adopt reverently confused, even apophatic tones.

Perhaps this great historical confusion is why the practically-minded sometimes argue for a more practical aim for art: doing something to win an election, for instance, seems a lot more sensible than doing it for something that no one can explain. But this insensibility only exists in the abstract. Of all the ultimate things — truth, justice, and so on — beauty is the only one in the realm of immanent experience of which we can be absolutely sure.

When we look at something suddenly, even as we are looking at it, there is always doubt as to the truth of what we are seeing: it could be a hallucination, an optical illusion, or a case of mistaken identity. Likewise, when we arbitrate, even in clear-cut cases, there is always a doubt as to the justice of our decisions: it could be that we are being swayed by some deep-seated unconscious bias instilled in childhood, that we are ignorant of a vital piece of evidence, or even that the defendant in question is simply a doppelganger of the true criminal. But when we encounter beauty, in the whole of that encounter as such, there is never any doubt: even if the beautiful thing we are encountering turns out to be a figment of our imagination, or something other than what we had initially taken it for, or even suddenly becomes ugly — the beauty we encountered remains so.

But even if they were all persuaded by the heretofore given arguments about how art is and ought to be about beauty and how beauty is not too bad a thing to be about, the practically-minded might naturally object (given their commendable practicality) that contemporary art does not strike them as particularly beautiful. Then they would naturally adopt the tragical tone of the late Roger Scruton, exhorting artists to get to work on beauty. And certainly, this seems like a reasonable enough course of action; pointedly, perhaps the practically-minded would never have even begun so practically prescribing all sorts of aims for art if they had simply found contemporary art to be beautiful in the first place.

Yes, contemporary art is less popular than traditional art: Homer’s epics were sung to the delight of illiterates amid drinking and good cheer, the figures that Pheidias carved into the naos of the Parthenon were appreciated by pauper and Pericles alike, the paintings of Apelles were universally charming, et cetera. But lately, man’s activities oriented towards life’s ultimate things have turned decisively inwards.

That a man could be more virtuous living alone than in a community is a proposition that to classical ears would not only have been ridiculous, but counterintuitive. However, we westerners living in the wake of Christianity find the figure of the pious desert hermit deeply sensible — just as we do (and by the same token) the figure of the lonely tortured artist. The greatest dramas of classical civilization were public affairs, whereas ours — Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Samson Agonistes, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound — are closet dramas, not intended to be performed on stage. Perhaps this desolatory trend is reflected in conventional depictions of the biblical Golgotha, beginning as a densely packed hillock, but century after century becoming sparser and steeper.

Over the last century, this desolatory trend has progressed asymptotically: T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is hardly popular fare and Hart Crane’s The Bridge even less so; among Ezra Pound’s avowed fans, few have read the whole of The Cantos, and fewer still have grasped its full significance. In the realm of music, the works of Mahler, Schoenberg, and Karlheinz Stockhausen run a parallel trajectory. But perhaps things are starkest in the realm of the visual arts. Were a typical Christian right-winger to visit the fourth floor of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building and glance at the fourteen giant largely blank canvases hanging there, no one would practically fault him for thinking that all the things that Jordan Peterson and Dennis Prager had assured him through YouTube regarding “post-modern neo-Marxists” working to undermine art, beauty, and the whole of western civilization were true. And yet he would be thinking that while standing amid Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross.

For better or worse, the characteristic narrative of our civilization, for which reason Spengler famously dubbed it “Faustian,” is of man going unreasonable, lonely lengths beyond the bounds of prosaic, popular life in search of the glimmering things; as we become more definitely what we are, our relationship to beauty will only become more jealously exclusive. But this exclusivity cannot be dismissed as mere snobbishness or elitism; stylites did not ascend their pillars out of vanity.

To wit, the greatest poems, sculptures, paintings, and symphonies of our century will likely have radically fewer appreciators than Holderlin does presently. So be it. The greatest mountains have the narrowest peaks. We have spent the whole lifetime of our species grasping upwards towards beauty: upwards from the caves of Lascaux, upwards from the Acropolis, upwards from the Alps, upwards ever higher through spectral haze into the horizon of dreams. If we cannot see solid ground, if we cannot find anywhere to rest, and even if we find our every next foothold painful and jagged — that is no matter: we are climbers; whenever lovers of beauty perceive that the arts are more rarified it is cause for celebration. 

Hearing of all this, the practically-minded might well object: if art is indeed now the prerogative of lonely peak-dwellers, then why should man writ large bother with it? But to make such an objection is to contradict one’s own humanity; insofar as art is the manifestation of our cardinal love of beauty, like all loving, it requires no reasons.

Michael Shindler is an essayist and poet living in Washington, DC. His work has been published in outlets including University Bookman, Church Life, The American Conservative, Jacobite, and New English Review.

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