Nearly everyone cares—or says he cares—about art. After all, art ennobles the spirit, elevates the mind, and educates the emotions. Or does it? In fact, tremendous irony attends our culture’s continuing investment—emotional, financial, and social—in art. We behave as if art were something special, something important, something spiritually refreshing; but, when we canvas the roster of distinguished artists today, what we generally find is far from spiritual, and certainly far from refreshing.
It is a curious situation. Traditionally, the goal of fine art was to make beautiful objects. The idea of beauty came with a lot of Platonic and Christian metaphysical baggage, some of it indifferent or even hostile to art. But art without beauty was, if not exactly a contradiction in terms, at least a description of failed art.
Nevertheless, if large precincts of the art world have jettisoned the traditional link between art and beauty, they have done nothing to disown the social prerogatives of art. Indeed, we suffer today from a peculiar form of moral anesthesia—as if being art automatically rendered all moral considerations gratuitous. The list of atrocities is long, familiar, and laughable. In the end, though, the effect has been anything but amusing; it has been a cultural disaster. By universalizing the spirit of opposition, the avant-garde’s project has transformed the practice of art into a purely negative enterprise, in which art is either oppositional or it is nothing. Celebrity replaces aesthetic achievement as the goal of art.
The situation tempts one to sympathize with Leo Tolstoy. In a famous passage from What Is Art? Tolstoy wrote that “art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost.”
And that was in the 1890s. Just imagine Tolstoy strolling through New York’s Chelsea galleries or London’s Tate Modern. He would not, I suspect, have thought much of Andy Warhol as an artist, but he would have admired his candor and perception—for, as Warhol observed in 1987, “Art is what you can get away with.”
These days, the art world places a great premium on novelty. But here’s the irony: Almost everything championed as innovative in contemporary art is essentially a tired repetition of gestures inaugurated by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, creator of the first bottle-rack masterpiece and the first urinal fountain.
Of course, not all the news from the world of art is bad. There is plenty of vigorous, accomplished art being produced today, but it is rarely touted at the Chelsea galleries, celebrated in the New York Times, or featured in the trendier precincts of the art world. The serious art of today tends to be a quiet affair, off to the side and out of the limelight.
But this would have done nothing to cheer Tolstoy. Indeed, even though it is easy to concur with his judgment that art has been “perverted,” his own view of “what art really is” must give us pause. Tolstoy was very strict about the feelings he thought it proper for art to convey. In his view, the “upper classes” of his own society, “as a result of unbelief,” favored art that was “reduced to the conveying of the feelings of vanity, the tedium of living, and, above all, sexual lust.” Art for Tolstoy is “a spiritual organ of human life,” which sounds plenty reassuring. But his conception of what counts as legitimately spiritual is so narrow that it excludes not only the Damien Hirsts of the world but also most of the world’s great artists.
Of the literature of his own time, for example, he seems to have approved some simple folk tales and fables about peasants, but he approved little else. Anything that traded in mystery or symbolism he abominated. Baudelaire (“crude egotism erected into a theory”) does not pass muster, nor does Verlaine (“flabby licentiousness”) or Mallarmé (“devoid of meaning”). A Beethoven piano sonata is “only an unsuccessful attempt at art,” and the Ninth Symphony fails “without any doubt.” Kipling and even Dante fail to make the grade, and watching Hamlet makes Tolstoy shudder. Art, in his eyes, is either a handmaiden to a certain species of moral pedagogy or it is corrupt.
Tolstoy’s wary attitude is far from exceptional, for the traditional attitude toward art and beauty has been characterized as much by suspicion as by celebration. There has been a recurrent worry that the attractions of beauty will lead us to forsake the good for the sake of a good. “The eyes delight in beautiful shapes of different sorts and bright and attractive colors,” Augustine wrote, warning against the temptations of visual pleasure. “I would not have these things take possession of my soul. Let God possess it, he who made them all. He made them all very good, but it is he who is my Good, not they.”
The Platonic tradition in Christianity invests beauty with ontological significance, trusting it to reveal the unity and proportion of what really is. Our apprehension of beauty thus betokens a recognition of and submission to a reality that transcends us. And yet, if beauty can use art to express truth, art can also use beauty to create charming fabrications. As Jacques Maritain put it, art is capable of establishing “a world apart, closed, limited, absolute,” an autonomous world that, at least for a moment, relieves us of the “ennui of living and willing.” Instead of directing our attention beyond sensible beauty toward its supersensible source, art can fascinate us with beauty’s apparently self-sufficient presence; it can counterfeit being in lieu of revealing it.
Considered as an end in itself, apart from God or being, beauty becomes a usurper, furnishing not a foretaste of beatitude but a humanly contrived substitute. “Art is dangerous,” as Iris Murdoch once put it, “chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it.”
This helps explain why Western thinking about art has tended to oscillate between adulation and deep suspicion. “Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man,” Dostoevsky had Mitya Karamazov declare, and the battle runs deep.
When deploring the terrible state of the art world today—Tolstoy’s word perverted is not too strong—we often look back to the Renaissance as a golden age when art and religion were in harmony and all was right with the world. But for many traditional thinkers, the Renaissance was the start of the trouble. Thus Maritain charges that “the Renaissance was to drive the artist mad, and to make of him the most miserable of men . . . by revealing to him his own peculiar grandeur, and by letting loose on him the wild beast Beauty which Faith had kept enchanted and led after it, docile.”
Thus, along with the shattering of the medieval cosmos and the flowering of Renaissance humanism, “prodigal Art aspired to become the ultimate end of man, his Bread and Wine, the consubstantial mirror of beatific Beauty.” How seriously should we take this rhetoric that fuses the ambitions of art and religion? No doubt it is in part hyperbole. But, like most hyperbole, talk of the artist as a “second god” is exorbitant language striving to express an exorbitant claim—a claim about man’s burgeoning consciousness of himself as a free and creative being.
We have to wait for Romanticism and the flowering of the cult of genius for the completion of this discovery. But the apotheosis of artistic creativity began long before the nineteenth century. With the rise of fixed-point perspective, which Alberti’s fifteenth-century On Painting first systematized and made generally available, the artist had entered into a new consciousness of his freedom and creativity. As Erwin Panofsky pointed out, the achievement of fixed-point perspective marked not only the elevation of art to a science (a prospect that so enthused Renaissance artists) but also “an objectification of the subjective,” a subjection of the visible world to the rule of mathematics:
There was a curious inward correspondence between perspective and what may be called the general mental attitude of the Renaissance: the process of projecting an object on a plane in such a way that the resulting image is determined by the distance and location of a “point of view” symbolized, as it were, the Weltanschauung of a period which had inserted an historical distance—quite comparable to the perspective one—between itself and the classical past, and had assigned to the mind of man a place “in the center of the universe” just as perspective assigned to the eye a place in the center of its graphic representation.
In this sense, the perfection of one-point perspective betokened not only the mastery of a particular artistic technique but implied also a new attitude toward the world. Increasingly, nature was transformed from God’s book of human destiny to material for the play of the godlike artist.
The closer one moved toward the present time, the more blatant and unabashed became the association of the artist with God. Thus Alexander Baumgarten, writing in the mid-eighteenth century, compared the poet to a god and likened his creation to “a world”: “Hence by analogy whatever is evident to the philosophers regarding the real world, the same ought to be thought of a poem.” And Lord Shaftsbury, who exerted enormous influence on eighteenth-century aesthetics, asserted that, in the employment of his imagination, the artist becomes “a second god, a just Prometheus under Jove.” Of course, as Ernst Cassirer noted in his gloss on Shaftsbury, “the difference between man and God disappears when we consider man not simply with respect to his original immanent forming powers, not as something created, but as a creator . . . . Here man’s real Promethean nature comes to light.”
Man’s real Promethean nature: If the artist in the modern age emerges as a second god, his divinity tends to close itself off from reality in order to clear a space for art’s fabrications. As such, the artist tends to draw close to the demonic, which Søren Kierkegaard astutely defined as freedom “shutting itself up” apart from the good. (“Myself am Hell,” Milton’s Satan declares in a moment of startling self-insight.) If, as Paul Valéry put it, “the artist’s whole business is to make something out of nothing,” then, unable to meet this demand, he will find himself wandering alone among the shadows cast by the world he forsook in order to salvage his freedom and creativity. Divinization gives way to demonization. The impulse behind this development has its roots in the demand for freedom in a world where freedom is increasingly eclipsed.
There is, in all of this, an implicit analogy between beauty and beatitude. Understood as a foretaste of beatitude, beauty affirms its place in an integrated ontological order; as the radiance of being, beauty subordinates itself to what it reveals. But emancipated from that order, beauty threatens to displace the totality it once illumined, conjuring a rival order of its own.
We do not need Nietzsche to tell us that the disintegration of the Platonic-Christian worldview, already begun in the late Middle Ages, is today a cultural given. Nor is it news that the shape of modernity—born, in large part, from man’s faith in the power of human reason and technology to remake the world in his own image—has made it increasingly difficult to hold the traditional view that ties beauty to being and truth, investing it with ontological significance. Modernity, the beneficiary of Descartes’ relocation of truth to the subject (Cogito, ergo sum), implies the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere and hence the isolation of beauty from being or truth. When human reason is made the measure of reality, beauty forfeits its ontological claim and becomes merely aesthetic—merely a matter of feeling.
At the end of his book Human Accomplishment (2004), Charles Murray argues that “religion is indispensable in igniting great accomplishment in the arts.” I have a good deal of sympathy with the intention behind Murray’s argument, but my first response to his claims for the indispensability of religion for art might be summed up by that Saul Steinberg cartoon in which a smallish yes is jetting along toward a large BUT. Murray has done a lot to insulate his argument: By religion, he doesn’t mean churchgoing or even theology, and thus he is right to say that classical Greece, though secular (one might even say pagan) in a certain sense, was nonetheless a religious powerhouse for the “mature contemplation” of “truth, beauty, and the good.”
I wonder. Is such contemplation necessarily religious in any but an honorific sense? Noting that our own culture is aggressively secular—the names Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein stand as beacons in humanity’s progressive self-disillusionment—Murray suggests that our modern disillusionment is essentially ephemeral, merely a stage in mankind’s spiritual maturation. The period from the Enlightenment through the twentieth century, he suggests, may well “eventually be seen as a kind of adolescence of the species.” Who can say? Kant thought that maturity came with the Enlightenment: Enlightenment betokened man’s coming of age, his “leaving his self-caused immaturity,” where by “immaturity” Kant meant the “incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.” The primary lack that forestalled full enlightenment was therefore not intellectual but moral: It was, Kant thought, a lack of courage to face up to the way the world really is.
There is plenty to criticize about the Enlightenment (just as there is plenty to celebrate), but my point is merely to question whether the symbiotic relation between great art and religion is as close as Murray suggests. Fra Angelico, a deeply religious painter, was a great artist, but then so was Titian, a conspicuously worldly one. Bach was a pious soul and was possibly the greatest composer who ever lived, but what about Beethoven? If he was religious it was in a vastly different sense. Jane Austen was conventionally religious in her personal life, but her novels achieve greatness through their secular wit and wisdom. Art and religion are both eulogistic words: Calling something a work of art endows it with a nimbus of value; the same is true of religious. But is that the same sort of value?
The twentieth-century Welsh Catholic poet David Jones had it right when he suggested that “no integrated, widespread, religious art, properly so-called, can be looked for outside enormous changes in the character and orientation and nature of our civilization”—changes, I think, that would be deeply at odds with our commitment to liberal democracy. Jones agrees that it would be nice if “the best of man’s creative powers” were “at the direct service of the sanctuary.” But that can happen only “if the epoch itself is characterized by those qualities.” It is not, he goes on to note, a matter of will: What is possible to the artist in the way of creating religious art “has little or nothing to do with the will or wishes of this or that artist.” Be a painter ever so pious, he cannot “change himself into an artist of some other culture-sequence.” Some things were possible in the Middle Ages that are not possible today.
The real threat to the arts, Jones thought, was the modern world’s increasing submission to technocracy, to a thoroughly instrumental view of life that had no room for what Jones called the intransitive—for the freedom and disinterestedness traditionally thought the province of religious experience, on the one hand, and aesthetic experience, on the other.
The disjunction is crucial. The priest and the artist, he says, might both be consigned to the catacombs, but they are separate catacombs. Religion aims at the perfection of the soul; art aims at the perfection of a work. We have no specifically Catholic art, Jones argued, any more than we have “a Catholic science of hydraulics, a Catholic vascular system, or a Catholic equilateral triangle.” W.H. Auden thought likewise: “There can no more be a ‘Christian’ art than there can be a Christian science or a Christian diet. There can only be a Christian spirit in which an artist, a scientist, works or does not work.”
We live at a time when art is enlisted in all manner of extra-artistic projects, from gender politics to the grim leftism of neo-Marxists, poststructuralists, and all the other exotic fauna who congregate around the art world and the academy. The subjugation of art—and of cultural life generally—to political ends has been one of the great spiritual tragedies of our age. Among much else, it makes it increasingly difficult to appreciate art on its own terms, as affording its own kinds of insights and satisfactions. Critics who care about art—even those who want to insist on art’s religious depth—are forced to champion art’s distinctively aesthetic qualities against attempts to reduce art to a species of propaganda.
At the same time we lose something important when our conception of art lacks a spiritual dimension. If this is what Murray meant when he suggested that religion, or at least serious attention to the ends of human life, is “indispensable in igniting great accomplishment in the arts,” we would have to agree. That is to say, if politicizing the aesthetic poses a serious threat to the integrity of art, the isolation of the aesthetic from other dimensions of life represents a different sort of threat. The principle of “art for art’s sake,” T.S. Eliot observed, is “still valid in so far as it can be taken as an exhortation to the artist to stick to his job; it never was and never can be valid for the spectator, reader, or auditor.”
By the nineteenth century, art had long been free from serving the ideological needs of religion, and yet the spiritual crisis of the age tended to invest art with ever-greater existential burdens—burdens that continue to be felt to this day. In Wallace Stevens’ words, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”
The idea that art should serve as a source—perhaps the primary source—of spiritual sustenance in a secular age is a Romantic notion that continues to resonate powerfully. It helps to explain, for example, the special aura that attaches to art and artists, permitting such poseurs as Andres Serrano, Bruce Nauman, and Gilbert & George to be accounted artists by otherwise sane persons. This Romantic inheritance has also figured, with various permutations, in much avant-garde culture. We have come a long way since Dostoevsky could declare that, “incredible as it may seem, the day will come when man will quarrel more fiercely about art than about God.” Whether that trek has described a journey of progress is perhaps an open question. My own feeling is that Eliot was right when he disparaged the efforts of such moral aesthetes as Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater to find in art a substitute for religion, “to preserve emotions without the beliefs with which their history has been involved.”
This much, I think, is clear: Without an allegiance to beauty, art degenerates into a caricature of itself; it is beauty that animates aesthetic experience, making it so seductive; but aesthetic experience itself degenerates into a kind of fetish or idol if it is held up as an end in itself, untested by the rest of life.
It seems to me that there are as many opportunities for confusion as for enlightenment in linking the ambitions of art and religion. There is much to bemoan about the state of art and culture today. Above all, there is a lack of seriousness underwritten by a lack of traditional skill. But in this sense, the emancipation of art from religion is less an impediment than an opportunity. As Auden noted in his reflections on Christianity and art: “We cannot have any liberty without license to abuse it. The secularization of art enables the really gifted artist to develop his talents to the full; it also permits those with little or no talent to produce vast quantities of phony or vulgar trash.”
The triumph of the latter does nothing to impeach the promise and the achievements of the former. Man is the sort of creature whose nature is to delight in art and aesthetic experience; I believe that he is also, by nature, a religious animala creature who becomes who he really is only by acknowledging something that transcends him. These different aspects of humanity will often conspire, but we do both a disservice if we blur or elide their essential difference.
Roger Kimball is co-editor of the New Criterion, publisher of Encounter Books, and author of several books, including The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the American Enterprise Institute and published in the newly released volume Religion and the American Future (AEI Press).