The following thoughts are largely inspired by Rowan Williams’s Grace and Necessity.
1. Art is about making, not primarily about making a point. It is not fundamentally self-expression, or copying something that’s already there. It’s about constructing a new thing, an object.
2. If this is true, then the demands are imposed by the art itself, not by conformity to some pre-existing idea, or the good of the world, or some ideological propagantistic goal. Striving for something beautiful in some general way is not the goal of art. Good art attempts to be true to the work itself, to the process of making, to the materials used. The beauty that radiates from a work of art is the beauty of internal coherence and craftsmanship.
3. There is some biblical/theological support for this line of reasoning. Art is a making that imitates the making of God, and it is most godlike when it is purely gratuitous, when it is not meeting a need. What defines human making is the making of things that serve no biological or immediate function, when it repeats the needless creation of the world itself.
4. So, we can appreciate art objects as things, and don’t need to ask first of all what the object is saying or doing. First, there is the question, does it please? Does it delight? Is it beautiful? Does it cohere?
Thus far, a kind of art for its own sake. But yet, or for you Thomists, SED CONTRA:
There are two lines of argument that reintroduce the moral dimension of art: one from the perspective of artistic production, the other in terms of our response to it.
1. Art is not an expression of sheer will. Willfulness is not a healthy artistic trait. Willfulness in relation to the materials of the art will produce bad art. Art has to attend to the real: the world as it is, the materials as they are.
2. This is not to say that art is copying or that it is an effort at realism. The artist is always transfiguring reality in some fashion as he brings it into art. A landscape is transfigured from the landscape into paint, into two-dimensionality, into brush strokes on canvas.
3. The artist is always transfiguring, but this transfiguration is an attempt to get at dimensions of what’s really there, not an abandonment of what’s really there, even the artist is aiming at fantasy. Art attempts to highlight patterns, correspondences, dimensions to reality that are usually missed in our everyday experience, and to force us to look again at the sunflower or the pipe or the chair. As the Russian formalists say, one of the purposes of art is to defamiliarize the familiar.4. Thus, the artist is always making claims about reality, about what is true. It is not propaganda, but if he is faithful to the demands of the art itself, he is not forcing the materials of his art to conform to his will but responding to reality and making claims about it. So, the question inevitable comes up: Is the world offered in an artistic product congruent with what we know of the nature of human existence? That’s a moral and a metaphysical judgment.
5. As Christians, we believe that sensible reality is not a closed system. There is a transcendent God who has entered, and who does enter, into the world of perception. The finite is “wounded” by the infinite, and that is part of the reality that a Christian artist responds to and seeks to transfigure in art, one of the hidden patterns that a Christian artist attempts to uncover is the transcendent God hidden behind the veil of visible reality.
6. This means that an artist’s moral insight, and his capacity to see the rupture of creation by the Creator, will affect his art. An artist with no ear or eye for transcendence, who believes in nothing hidden, is going fail to render what is real.
And from the angle of our response:
1. The most complete delight in an art object, a thing produced by art, is a delight of the whole person. We are moral beings as well as intelligent and aesthetic beings, and we respond in moral ways as well as in intellectual ways.
2. Therefore, the most delightful, the most beautiful products of art are those that not only that are delight to the eyes, but also those works that are morally good. This is not to reintroduce propaganda through the back door. The artist is not aiming to uplift, but to be faithful to the materials and the making. But that faithfulness means responding to the real, to the way human beings are, to the way the world is, and the world is charged with the grandeur of God.