Meaningless Art

Meaningless Art November 9, 2011

I have a new hero. He is a janitor at Dortmund’s Museum Ostwall, and he’s in big trouble for accidentally cleaning up a puddle that turned out to be an essential part of a 1.1 million dollar work of art. This piece…

…is now ruined.

And I’m roflin. I am instantly reminded of C.S. Lewis’ incredible essay, on Good Works and Good Work, in which he stated – with wonderful appropriateness to the current situation:

But […] I doubt whether we have a duty to “appreciate” the ambitious. This attitude to art is fatal to good work. Many modern novels, poems, and pictures, which we are brow-beaten into “appreciating” are not good work because they are not work at all. They are mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored or nor defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence. You have not learned your job. Hence, real honest-to-God work, so far as the arts are concerned, now appears chiefly in low-brow art; in the film, the detective story, the children’s story. These are often sound structures; seasoned wood, accurately dovetailed, the stresses all calculated; skill and labor successfully used to do what is intended. Do not misunderstand. The high-brow productions may, of course, reveal a finer sensibility and profounder thought. But a puddle is not a work, whatever rich wines or oils or medicines have gone into it.

Speaking frankly, C.S. Lewis is the man. He is the man because he understands that art is not the mere conveyance of self for the mere enjoyment of self. It is a gift to mankind. It is a symbol. It is a part of a triadic relationship between artist, art and viewer, not a dyadic relationship between art and artist, that the viewer – with luck – is let in on. This is a truth we must, must, must bear in mind when considering the art of the Church, whether it be our architecture, Stations of the Cross, crucifixes, tabernacles, or monstrances. Is it good work? Is man lifted up by it? Or are our creations mere artistic riddles one may or may not solve?

Take this, for instance:

Now the Traddy might get up in arms that the thing is blasphemous, but he’d miss the point. The point is that the very existence of any argument over the piece’s meaning, beauty, and appropriateness means that it has failed as a piece of work, no matter what it has achieved as a piece of art. No matter how potentially awesome it is, for the simple fact that it does not take into account the “existing tastes, interests and capacity” of the faithful, the work has failed.

It all comes down to a certain humility in creation. I, writing this post, could begin to spin and weave in my favorite Renaissance poetry so as to create within my words some artistic flair. (Actually, I couldn’t, but you get my meaning.) I might wring out of this writing some semblance of art. But that is not the point. The point is to convey.

And it is in that simplicity and humility of art that beauty is found. For one of the three principle parts of beauty is claritas, clarity or conveyance. If your work is unbelievably gorgeous but does not convey, it has failed in art’s great end; to be beautiful. And don’t be afraid to see this same principle applied in areas that aren’t considered artistic creation. In our relationships, our prayer lives, our families and our jobs, always we should consider the question; “Are we doing good work? Or are we mere spilled puddles, ambitiously seeking some end other than goodness, truth and beauty?” It’s worth mulling over.

So let us continue converting the entire world by way of beauty.

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