instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Trial principles

I've had a couple of suggestions in response to the request in the last post for "general principles that might be proposed for thinking Michelangelo was right" -- by which, now that I think about it, I really meant that the subsequent drapers were wrong.

Rob writes:
... when you consider the Pope's characterization of an artist as a kind of "sub-creator", and when you consider how poorly designed Man is in many ways from an "engineering" point of view, and yet that we are as we *should be* because that's the way God put us together, then perhaps the output of an artist should be left unchanged by others for similar reasons.
The thing that I think follows is that the artist (I think) has the right to say (like God), "The thing is as I made it." That doesn't, in the case of the artist mean that it's good. But it does mean (I think) that the artist has a the same kind of right to insist that his work not be modified without his permission as any father has to say, "Don't dare hit my kid." It doesn't mean that the kid doesn't need to be hit, but that the father reserves the right to do the hitting.
It's an interesting notion, I think, but it seems to be based on a faulty analogy. It draws attention to how sub-creation is to creation, when what counts is how sub-creator is to Creator.

Maybe the only thing the Manichees got right is that our attitude toward creation follows from our attitude toward the Creator. If the cosmos had been created by an evil demiurge, then hatred for matter would be right doctrine.

As it is, creation is good not because that's the way God put it together, but because the God who put it together is good. When "God looked at everything He had made," He didn't declare it very good, as though establishing a sort of divine positive law; "He found it very good."

But if it's the goodness (in fact, the perfection) of the Creator that determines how we ought to respond to creation, it's by no means incidental to how we ought to respond to sub-creation that the sub-creators are imperfectly good. The very step required by the analogy is where nothing analogous exists.

Along a somewhat different tack, Anonny proposes:
Art bears the mark of the artist(s), serves as an expression of some glimpse of beauty and truth in God's creation by a human person or persons, and enriches the culture and the common good. Art comes in the form of discrete, crafted works, the nature of which involves internal coherence even in fine details. Thus, out of respect for the artist, the nature of art and the importance of art to the common good, artwork ought to be received as the artist created it, to the extent such is compatible with the common good. At the same time, no artist has a right to have artwork be received at all by any particular group or individual, and on this basis, artwork may be rejected if failure to do so would objectively harm the good.
I think I can basically sign on to the spirit of this, but only because of the phrase "to the extent such is compatible with the common good." And once you've included that in your principle, it becomes a question of particulars: to what extent is this work of art compatible with the common good?

I would also want some caveats around the first two sentences. I would say the place of art is to enrich the culture and the common good by expressing beauty and truth, which as you see isn't the same as saying that art does these things. And the "internal coherence even in fine details" may be required of art (though I'm not sure how far I'd push the point), but I understand Anonny to be mentioning this with an eye toward arguing from an artistic perspective against even minor changes, and in that context I don't think "internal coherence" carries much prescriptive weight.

Still, there is something about the dignity of the artistic vocation to mediate beauty (if we can oversimplify) that calls upon a somewhat different set of common or general laws when we're considering a product of human reason from an aesthetic perspective rather than a practical one.

And just to be clear: By "the dignity of the artistic vocation to mediate beauty," I mean a distinct dignity of a distinct vocation. Whether or in what sense that dignity can be said to be higher than those of other human activities is a separate question.