instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, July 31, 2006

Summing up

Over the past couple of weeks, a lot of arguments have been offered for why an original work of art should never be altered by anyone but the artist. I think the arguments can be generally categorized as being based on justice (e.g., altering misrepresents what the artist said, or offends against his dignity, or interferes with his right to participate in the cultural conversation), on prudence (e.g., altering results in a loss to culture, altering is an act of hubris), and on art (e.g., altering interferes with sub-creation and the mediation of a particular insight into truth and beauty).

I answer that, an artist is an artist insofar as he actually makes things (either things generally, if you're defining "art" broadly, or specific kinds of things like paintings and plays, if you're defining "art" narrowly). Justice is the virtue of giving to another his due. We can only talk about justice toward artists, then, in terms of the things they actually make.

And since the things they actually make are particular things, we can only speak of justice towards artists-as-artists in particular terms -- which is to say, in regard to works of art that have particular qualities. Since, given any set of particular qualities, an artists could make a work of art that lacks this set, it follows that there are no completely general principles of justice toward artists-as-artists.

That said, the artist's vocation to reveal beauty and truth in his work must be taken into account in making prudential decisions involving works of art, be they decisions to apprehend, to display, to conceal, to engage, to alter, or to destroy. The value of a work of art is to be judged according to different standards than those used to judge the value of, say, a bridge or a financial statement.

Given all this, I think the arguments against alteration can be reclassified into these three groups: romanticized but specious claims of special rights for artists; asserting various implications that follow from a work of art possessing certain qualities, which necessarily presupposes some artistic and prudential judgment of whether a particular work possesses the qualities; and insisting that the implication following from a work of art possessing certain qualities be applied to all works of art, for fear that an improper judgment might be made in a particular case. Note that none of these groups contain a valid, general prohibition on altering an original work of art.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Obligatory blogging warning

Expect blogging to occur the next few weeks...


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.


Monday, July 24, 2006

A case in point

One of the best-known examples of a work of art being modified against the wishes of the artist is Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment." From the moment it was first seen, the nudity of the figures was controversial, and after the Council of Trent decreed (twenty-some years later) that "nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous," was to be placed in a church, various draperies were added to cover the more indecorous elements.

Nowadays, Michelangelo is generally held to have been right, and efforts have been made to restore the work to its original form. We snicker at the prudishness of those sixteenth century philistines (one of whom wound up immortalized in the lower part of the painting).

But, really, why do we think Michelangelo was right? On what do we base our judgment? My guess is that everyone's reasons can be looked at as based in part on particulars, in part on principles, and in part on prejudices.

A particular reason would hold that, in this case, the nudity happens to be better than the drapery, that for this fresco on this wall in this chapel, Michelangelo's version is superior. It may be "better" or "superior" because it's a better work of art, or even simply because Michelangelo was a better artist than those who followed him, and the more we can experience his vision the better.

The prejudices are obvious and can be expressed in either particular (e.g., "Michelangelo knows best") or general ("Prudes are losers") terms.

What I'm really interested in are the general principles that might be proposed for thinking Michelangelo was right. This is, I think, something of a stressing situation: it's a commissioned work, so the artist isn't free to do absolutely anything, nor does he own it afterwards; it's a fresco, so it can't be moved; it's for a chapel, so it can't be profane or indecorous; it's for a pope, which raises unique concerns for scandal.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ceci n'est pas un post

I need to read up at Flos Carmeli and Zippy Catholic, reread the blessed John Paul II's Letter to Artists, and maybe do some thinking, before I figure out what if anything I have to add to the "justice for artists" discussion. For now, let me just state a few brief impressions:

First, Steven's terrible experience of having a poem stolen and changed against his will strikes me as fundamentally a matter of verbal, not artistic, injury. It was wrong, not because of the inviolable integrity of Steven's poem-as-poem, but because it misrepresents the, to use an utterly inartful term, speech act he encompassed in the poem. It would have been equally bad had it been done to a transcript of a speech Steven gave.

Second, and relatedly, I will surprise no one by revealing that I suspect the old scholastic distinction between prudence as right reasoning about a thing to be done and art as right reasoning about a thing to be made will turn out to be helpful. (It's related to the first point since a speech is a matter of prudence, while a poem is a matter of art.)

Finally -- and I may have made this point before -- some of the complaints (such as about the Disneyfication of Kipling and Milne) amount to complaining that messing about with a work of art resulted in an inferior work of art. But if the thesis is that you ought never mess about with a work of art, the reason can't be because of the inferiority of the result unless the result is always and everywhere inferior. Otherwise you're just complaining about individual examples, not arguing for a general principle.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Heroic islands

Let me reach back into the distant past to recall a comment made by Matthew Fish, defending his examples of "what the islands and oases [of Catholic culture] we need should look like" against my criticism:
I did not mean to imply that one must go to Mexico or the Lord's Ranch; I think it was clear from my post that it was a suggestion. It might even be a heroic (and not normative) one. But I'd like to think that suggesting the heroic is always praiseworthy, and indeed informs and shapes the normative, as long as you do not exclude the possibility of the normative ("normative" of course being a far fuzzier concept).
Here he joins with an "and" an idea I agree with and an idea I disagree with.

To begin agreeably, yes, the heroic does inform and shape the normative. I think it is too easy to view them as completely separate categories, rather than imprecise and sometimes overlapping points along a spectrum. The evangelical counsel of poverty, for example, is something lived in its full expression by only a few, but that doesn't mean poverty means nothing for those who do not make that vow.

Moreover, I have sometimes seen what I think is a too-quick spiritualization of poverty. While it is possible to be rich in material things and poor in spirit, this point is sometimes made as though what's great about it is the "rich in material things" part. If we don't allow our normative understanding of poverty to flow freely into our heroic understanding, we risk dividing them, at the cost of an anemic and ultimately worthless normative understanding.

That said, suggesting the heroic is not always praiseworthy. Certainly suggesting the heroic as though it were normative is wrong, both in itself and in its possible effect of despondency on those who, not called by God to heroism, are yet told by another that it's that or nothing. Given the choice between doing something you can't do and not doing it, most people are going to choose the latter.

(It might even be argued (or at least proposed; I don't know how strong the historical argument would actually be) that a heroism-as-normative approach to catechesis contributed to an attenuated view of the lay vocation in the history of the Church. If what it means to be holy is to be burned to death on an iron grill for your faith, then there aren't going to be many holy housewives and tradesmen.)

In order for the heroic to inform and shape the normative, there needs to be a normative to be informed and shaped. Note: to be informed and shaped, not disparaged or set up merely to contrast with the heroic.

Furthermore, just as I can easily ignore a suggestion of heroism to which I am not called, thereby also dodging the universal call to the normative, I can cheaply and indifferently offer a suggestion of heroism to others, thereby perhaps dodging a responsibility to instruct others on their normative calling.


Friday, July 14, 2006

I know what I don't like

Kathy Shaidle passionately defends the rights of moviemakers against the actions of movie bowdlerizers:
Ned Flanders type Christians have to choose. Do they want their own counterculture, with its Veggie Tales and end times video games, or do they want to be able to sample "what normal people are watching" as well? Because they can't have it both ways. Then again, I doubt they are quite clever enough to even be bothered by the contradiction....

Yes, yes, I know: raising children is the most important job in the whole wide world. When you present yourselves to God at the End of Days, you are getting straight into heaven, while I, the childless arrogant artiste, is going straight to hell, shouting out, "'Ode to a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of little old ladies" as I tumble into the sulfur.

On that we are all agreed.

Now: back slowly away from the moviola or I will kill you with my pudgy little hands....

So let's be careful what we cut from movies, people. How do you know it isn't the bit with God in it? Are you really so very wise?
I think her "Which do you want?" argument is much stronger than her "God of the sex scenes" argument, which in turn is much stronger than her "You DO NOT deserve the movies" argument.

Regarding this last, the idea that the "physical integrity" of a commercial movie is inviolable doesn't really hold water. To accept it, we'd have a hard time explaining the existence of directors' cuts, the popularity of added and deleted scenes in DVD releases, the use of advanced screenings, the filming of alternate endings, and most importantly the fact that Hollywood moviemaking is a business. And since the idea would make it wrong for me to skip past the romantic ballads when I rent Horse Feathers, the legal basis for denying third-party editors the right to do what they want can't be grounded in a fundamental moral prohibition against modifying a work of art.

As for the question, "Are you really so very wise?," I'd say the answer is, "Pretty much, yeah." I don't think it takes much wisdom to determine that, for example, changing a line of dialog to "Forget you," is not an assault on a joint endeavor between Mankind and the Holy Spirit.

It can, though, be bad art, which is why I think third-party editing is a silly business (in the literal sense of "business"). My suspicion is that, in most cases, what's left after editing out objectionable elements (whoever determines what's objectionable) isn't much worth watching. If, considered as a work of art, a movie is bad enough that chunks of it can be cut without loss, the badness is likely to pervade the whole movie, even the parts no one finds objectionable.

My position in brief: Filmmakers have the right to control production of their films, not because films mediate God's grace nor because integrity is inviolable, but because -- and therefore only to the extent that -- the films are the property of the filmmakers. Any categorical argument from art is going to fail, since filmmakers aren't categorically better artists than filmwatchers.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The height of madness

St. Thomas begins his Summa Contra Gentiles with a discussion on the nature and function of wisdom in human life. In Book I, Chapter 3, he explains the difference between faith and reason as means by which we determine what is true. On the reasonableness of accepting truths of faith in addition to truths of reason, he writes:
As therefore it would be the height of madness in a "plain man" to declare a philosopher's propositions false, because he could not understand them, so and much more would a man show exceeding folly if he suspected of falsehood a divine revelation given by the ministry of angels, on the mere ground that it was beyond the investigation of reason.
Put baldly, it's easy to agree that the opinion, "Whatever I don't understand can't be true," is irrational. But it can also be easy to fall into this opinion unwittingly, by not realizing that you don't understand something. "It's not what you don't know," as [insert homespun American humorist] put it, "but what you know that ain't so."1

And the easiest way to not realize you don't understand something may be when the thing you don't understand is expressed in words you use, but understand differently.

If, for example, someone says, "Aseity calls for nonisity," almost no one will seriously reply, "It most certainly does not!," because almost everyone will realize they have no idea what, if anything, that statement means. If, on the other hand, someone says, "Wives must be submissive to their husbands," a lot more people will with a lot more confidence reply, "They most certainly need not!"

The need to come to terms with someone -- to understand what he is saying before evaluating it -- is more evident when the term means nothing to me than when it means something. It's easy to forget to check that the term means the same to the person using it as it does to me, and the consequences are often me saying something idiotic.

1. The term "plain man" in the quotation from SCG translates the perhaps more expressive Latin word idiota, which literally means someone who can only speak his native language. Hence my custom of using "idiot" to mean "someone who talks about something without realizing he doesn't know what he's talking about."


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Gimme that old-time oasis

The Way of the Fathers (which should run in every church bulletin) calls attention to the Letter to Diognetus, a Second Century work of Christian apologetics. You can read the whole thing in twenty minutes, but let me call attention to this passage, excerpted on the Vatican website, which offers some insight into how Second Century Christians answered the sorts of questions discussed in the comments on this post below:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life... With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory....

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

.... The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian's lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.
I'd say we've got the first six words down pat.


Friday, July 07, 2006


Eve Tushnet is matching movies to the Ten Commandments. My first thought was The Postman Always Rings Twice for the Sixth Commandment, and Double Indemnity for the Fifth Commandment, but really either goes with either, and you can throw in the Ninth Commandment for both, too. Oh, and Mildred Pierce for the Fourth Commandment. Heck, the complete works of James M. Cain for all of them.

From Kathy Shaidle:
Must be seen to be believed
The Statue of Liberation Through Christ

Bad Protestant "art". (Sigh).
Even thusly warned, I gasped at the sight.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

You first, me never

Pope Benedict XVI has occasionally and variously expressed the notion that the renewal of the Church will start small. We have this, for example, from a meeting with the youth of Rome and the Lazio region this past April:
Since a consumer culture exists that wants to prevent us from living in accordance with the Creator's plan, we must have the courage to create islands, oases, and then great stretches of land of Catholic culture where the Creator's design is lived out.
Matthew Fish uses this as an epigraph for his blog Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, and presents some of his thoughts on what these "islands" and "oases" might look like here:
For starters, here are two examples:
The first, The Lord's Ranch, a community of Catholics outside of El Paso that serve the poor of Ciudad Juarez, and includes many families in the ranch that have grown up and lived there....
A second is Family Missions Company. Maybe moving your family to a small village in Mexico and giving the remainder of your life to the service of the poor and evangelization, is in fact, the best thing for your family too!
Yes, and maybe it is in fact the worst thing for your family!

As a tertiary, I am in the habit of interpreting various statements "according to my state in life," as the expression goes. I do not find it in the least difficult to apply Pope Benedict's words to my suburban American life -- a life with an inherently "vicious nature," according to Matthew, "inimical to real human flourishing" we choose because "we've got to make money. Money, money, money."

The application is this: I must form an oasis in my heart, given over to God's plan.

There. Not terribly radical, not terribly romantic, not an act people fifteen centuries from today will cite as the reason Western civilization survived. But it does have the advantage of being God's will for me, or at least the next step in His will.

It is the following step in His will that I move my family to a small village in Mexico? I gotta say, I don't see it. Maybe because of all the "obstacles to grace" Matthew would say I've surrounded myself with in Suburbia. Or, then again, maybe because it's not the following step.

The choice between vicious suburban cesspool and Mexican white martyrdom is a classic false dilemma, and it breaks in the classic ways, too. People who haven't counted the cost go to Mexico and fail; people who have remain home and do nothing.

Perhaps I'm misreading the Pope, but I don't think he's insisting on a reclamation based on extravagance-or-bust. That lets the non-extravagant -- always the majority of the Church -- off the hook. In fact, it lets the Church off the hook, by writing off her presence among the economically comfortable as at best unimportant.

(And there might even be a reason for the absence of any good examples of an old-time Catholic Worker farming commune out there.)


The rub

The response to my unoriginal invitation, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him":
You go first!
Which, as the responder may know, is usually my response when others extend similar invitations to me.

A lot of truth is packed into that response. There's the hint that even if the inviter does go first, the responder won't go second. There's the acknowledgement that accepting the invitation is a good idea, and the confession that it's a very difficult thing to do. There's the challenge to the inviter: is he all talk? There's the accusation against the inviter: he hasn't accepted his own invitation yet.

Ridicule directed at a nutritionist who doesn't follow his own recommendations may not harm anyone else, but if ridicule is directed at his recommendations, then -- assuming they were sound -- he has harmed those he set out to help. Better to be silent than to scandalize people against a healthy diet. Much more so with spiritual and moral truths.


Monday, July 03, 2006

A triolet for St. Thomas
Let us also go,
That we may die with Him.
If you wish it so,
Let us also go.
Though we be brought low
Far from Jerusalem,
Let us also go,
That we may die with Him.


The Seventy Percent Solution

I'd guess most Americans who have spent much time in Catholic Internet haunts have come across references to the infamous statistic that 70% of Roman Catholics think the Eucharist is just a symbol.

I've always been skeptical of that number. Sure, there are bound to be some freethinkers who attend Mass, but nowhere near seven in ten, and even they have to know what the Church teaches.

Which raises methodological questions. How was the poll conducted? Were "raised Catholics" included? What were the questions? Would I have given the answer the Church gives? I've even seen an on-line piece that examines the actual poll and finds it confusing and poorly written -- at least if the goal is to get a good handle on the percentage of Roman Catholics who think the Eucharist is just a symbol.

And yet. In recent weeks I've encountered several people who not only thought the Eucharist is just a symbol, they thought that's what the Church taught. When they found out otherwise -- that "'this is my body' means 'THIS IS MY BODY,'" as Monsignor Tom Wells put it -- the reaction wasn't, "Don't be ridiculous," but, "This changes everything!"

I am reminded of Servant of God Fulton Sheen's statement that not one hundred people hate the Church, but millions hate what they think she is. There may be more than one hundred Catholics who knowingly reject the Church's most basic teaching on the Eucharist, but if there are even one hundred Catholics who don't know it, that's too many.

The solution seems to be: Tell them. We can worry about the obstinate after we've instructed the ignorant.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Settling disputes

The commentary on my previous post prompts me to record the following heuristic that can be applied to any disputed theological question:
  1. If the Jesuits and the Dominicans agree, then they're right.
  2. If the Jesuits and the Dominicans disagree, then the Jesuits are wrong.
  3. If the Dominicans are wrong, someone misinterpreted St. Thomas.
The "someone" in step 3 seems usually to be BaƱez, poor fellow, although I've seen John of St. Thomas get it in the neck once or twice. That's the problem with being the Master of your generation: your mistakes live on under your name, while your true contributions become simply what everyone knows.