Friday, 29 April 2022

Of Arts and the Animal 7

 A Christian Essay in Aesthetic Value

There is a category of works that give every appearance of being figurative, and that is narrative and descriptive works – novels, opera, ballet and so on – the truth, however, is that no narrative with a serious artistic purpose, or any aesthetic merit, is truly concerned with its ostensible subject but always addresses itself to the abstract ideals I have already mentioned. The ‘weasel under the cocktail cabinet’, the moral beast exposing whited sepulchres, is found with the Lamb in the tabernacle. The subject itself is utterly trivial; who can care what happens to fictitious people if their story illustrates nothing beyond themselves; if they are to hold any interest at all, it can only be because the narrative is packed with incident and sensation. Thus we distinguish ‘quality’ literature from the penny dreadful or pornography, and ‘legitimate’ theatre from grand guignol.

We may also see that the soap opera is a peculiarly low form of narrative; whilst the creation of the series involves a measure of artistry, to write an open narrative, without artistic purpose or resolution, in which the parameters of the characters are given in advance, appears to thwart the purposes of art by excluding self-communication or moral expression. On the subject of pornography, I should note that the legitimacy of representations of sexual matters depends upon two things, their place within the totality of the artistic concept, and whether the chosen medium and form are such that the representation is liable to being received in a discrete manner to the detriment of that total artistic vision. Hence a sexual act intrinsic to the purpose of the narrative, illuminating some moral truth to a high degree when depicted in balanced prose or music becomes pornographic when represented naturalistically on film or on stage: the Tristan chord does not titillate. Narrative genre is irrelevant to the question of value or quality. Humorous works are often altogether ruled out of consideration as artworks, but who could discount The Merry Wives of Windsor or Albert Herring? P.G. Wodehouse (a distant relative of Cardinal Newman’s) was as important an exponent of modernism (the literary style rather than the heresy) as T.S. Eliot: the intellectual landscape through which Bertie Wooster so breezily strolls is very much a Waste Land of the remains of a forgotten faith, the ruins of classical civilisation, and the wreckage of English letters.

My final observation with respect to narrative forms concerns music. The final verdict in Richard Strauss’ last opera, Capriccio, is that no verdict is possible in judging whether words or music takes precedence, prima le parole dopo la musica or vice versa. If both are artists, both writer and composer have artistic concepts or visions of their own, complementary but separate; it is a different matter entirely when a composer merely illustrates the drama, and his or her work is carried out at the service of the director’s artistic vision in the same way as the work of a cinematographer, a make-up artist or a set designer – this is music as craft rather than art.

The religious nature of artistic practice is evident also in that it is a search for truth, which is a search always for God Himself Who, incarnate in Christ proclaims that He is “The way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn.XIV 6). This search for truth is inherent in the nature of the artistic act as an act of communication; meaning must be, if not grasped, at least grasped at if it is to be conveyed. Artists such as Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky have equated their portrayal of universals, the divine ideas to which I have referred, with ‘the spiritual in art’, and Henri Matisse affirmed “the act of pure painting is a search for the absolute”.

By Prayer Crusader St Philip Howard 

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