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Art, Aesthetics, and Beauty - H.R. Rookmaaker

Art, Aesthetics, and Beauty

by H.R. Rookmaaker
The modern schematization of the arts found its form in the eighteenth century. It distinguishes the fine arts from the applied arts or crafts, which without any well-defined boundaries are further differentiated from utensils, artifacts, etc., some of which in our days have once again gained some aesthetic significance under the heading of industrial design. Within the fine arts are distinguished the literary arts (prose and poetry), music, drama, dance, and the visual arts – architecture (which can be called ‘fine building’, since building as such is often not considered architecture), sculpture, and painting, together with the minor arts, graphics (woodcuts, engravings), and drawing. Under the applied arts are considered (fine) ceramics, tapestry, textiles, gold- and silverware, etc. These distinctions have been created mainly by the collectors of artistic objects, or with them in view, and by the art lover in general. The great tradition in European art, beginning with the Renaissance, looks to the work of art as the individual creation of an artist considered to be in line with poets, philosophers, and in general with men of letters. In other cultures and in the Middle Ages this system was unknown. The arts were considered under the artes technicae, distinguished from the seven artes liberales; in this system music was placed under mathematics, as a science of tones, and not as the actual music which was played or sung.
What is art? Is it to be defined by quality, or by structure? In the first sense a bad sculpture and a qualitatively poor novel are not art, while in the second they are, even if bad, art. The latter offers advantages, as the normative approach is clearer, and an analysis of the structure of art can be accomplished; so we may treat a painting simply as a painting and not as a work of ‘fine art’ nor as a nonentity, which would conflict with experienced reality.
Art can be defined as human-made beauty, and as such has much in common with natural beauty (cf. ‘Beauty’ below). The beauty of a human-made thing is directly related to its meaningfulness, which as such includes its function, but is never identical with it. An ornament is beautiful if it is meaningful, just giving the accent needed at that spot, making the structure and use of the thing it adorns clearer, and adding to life and beauty in the human environment. An abstract (non-figurative) playfulness with forms and colours can be beautiful and as such fascinating if it meaningfully makes the surroundings more agreeable, more humanely liveable, and at the same time serves the purpose of the environment.
But human art can also express something, often by depicting human or natural forms, telling a story, singing about a situation, and so on. This can be very meaningful: in this way we can honour the head of government or hint at a great tradition, as on coins or stamps, or focus attention on that which gives meaning to a certain building, as a picture of the judgment of Solomon in a courtroom (not uncommon in previous centuries). Good quality in the work chosen for such use is a prerequisite; a bad and cheap painting is detrimental to the function just described, and impairs its meaning.
Before our own times works were never made just for the sake of art; art for art’s sake is a very recent invention. A work of art was always given a meaningful place in a larger context. Think of the fountains by Bernini on the Piazza Navona in Rome, or the obelisk in the centre of Washington, D.C. Altarpieces, frescos with biblical stories, capitals on the columns of a building, mosaics on the floor, garden sculptures, all were chosen to play a meaningful part in a total human-made structure, in which they fulfil a function – although the fact that they can be taken out of context and still remain beautiful shows that one cannot equate beauty and function. On the other hand, one can only understand the full beauty, for example of a Roman Catholic devotional image if one understands its intended use and considers the way it answers a specific religious need. The function the work of art has to fulfil specifies its form and therefore its beauty. Even cabinet paintings and the little decorative sculptures one has in one’s room, which simply add to the humanity and quality of life of our surroundings, have a function that as such can never be equated with utility. In this we see a norm for art: it has to be in place. Marching music and chamber music can both be beautiful, but must be used according to their intended function.
The history of art shows that people have a need for depicting things dear or important to them – the human image itself, the portrait of the beloved, the animals around us, the scenery that is important to us. People depict the things directly around them, sing about things they know, tell tales of the social world in which they live. Or must we rather say that these things, to some extent, become dear to us through depiction? The picture of the window view, the tale about the garden well, along with the objects with which we surround ourselves, such as old cartwheels and old weapons, help build emotional contact with, as well as an intellectual understanding of, those people or natural things around us, our environment. In this way art is related to life. It ‘works’ in conquering realities for us, opening up their meaning, deepening our love for them, focusing our attention and discovering hitherto unknown aspects. Humanity with little or no (figurative) art is poor in its relation to reality (therefore one finds clean and empty unadorned spaces where mystical people meditate, just because they want to break their contact with reality).
Art in this sense is constituted by reality as such, and, on the other hand, by our vision and understanding of that reality. In the tension between these two lie our appraisal and appreciation of the work of art: we like to see our vision affirmed, but we look for the true, the natural and real. Contrary to most critics today, we do not believe that quality is the ultimate, and maybe even only, criterion for art. Quality is a prerequisite. When this fails, we never come to assess the really important questions. The what, not the how, is the final test; quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.
Of course, this content can only become true, real, and expressive in the technical and artistic achievement. One can never sever content from form. The content can only be experienced through the form and the form is created in order to express the content. In a good work of art one can almost say that form and content are an inseparable unity. Content here is more than only subject matter. Subject matter concerns that which the work of art talks about, while content means what it says about it. So a work of art – a song, a poem, a play, a picture – is not Christian by having a biblical theme, but is so only if the understanding of that theme shows a Christian mentality and inspiration. Many biblical stories are depicted in a humanistic or unbliblical sense, while a landscape or daily occurrence may be depicted in a Christian way with biblical insight. Only on this level can any discussion of Christian art be fruitful.
Aesthetics is the philosophical theory of beauty. Since the eighteenth century it was pursued in an almost rigid intellectual way aside from the realities of art, though today it often comes much closer to the practical issues of art theory. Both are thus considered to be very close to art criticism. Of course, the development of these theoretical activities has always been related to the arts as such.
In ancient times two philosophers stand conspicuously at the beginning of aesthetics, defining its problems and offering two different ways of approaching the arts that have had a long and deep influence. Plato defined the artist (speaking of the poet, and not at this stage the artist working in the visual arts) as a seer, someone who through inspiration could see the Ideas and express them. Aristotle, however, defined art as mimesis, in a direct relation to experienced reality; for him the artist must concern himself with matters of probability, necessity, coherence, and completeness. Xenocrates followed Aristotle’s art criticism, while the Romans adopted his main ideas in a classicistic art theory. The Neoplatonism of Plotinus, in which ‘beauty’ (and not in the first place ‘art’) was a key word, defined the basic ideas for aesthetics and art theory that have been decisive up to the twentieth century, often in the Christianized form of the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.
In the Middle Ages, particularly through the work of Thomas Aquinas, Aristotelianism again became influential. The arts as we conceive them today, however, were considered under the heading of artes technicae (technology). The function of the work of art was the first consideration, in which the following notions were considered: the narrative or literal, the moral, the allegorical and the analogical. By the latter was meant the influence of the work on the beholder, its Total impact, its motivation and direction, and it is the highest and deepest effect a work of art can accomplish. The universal was experienced in the perception of the work of art, and it was the universal that imparted beauty to it.
At the time of the Renaissance, art theory again reverted to Platonic or Plotinian concepts, in the work of Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Bembo, Michelangelo and many others. The sixteenth century is rich in art-theoretical treatises, either in the Platonic or, particularly in Venice, a more Aristotelian vein. The latter type became once again the leading factor in the art theories of the seventeenth century, when Agucchi and Bellori very strongly influenced the ideas of Poussin and the French academy. The main trend of these theories, stressing the imitative and the ideal combined with a high regard for the arts of Graeco-Roman antiquity, exerted a deep influence on the following centuries: on Winckelmann, neoclassicism and on nineteenth-century academicism. Meanwhile, a more subjectivistic stream had gained priority. Its roots lie in the beginnings of the Renaissance, which stressed disegno or conceptual form, the creative act of the artist. This moved the emphasis from the work of art to the artist. With Leonardo, the scientific, the intellectual and experimental were introduced. But with the Cartesian influence the aesthetic experience was more and more internalized and made resident in the subject. Taste and rationality, and now also feeling, were determining thought on art. In this time too the first philosophical aesthetics in the modern sense was written by Baumgarten, leading up to Kant who determined later aesthetics through his Critique of Judgment, surpassed in influence only by Hegel’s aesthetics.
The Romantic movement reacted against the rationalistic ideas, often reverting to Platonic or Plotinian ideas, with great stress, however, on the idea of the artist as a genius, as for instance evidenced by Schlegel, Schopenhauer, and Baudelaire, for whom the main motives were immediacy, intuition, idealization, inspiration and genius, while the symbolic replaced the older concept of allegory. Another line of thought in the nineteenth century is that of positivistic naturalism, particularly in Tame.
In the twentieth century, with Croce, Cassirer, Wittgenstein, and Susanne Langer, the stress is on language and symbolic expression. In addition much aesthetics is influenced by new psychological trends, or by phenomenology.
As a concept, beauty stands in a line with truth, love, reality, life, righteousness. Like these concepts it has a wide and all-pervading scope and importance and a tight definition is difficult. These universals however always manifest themselves in the particular, the individual, and the personal.
These concepts, moreover, are closely tied together, so that one cannot speak about one without also touching on the other. Beauty will always exist where there is truth, love, life and reality, while sin, lies,hatred and death (in its deepest sense), being negative realities, are ugly and lead to ugliness. In this sense a marriage, a group of people in their communal relationship, an action or an attitude can be called beautiful when they show love, unity, freedom, and so forth. In a certain respect one can call this ‘inner beauty’ (cf. 1 Peter 3:3), but it will also express itself in ‘outward beauty’, visible, perceivable beauty. At this point one can begin to speak about human-made beauty and art.
Beauty is always related to meaning and sense. In this it shows similarity to the beauty of nature, the distinctives of which also apply to beauty in human artifacts and in humanity itself.
Beauty in nature is related to meanings; for example, the tree is beautiful as a tree. Trees are meaningful as such, being created by God. They have a meaningful place in the total structure of nature, together with mountains, rivers, moon, sun and light, weather conditions, other plants and animals, the total ecological structure – humans not excluded. Trees have a definite function in this whole, yet we should not define their meaning in a functional way, for their meaning is more than the sum of their functions. The concrete meaningful reality of the tree in itself, not referring to anything outside the tree – except God – even if always open to all kinds of relationships with other creatures, constitutes its beauty.
The beauty in nature as God’s creation shows God’s ‘style’: endless variety and great unity. The unity is the result of the inherent simplicity of nature: for example, all animals have a few particular qualities in common, such as movement, perception (with a limited number of senses), feeding, breeding; some of these they have in common with plants too. Yet, within these basic simple structural patterns an almost endless variety of species, each having a specific place in the total ecological structure, is realized in creation. But the variety does not end here: even within one species each specific individual example is different from the others, not in a random way but in relation to its place and environment, to its own history, its relation to other representatives of the same or other species. In this way the beauty of nature becomes manifest in its meaningful totality, in which nothing is autonomous or stands by itself, yet everything has its own peculiarity and a meaning transcending the functional aspect.
It is a superabundant beauty, and as such is also open to people; in this God’s creative love is discernable (cf. Rom. 1:20), for human beings have been placed in this abundance to use it and to guard it (cf. Gen. 2:15). People discover its possibilities, giving it names and putting it to use. They have to do so in love and in reverence for God’s purposes and the meaning of things. Human creativity (as humans in the image of God) lies in the opening up of the natural possibilities by adding to life and, in love, creating new beauties; whereas sin is always detrimental to life, ‘wounds’ nature, brings death and results in ugliness. Here we can point to the ecological problems of our time. In the same sense people in their relation to others and to God can be creative in realizing harmony, mutual love, care, adding to life and enlarging its freedom, while sin leads to confusion, hatred, takes away freedom, leads to death and ends in ugliness. To act in truth, to do the truth (John 3:20f.), fulfils both life and freedom and inevitably also beauty.
Published in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable as a CD-Rom. and
Originally published as three entries in Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics by Carl F. H. Henry ed. (1973).