This is a guest post by artist and critic Brian Prugh, at least partly in response to a discussion we recently had on art criticism that I recently wrote about.
The triumvirate of the true, the good and the beautiful is oft-repeated in calls for a rejuvenation of a genuine Catholic art. But when critics get going, the emphasis often falls on these terms in the reverse order: Beauty first, getting most of the press, then goodness, and finally, if mentioned at all, truth. And the secret to a renaissance of a new Catholic art, we are told, is beauty [see Scruton].
This common approach to art is actually backwards—distorting our sense of the Catholic art of the past and of our task as Catholic artists and critics of the present. To get a sense for the problem, let’s consider art that wants to be (1) beautiful, (2) good and (3) true.
There are two definitions of “beautiful” that I find helpful – St. Thomas Aquinas says that the beautiful is “what gives pleasure on sight” and the Platonists define beauty as “the splendor of truth.” In any event, if the focus is on beauty first, the natural emphasis is on the pleasure and the splendor. The problem with art that primarily creates pleasure and is splendid is that there’s nothing to keep it from being vacuous. Jacques Maritain somewhere defines academic art as art that seeks to be beautiful first—and I think he’s right. If you strive to be beautiful you will almost certainly succeed in being vacuous. Consider Bouguereau or Vogue: both are full of beautiful, empty images. If you model your life on the Truth, you might (and often do) appear ugly. The danger of an obsession with beauty is that it can overestimate the value of appearances.
The second term, “good,” implies something that is good of its kind. If I want my painting to be good, it needs to be a good painting. This has lots of craft connotations – it needs to be well made. But let me tell you what happens when the exclusive focus of your artistic formation is to make a “good painting” or a “good poem”: you get lots of extremely well-constructed things that look really good, but are meaningless or achieve dubious or potentially devious ends. Frankly, I think the world is flooded with “good” works of art, but is none the richer for them. The danger of an obsession with goodness is to overestimate material values.
The only term that is meaningful to me in my making or critical writing life is “truth” – I ask of my work, is it true? When I encounter other work, I ask whether it is true–and if so, what the truth is. The role of criticism is articulating the truth of the work. I’ve been looking at Giacometti’s portraits lately, and those are paintings that seem true to me–true about what a human is. They are, in a way, not “good paintings,” they are, in a way, not “beautiful,” but there’s more truth in them that I can bear to look at. And it is this truth that confers goodness on them; it is this truth’s austere splendor that I seek to become better able to see.The problem with Catholic criticism, and the subsequent ghettoization of Catholic art, is that it takes for granted what is True–something so basic as to not even need investigation, and so obsesses over how to make what we think is the “obviously true” good and beautiful. But this prevents us from really confronting the mystery that Christ is. If He is the Truth, and I believe He is, it’s a Truth that demands expression and that has never been fully expressed. It has barely been touched, even in the works of the greatest genius. I think Catholic artists are fools if they think they have the Truth and need only to express it well and beautifully.
I’ll take Eliot’s humility here:
But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the… (The Dry Salvages)
The responsibility of the artist is to make visible the very small thing that has been given, particularly, to that artist. We should expect that it will look like nothing given to any other artist that has come before (Christ is that big). It is the job of the artist to make it visible. It is the job of the critic to see it and fumble toward the best expression of it that he or she can. Beyond that there is nothing we can do: goodness and beauty will take care of themselves. They will be perceived when the truth is perceived. And greatness – that is not our business. We should neither desire it nor demand it.