This essay hangs on a danger, a worry, a possibility that confronts each of us every day, but that is of particular concern to artists in their making life—a pitfall summed up in the thought that “maybe to perfect a thing is to destroy it.”* It’s the idea that I can lose my way as an artist even as I grow in my ability to make more perfect objects, to move with more perfect ease in the world, or to more perfectly execute a task or performance, because in perfecting some piece of my art, or of my life, I can perfect the wrong thing, and lose my art or my life in the process. It’s not hard to come up with examples: an elite artist whose meticulously crafted works for some inexplicable reason fall flat, lifeless, or a successful person whose impeccable exterior is a husk around a vacuum.
I have my own ideas for examples of each, but they are contentious, so I’m going to withhold them for now, favoring a more abstract treatment. I do this because pointing out the foibles of the self-assured and famous can be falsely empowering. What I really wanted to do in the first part of the essay was to make sensible the force of the questions: have I perfected the wrong thing? Have the artists I admire perfected the wrong thing? Am I actively cultivating perfection of the wrong thing in my work?
I want these questions to feel like hitting a bump in an airplane—stomach leaping into the throat, momentary pause of the heart—because indeed it is possible to devote one’s life to perfecting the wrong thing. It might even be common. And to say that this particular artist that I don’t like has perfected the wrong thing makes it possible for me to merely react, to apply the question only to other people. It turns art criticism to gossip, to mockery, to high-minded derision, and away from the direction it ought to be facing: oneself, in a spirit of self-critique or the “self-worry” which the French call souçi de soi.
So on the one side there is the wrong thing, this chasm, this possibility of failure, a genuinely treacherous drop without a guardrail that could claim my life if I make one false step or if a rock that I thought stable enough to support me should break loose and crumble under my feet. But of course, on the other side is the right thing, and that is what I will consider in this part of the essay. Following the mountain imagery, I might call this side Parnassus, that sheer face of rock that is the path of the artist and the source of poetry. And if I’m going to get anywhere here, I’m going to have to stay on the mountain, and I’m going to have to know where I’m going.
That’s why I’m searching for the end of art, the telos of art—so that I know which way is up, and so that I can discern what is a part of the mountain and a sure foothold, and what are the accretions sitting upon it that are likely to fall off. Mountain climbers, as they ascend, adjust their paths with an eye on the summit, and they don’t trust every rock; experience guides them as they fix their ropes to secure points along the way. So as I try to articulate the character of the right thing, the proper end of the work of art, I have to rely on my experiences to suggest the trustworthy places to fix me to the mountain.
And I suppose I have the good fortune to have had one experience in my life that was like a lightning bolt, when I saw something in a work of art in a flash—everything was illuminated—and it burned me, burned itself into me, and nothing was the same again. I had to change my life. That wasn’t the only significant experience I’ve had with a work of art, but it was dramatic and paradigmatic, and my other genuine encounters with works of art participate in the same conceptual categories opened up in that critical experience—only partially, perhaps, or in a slower, quieter way, but nonetheless active in the same space within my interior life.
I was nineteen, and it was my first time in a giant cosmopolitan city in a foreign country. It was also my first time in one of the “Big Five” international art museums. It was the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, and I was walking through a world that I had no idea even existed. Stepping on impossibly intricate wooden floors with elaborate alabaster nudes that held aloft improbably ornamented rafters looking down on me, I was dragging my jaw along the floor through rooms that boasted one masterpiece of western art after another. Here a room with probably fifty paintings by Cézanne. Paintings by Rembrandt and Raphael. Sculpture by Michelangelo. An absurdity of visual riches. I don’t think I can overstate my level of visual overstimulation when I walked by Matisse’s massive two-part mural, The Dance (II) and The Music. And at that moment, the lightning bolt hit. I was standing in front of The Dance, and I wasn’t looking at a painting anymore—I was looking into the heart of the heart of reality—I knew it because I could see the thing that I had always felt about the world, that I had always seen in it but that I could never put my finger on, a thing that seemed to separate me from the people around me to the degree that I began to think that I might be crazy, that this deeper dimension to life that I had long sensed might be my own psychological construction and that I probably just needed a little psychological repair to rid myself of. I could see it because Matisse could see it, and he put it into the painting. I could see it because Matisse had been able to make his vision visible for me to look through, to see that invisible reality hidden by the visible one—but not to be alone in seeing it, to see it with him, to see it together.
At the risk of an odd simile, it was like the independent verification of a scientific experiment demonstrating the existence of a long-theorized particle with definitive physical data. It was like a tight and beautiful proof of a long-suspected mathematical hunch. Or it was like the boat floating off the straps of the lift when it’s set into the water after fixing a hole in the bottom. This swirling uncertain sense about things that I had on the inside was suddenly and immediately visible on the outside.
I could see it: reality, the deep truth. Now, I couldn’t hold on to it, but the experience was hugely formative for me—I knew it was there. No one could take that away from me. And it set me on a journey to find the thing that I had glimpsed, and I knew almost immediately that I would have to find words to articulate what happened in front of that painting. It’s been twenty years, and I’m just starting to see it clearly. But I’m going to stop here, at the outside of this experience, as it were, and say only that this moment is a place where I will fix my rope. I will say that this is an example of a work of art that has perfected the right thing. And that I can tell this because that flash, that illumination, that vision into the depths of reality, and the concomitant imperative to change my life in the wake of it—these must be the fruits of an art that has perfected the right thing.
I have described this experience from the outside, and I have identified two prominent characteristics of an encounter with what I believe to be a work of art that has perfected the right thing—the sudden deep vision and the need to change my life. I have presented them intertwined because that is how I experienced them. I don’t think this is accidental, and it has shaped my sense of what the right kind of “thing” I am looking for is going to be. So what I am holding on to right now, experientially, is an account of a genuine, true, good—and surely also beautiful—work of art as it lives in communion with a viewer. It is an intimation of an end to which any work of art could aspire.
To ask the question “What is the right thing?” is to ask after the proper end for the work of art, an end intimated by my experience with The Dance. It is to search for the end of art just as Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas searched philosophically and theologically for the end of man. What should the work of art do? It isn’t a question about what art can do—because art can do many things, just like I can do many things—and many of these things are not what art, or I, should do. Contained within that question, and any account that will answer it, is an account of the good art, of an art that does what it should,of an art that is perfected in the right way. To me, this is the only question about art that ultimately matters at all. I want to know the good art, and I want to make the good art, just like I want to know and live the good life.
Unfortunately, most discussions (in philosophy and art theory) that I looked to for a conceptual grounding that would address these questions didn’t approach art with the kinds of categories I would need to make sense of my experiences, or the sense I had for what these paintings that so powerfully shaped my world were doing. Throughout my searching, I’ve encountered many poetic and pregnant descriptions, aphorisms, and unfinished thoughts that seemed right, if underdeveloped—as well as much confident, clear prose that I felt missed the mark or only charted one piece of the territory. I never intended to begin an attempt to articulate this thing afresh, because obviously there has been a great deal of thinking in the past that bears on this question. My problem is just that the particular spot where I have found myself stranded happens to be a spot where most of the better-worn paths I am aware of don’t pass by.
So I find that I need to begin again, and that the natural place to begin is with the end of art. As I am beginning at the end, I should acknowledge that this is the place Jacques Maritain begins in Art and Scholasticism, and that he develops in multiple essays and books, including Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. Maritain is able to solve a variety of thorny conceptual problems by arguing that the end of the work of art, the telos of it, is the work itself. And this makes a certain amount of sense: there’s an obvious way in which, for example, it is the painting itself that absorbs all of the painter’s thoughts and movements, the canvas stretching and the color mixing and the brushing, the wiping and the scumbling, the cleaning of the brushes to get those pure, clear hues. All of this activity ends in the painting in a very important way. But I’ve long been struck by a simple observation that Richard Wollheim makes in Painting as an Art, namely that all of that work on the painting is meant to be looked at, and that even if the painting never makes it out of the studio, the painter looks at it, and it’s not really complete without that looking. Which is just to say that whatever work goes into making the physical object doesn’t make any sense without it being looked at, that the work isn’t really completed without the looking.
However powerful and helpful Maritain’s thinking about the end of art might be, it stops just short of the space between the work and the viewer, the space where the work finds its fulfillment. For good and for bad, this means that his analysis stops just short of the place where things get really messy, in the space between the work and the life—just short of the place where the work enters into the world of human affairs.
This gives him tremendous conceptual leverage, because the work is a far more stable fulcrum than the unstable spaces between the life of the artist, the work, and the life of the viewer, reader, or audience. I fear that Maritain’s idea of the work as end, despite its incredible clarity and power, and despite the fact that it has been greatly influential for my own thinking, too easily encourages the perfection of the wrong thing, and that a truer analysis, an analysis that would lay hold on the right thing, must push the work of art out into the life of the viewer, into a space where the work and the viewer meet, with all of the messiness that this entails. It might be still truer to say that Maritain has latched on to an activity that is nested within the broader production and meaning of the work of art. If we accept this, we can affirm with Maritain the value of the well-made thing, but we are still left to conduct our own search for a robust account of what happens between the work and the viewer. Early on in my life as an artist and a thinker about art, I had a hunch that some understanding of what I valued in my experiences with art and what I was reaching after in my own work, my sense for the proper end of art, for the right thing, had gone missing in contemporary conversation. I had the feeling that it was one of those things that “has been lost and found and lost again and again,” to use a phrase from Eliot’s Four Quartets, and that is currently somewhere we can’t seem to locate. I just knew that somewhere there must be remnants of a lost history, a lost theory, that held the answers to my questions. So I went looking for it. I moved to New York with the hope of uncovering a lost sense of what painting was that had been preserved in artists’ studios even as it had been erased in the critical literature. I continued to search philosophy, and eventually I turned to art history, looking for the lost key, a cultural understanding of art as the thing that I knew it could be. I found myself studying the birth of Christian art in late antiquity. I had a hunch that the monumental shift in cultural self-understanding occasioned by the widespread adoption of Christianity might shake something loose. And it did: in one of the foundational primary texts of the era, St. Paulinus of Nola describes his intention for a cycle of paintings that maps almost perfectly onto my sense for the proper end of art, that evoked something of the substance of my experiences. The art of this time and the thinking surrounding it was faced with the urgent need to impress the felt truth of the new faith on the masses of unbelievers or new believers, many of whom were highly educated. These conditions created a kind of intellectual and artistic crucible for a new art for a new vision of reality that would be judged or tried against the most exacting of intellectual standards. It was an art with no momentum, so it had to be real, it had to be true, in order to be effective. Only the good art could do what art needed to do at that point in time, which is why, I think, there was a working concept of the good art in the air that had been internalized by the patrons and artists of this incredibly fertile time in art history—and so it should perhaps be no surprise that it is in this context that this working concept pushed its way out into the world in the form of a letter by a poet-saint.
I’d like to take a closer look at the passage and tease out the understanding of art that I think is there, making the case than an understanding of the end of art that I am searching for has been there since the beginning of the Christian artistic tradition—and even before, amongst the deepest foundations of western culture. Here’s St. Paulinus in a letter to the Bishop of Nicetus about the paintings to adorn the pilgrimage church of St. Felix:
…it seemed to us useful work gaily to embellish Felix’ houses all over with sacred paintings in order to see whether the spirit of the peasants would not be surprised by this spectacle and undergo the influence of the colored sketches which are explained by inscriptions over them, so that the script may make clear what the hand has exhibited. Maybe that, when they all in turn show and reread to each other what has been painted, their thoughts will turn more slowly to eating, while they saturate themselves with a fast that is pleasing to the eyes, and perhaps a better habit will thus take root in them, because of the painting artfully diverting their thoughts from their hunger. When one reads the saintly histories of chaste works, virtue induced by pious examples steals upon one; he who thirsts is quenched with sobriety, the result being a forgetting of the desire for too much wine. And while they pass the day by looking, most of the time the beakers are less frequently filled, because now that the time has been spent with all these wonderful things, but few hours are left for a meal.
It’s important to remember that this was written in the late fourth century, before the flowering of medieval art and the Renaissance, and long before the Romantics got it into their heads that an encounter with a work of art could be a world-changing experience. So it should be a little surprising that Paulinus’ story about what will happen in front of his paintings sound so much like my own recounting of my experience in front of the painting by Matisse or that high-water mark for the life-changing potential of art encapsulated in Rilke’s famous poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” There, Rilke latches onto that thing like a fire burning inside the sculpture that, if it was not there,
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.”
Rilke’s poetic description of a luminous fire bursting forth from the sculpture—a firethat sees you and that demands change from you, in you—is perhaps more compressed than Paulinus’ story of the pilgrim transformed by the paintings. But Paulinus’ extended thought maps pretty tightly onto Rilke’s revelatory moment, which in turn encapsulates an experience much like my own in front of the painting by Matisse.
Paulinus hopes that his pilgrims will be “surprised” by the spectacle (that it will, like Rilke’s torso, “dazzle” them), that they will become so absorbed in the paintings that they lose all sense of hunger (“their thoughts turn more slowly to eating”), thirst (“their beakers are less frequently filled”), and even time (“they pass the day by looking”), and that they change. And the change is not superficial, but very deep, occurring as it does at the level of habit (“a better habit will take root in them,” “virtue induced by pious examples steals upon one”). These paintings, if they fulfill their telos, will become a critical hinge in the life of the pilgrims—a turning, a twisting, a step on a truer path. God willing, the pilgrims will accept the imperative Paulinus presupposes to be contained in the paintings: “You must change your life.”
The suspension of bodily desires enumerated by Paulinus is indicative of how the work pulls them outside of the ebb and flow of day-to-day existence, holds them at an essential distance from life, a necessary distance, one that makes possible a certain kind of vision. Rilke’s poem is set within the same space of this distanced perception, within the seeing of the work. Because Rilke’s poem is almost entirely contained within a conditional, it takes place outside of time; it hangs on an elaboration upon what is possible—since the head of the torso has been lost to history, the only entrance of the poetic voice into time is the imperative, “You must change your life.” So there is present in the grammar of the poem the kind of remove that Paulinus enumerates from the outside, as if looking upon the pilgrims from a distance, watching them step out of time for a moment, only to be returned from the encounter a little different, oriented in a slightly different direction.
The torso holds Rilke’s attention, The Dance held mine, and so, too, Paulinus’ paintings hold the attention of the pilgrims (“they all in turn show and reread to each other what has been written there”). All of this sustained attention, the held gazes, the reading and rereading, the forgotten appetite, the ignored thirst, the lost sense of time, all of these are marks of something particular in human life and experience. And what describes this attitude—a moment in time and out of time, a moment when desire falls away, when, from the outside, you must look like you are doing nothing—better than Aristotle’s concept of contemplation? Here is Aristotle’s negative definition from the Nichomachean Ethics: “Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation?” It surely must not have been far from Paulinus’ mind when he penned the passage, conceptualizing the experience of his pilgrims as exiting the everyday practical sphere of action and production and entering into contemplation, bidden by the works of art, and held there in a kind of attention, through the paintings, to the higher things.
So here, at a critical moment in the history of western art, we have an articulation of the end of the work of art by an important patron—who is also a poet and a saint—in the language of Aristotelian contemplation, drawing out of a classical past a vision for an art fitting for a future of Christian expression.
Paulinus has described the work or art, if indirectly, as a handmaiden to contemplation: a call to contemplation, an occasion for contemplation, a vehicle for contemplation, perhaps a material trace of a “moment” of shared contemplation between the artist and the viewer, the writer and the reader, the musician and the audience (remembering of course that the artist is almost always the first viewer, the first reader, the first audience, and therefore the work remains a trace of the artist’s own contemplation even if the works are never seen or known). And as a servant to contemplation, the work of art is directly tied to man’s highest end as defined by Aristotle and refined by the Scholastics, understood to be the essential character of the beatific vision—what is left for humans in death, when all physical needs fall away. This fixes, philosophically, the proper location of the end of the work of art in service to the highest human end—and this is not a position articulated by a Rilke or even a hopeless romantic like me. Rather, it’s contained in the thinking of a fourth-century poet and saint, a sensitive artist and true devotee to the burgeoning Christian faith.
And this means that the account of the proper end of the work of art, the right thing that it should seek to perfect, is articulated right there at the beginning of the Christian artistic tradition, tied naturally in Paulinus to the classical tradition that long predates this moment, and indicates the axis around which the work of art can and should turn: contemplation.
For Rilke, the contemplation is of the light like a lamp that burst forth from the stone of the torso. For me, it is contemplation of the “really real” that I saw through the surface of Matisse’s painting. Paulinus himself has this wonderfully quirky phrase right in the middle of his account that is indicative of the particular contemplative space that he imagines to be opening, a space I’d like to attend to for a moment. He says of the pilgrims, “they saturate themselves with a fast that is pleasing to the eyes.” What could that mean, “a fast that is pleasing to the eyes?” And to “saturate” oneself in it? Fasts, by their nature, aren’t really much to look at—they are a lack, something missing, given up. The opposite of a feast pleasing to the eyes: there won’t be any grapes for the birds to peck at, like in Apelles’ famed pictures. No one likes to fast—it isn’t pleasant; that’s kind of the point. But it is efficacious—it bears spiritual (and many argue also physical) fruit. That’s the deeper truth about fasting, a truth that’s sometimes hard to perceive even while in the middle of a fast—when you’re hungry and constantly fighting the turning of one’s attention to food and drink. For a fast to be pleasing to the eyes, the spiritual side of it must become visible in some way. So whatever the painting is doing to make it happen, the viewer is receiving a vision of something normally hidden in the material world, where the goodness of a material nothing, of a lack, of a “giving up” is visible in some very real way that flows out of the painting like water that the pilgrims can “saturate themselves in.”
This is a fantastically interesting image, saturation. A dry thing takes a up a certain amount of space in the world, and then if it becomes saturated it takes up the same amount of space, except that all of the voids within it have been filled with water. It’s possible that it doesn’t even look different, but it’s fuller, denser, heavier than if it were dry. It’s a great image for the empty person who is suddenly filled with a spiritual insight and suddenly becomes more substantial. It’s a perfect image for what happened to me in front of The Dance.
The space Paulinus sketches is paradoxical: “he who thirsts is quenched by sobriety.” It’s a vision that digs under the skin of appearances, so that he who thirsts isn’t quenched by the apparent natural remedy (e.g., wine), but by the genuine deeper one (sobriety). So however it happens, and we don’t have the paintings to look at, what is seen in the paintings cuts deep into the heart of the heart of reality, it cuts deep like I maintain what I saw in The Dance cuts deep, deep enough to reveal the kind of fire Rilke perceives burning within the cold, stone torso. If I say I was looking into the heart of the heart of reality, if Rilke divines a living flame in the stone, and Paulinus can describe a saturation in what must needs be vision inflected by a high level of spiritual and intellectual consciousness, then at the heart of this kind of experience is a kind of vision of the real, the true—of contemplation in the presence of the work. This is what presses out of the work and into the space between the work and the viewer: contemplation, a contemplation purified in the vision of the artist and made visible in the work, visible to someone else looking at the work, visible in such a way that the viewer, too, enters into the contemplative space, the contemplative space that was the source of the work and the purifying force of the vision of the artist.
This is why we value works of art born out of a deep vision, that make visible wide wisdom. These works help us access the kind of deep human truth only visible to the wise—a truth that transforms, that makes visible the genuine value of things, that cuts through appearances to the true reality, the deep reality—a vision sharpened by wisdom, a vision that uncovers something that I must account for in my life. This is the work of art standing as a window onto the real, a portal into the true by which I organize my life, the really real that gives value to my actions.
What emerges out of all of this, out of Paulinus, out of Rilke, out of my own experience, is a picture of contemplation—contemplation occasioned by a work of art, contemplation facilitated by the work of art, made possible by the work of art, done through the work of art, and possible because the work of art is itself the product of contemplation. Contemplation is the thing, here: it is the beating heart of what is at stake in the good art. And so it is the thing that must be perfected if the work of art is to perfect the right thing.
Perfection of the right thing, then, is true contemplation made available in the work. Perfection of the right thing is perfection of human vision made visible in the work. Perfection of the right thing is the perfection of the self making the work and of the self encountering the work: of the person as creator and encountering creation. It is as much a glimpse of the beatific vision, of what is seen, as it is of the one seeing. The vision passes through the work from the artist to the viewer. The perfection of the vision is a perfection of the one seeing, in which he or she disappears in service of the vision.
And so even if there is one way that I can say that the end of the work of art is the painting, or the song, or the poem, this (to use a hackneyed metaphor) is just the tip of the iceberg, the thing that is visible on the surface of the great expanse below the surface, of that contemplation which only partially bursts into sight in the work, and which is enormous, and essential to see, and through which we can inhabit our true end, if only momentarily. This contemplation, which is the true end of man, is also the true and proper end of the work of art. And if this is right, it will surely place demands upon the work of art, upon what it can do and cannot do in order to reach its proper end. And this will allow us to search not only for the end of art, but for the means fitting to attain it as well. After I have identified the final end of my life, the next question to ask is how to live it. And so it is in this inquiry. The next question that presses upon me is this: how do I perfect the right thing? How do I make the good art?
* This phrase, from the novel Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, stood as the title of a previous essay on this topic that appeared in the Candlemas 2020 issue of Dappled Things.
Brian Prugh studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he met his wife Kristin, and painting and art history at the University of Iowa. He has exhibited work nationally, and his work is in private collections across the country. He has published criticism in The Seen: Chicago’s International Journal of Contemporary Art, The Miami Rail, and Codex, published by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, and he has started two small critical journals. He has received numerous awards and grants, including a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, a Mildred Pelzer Lynch Fellowship Award, and a grant from the Efroymson Family Foundation.