The Virtuous Artist: His Growth and Rarity (Illustration)
Do read the chart from bottom to top, please!
I’m looking forward to a more detailed discussion, perhaps of individual artists. Michael’s question about Albrecht Durer sent me looking to create a coherent shorthand description of the “territory of value” on which an artist might be placed. I wonder how our readers would place Durer within this scheme.
My most general suggestion here is that an artist can be quite solid without ever reaching those heights of rarity (of technique, of sensibility) that are most prized. Meanwhile, in order to reach those heights, one must build the lower levels up quite solidly. In other words, artistic achievement is really a pyramid rather than a triangle, and the top blocks can only be placed upon the bottom.
Frankly, most art appreciators will not be able to see the difference between art which reaches to near the top of the triangle and art which tops out just a smidgen down. (In just the same way, most foodies would not be qualified to judge a high-level sushi contest.) There’s enormous virtue in trying to see the difference, however. It’s better than noshing everyday on burgers that, gasp, have never been frozen. Nevertheless, it is the virtuous artist’s responsibility to provide something of substance within each work of art which can be appreciated on all levels, from the most common to the most rare, of which he is capable. That is, if he portrays a young girl, every good father should be able to see his feelings about his daughter in the painting, while the most exquisitely refined art collector should at the same time be roused to a feeling so rare and singular that no other work of art can thereafter be substituted.
The pretense among pseudo-cultured people for a long time, early in the last century or thereabouts, was that everything was worthless and bad which was not touching the top of the triangle. You had to go about pretending that you hated everything, so as not to look silly for inadvertently liking something that was not quite there. (A lot of people who think they are conservatives have only gone that far back, in fact.) Of course the problem with this pretense is that it generated a detached attitude. A lot of people got used to despising things that actually had a lot of virtue in them. It created a situation in which people subtly got turned around and stopped valuing things for their value, instead coming to value them for their status. Other people learned to sneer at the whole idea of cultivation, seeing the hypocrisy but not the standard from which that hypocrisy deviated.
(Art, let’s be clear, is education for metaphysical values. It is also a bank-deposit box for metaphysical values. Everyone deserves good art, or starts out deserving it. It is the human birthright.)
Around the middle of the century, the situation had developed. It was held then that you could detect good art by the way it floated at the tip of the triangle like a helium balloon, having utterly cut strings to the commonalities below. Art was weird and insubstantial, and the common man was left behind to, eventually, enjoy Thomas Kincaid. The main problem with this is that a soul of only partly refined sensibility can use Thomas Kincaid’s art to remind him of things he already loves, but he won’t, by contemplating it, be led to further reaches of artistic appreciation. I’ve nothing against Thomas Kincaid’s art but I don’t think it offers to stretch the sensibilities for most people who enjoy it.
Nearly any liberal would, of course, be immensely bettered by plastering his walls with Thomas Kincaid art posters.
Nowadays, the very soul of artistry is held to be contained within the eagerness with which an artist turns the triangle upside down, dumps out all the contents, and throws the whole thing as far as possible toward the abyss. This is ultra-liberalism; it is the combination of individualistic licentiousness with common barbarism. It is why the virtuous artist is, at present, a cultured conservative. Conservatism is there for when we get off the path. We’ve been off it for longer than any of us remember. We’ve been off it longer than miseducated people like Jonathan, for instance, are capable of believing.
A note: the phrase “soul’s nourishment” in the illustration above is used in opposition to the unspoken “spirit’s nourishment.” The spirit must be fed on Christ and his grace. If you want to nourish spirits, you ought to become a priest or monastic or religious teacher or something like that. The soul is the life of the body; the spirit is the life of the soul. If you want to nourish the soul, artistry is a very good way to do that.
Art, in other words, bears many resemblances to religion when contrasted to the merely physical. But art also bears many resemblances to the merely material (i.e. craftsmanship) when contrasted to the spirit. Art is not merely craft, and can never subside to that level and remain art. But also, art is not religion and can never replace the business of cultivating holiness.
Can art, then, portray religion? Isn’t that a good question? Albert finds that he is turned off by much religious art. Is there an inherent problem? Or is it too often done badly?