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The Treasonous Clerk: Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic, Part VII
James Matthew Wilson - 03/09/10
John Keats

This is the seventh and final part of James Matthew Wilson's essay "Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic." You can read Part VI here.

Epilogue: The Need for Proportion

The metaphysical realism of Jacques Maritain’s philosophy of art and beauty gives us an invaluable account by which to interpret our own historical situation. We know from experience that even aesthetically ugly works of art nonetheless manifest an analogous or metaphysical form of being that announces itself to the intellect in “clarity,” in “radiance,” in “splendor.” In emphasizing the participation of all beautiful things in God, Maritain explains why our encounters with beauty seem cultic: oriented to a spiritualization of the self and an arrival at a state of awe, if not worship, seldom explicable merely in terms of the empirical details of the thing. Further, in emphasizing the analogous nature of beauty, he accounts for why the modern tendency to remake art’s already spiritual nature into an autonomous religion of its own goes awry (a phenomenon that Theodor Adorno also attacked, from an opposite perspective). Such a tendency isolates beauty as an idol, and fails to see that things are beautiful because they are, because they have being, and so stand in a relation to the divine splendor of Being Itself.

Most artworks witness to the truth of these observations. Many others seem not to do so—or do so by manner of negation. Much of the art of the last century, especially of the last half-century, has set itself up as a minor cult of ugliness that ultimately bespeaks a despair of being, of existence itself. The modernists excelled at turning this kind of ugliness to positive account: the startling and disturbing could wake us to an encounter with being, and so the superficially ugly opened onto an ontological splendor. Think, for instance of Mina Loy’s troubling poem about a mutilé du guerre, “Der Blinde Junge,” which has no obvious ambition beyond capturing the grotesque pathos of a blinded and disfigured street urchin:

this slow blind face
pushing
its virginal nonentity
against the light

The comic eros in some of William Carlos Williams’s poems, the humorless anatomy of Rilke’s Apollo, or the initially frightening angles of the sculpture of Jacob Epstein and the cubists similarly present bare, inhuman, or overly human and visceral, images that will not stay put in meaning only their literal surface ugliness. Horror opened up a passage both in and out of time.

Much contemporary art, on this scheme, reveals its own incoherence. It debunks, debases, and mocks every sensible dignity in human persons and in the order of things, as if to tell us that there is no goodness, truth, or beauty—that these things are oppressive and must be overcome. And so, by implication, this work tries to bring goodness, truth, and beauty back under the cover of freedom or liberation. Such art’s critical turn seems to allow some kind of vision of the good to persist, but coded as mere negation. The title of the play Angels in America seems almost a laughable instantiation of this. The homosexual figures it represents would be as angels, beings of pure freedom, and so would become angels, beings of pure goodness, if only the old America—a stodgy place of moral customs and restraints, all of which merely drive sincere desires into closets and restrooms—were replaced by a new America, a birthright of freedom from all limitations and for delectation of the senses without responsibility to the body. In such an America, condoms serve as the last concession to the flesh before our souls fly off to a consumer’s heaven to preen their plumage. One could mock nearly every facet of contemporary culture in similar terms, for from high art to soft drink commercials, the flourishing human life is always understood as that which maximizes pleasure without acknowledging the limits of mortality and eternity.

In The Frontiers of Poetry, Maritain addresses himself to the tendencies of art to angelic suicide and materialist sin. The undeviating and autonomous nature of art wants to forget that it subsists as a virtue in a human person and that the work itself will enter a human world. It wants to become itself an absolute that transcends the matter of human life and the embodied human intellect and so to aspire to an absolute world-scorning spirit. While Maritain is more critical of the tendency to materialism, in which art gets reduced to an ornamental display of human reason to flatter certain social classes, his sympathy for the tendency to angelism, to a suicide of the person and of human arts committed in hopes of becoming pure, immaterial spiritual intelligence, leads him to warn artists against it all the more emphatically. His warning comes in the form of an antinomy. The fine arts tend of their nature to absolute beauty, but, because the artist is a man, he cannot afford to give this tendency free rein. He must subordinate the habitus of art to the stewardship of reason and faith, and must further make some concessions to the weakness of the flesh: if it ignores the embodied condition of persons, it will become opaque, rather than beneficially obscure, to them.

James Joyce

These warnings are sound; indeed, they provide some of Maritain’s most instructive reflections on the human condition. And yet they also reveal the one severe weakness of his analysis of the conditions of beauty. In a word, he slights proportion in favor of clarity. How one interprets the three qualities of the beautiful will determine how one understands beauty as a whole. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, for instance, provides his own excursus on these attributes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In contrast from Maritain, Dedalus places primary emphasis on integrity. The distinct thing-ness or closed-off unity of a thing—its being this here rather than something else—is the foundation of Joycean aesthetics. Although Dedalus’s expatiations on Thomistic terms are generally acknowledged as a bit of self-parody, Joyce’s writings as a whole do testify to integrity as their fundamental aesthetic principle. For Joyce, the individual word or phrase, the individual image, regardless of its particular content, is beautiful so long as it is distinct. Dung, advertisements, pornography, a stuttering slip of the tongue—these are beauties in Joyce’s world because they stand out from the flat backdrop of the quotidian. Stephen’s definition of clarity as quiditas, the whatness or particular essence of a thing, would seem to subordinate it to integrity, whereas he more or less ignores proportion; how else could dung and poetry be equal—sliding into one another—than if our measure is oriented purely to their being equally distinct entities, while it ignores their suitability or fittingness in respect to other things?

Maritain, conversely, gives undue weight to clarity. Every form seems about ready to catch fire and direct us straight to God, if we only let the senses rest on it for a moment. While there is a good deal of truth to this, it may explain Maritain’s persistent return in his later work to the epistemology of art and beauty—his interest in poetic knowledge and creative intuition as analogues for natural and infused mystical experiences. He was trying to discover how this movement from the particular to the absolute could be rendered more certain and compelling. This concern of his regarding the intelligent intuition of beauty has attracted the most critical attention in subsequent decades, and his own extended concern with it can conceal from the reader what I take to be his greatest insight—his metaphysics, rather than his epistemology, of beauty. Indeed, it is his account of beauty as a transcendental that was most fundamentally important to his age and, perhaps even more so, to ours. His overemphasis on clarity, in consequence, makes for that account’s greatest vulnerability.

Umberto Eco’s The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (1956), with its careful attempt to establish a historical understanding of Aquinas’s definition of beauty, offers a needed corrective. The book as a whole can be quite troubling, if unconvincing; Eco refuses Maritain’s speculations on intuition, and ultimately accuses Aquinas’s thought on beauty of incoherence, because of its grounding in individual forms of which we can have no direct knowledge. For Aquinas, he rightly argues, we have direct perception of individuals, but our knowledge of their forms or essences comes indirectly, by way of abstraction. If beauty is a matter of seeing the splendor of the form, and yet if the experience of beauty is an immediate perception, Eco asks, what could Aquinas’s account of beauty have to do with our experience of it? In fact, there are multiple legitimately Thomistic ripostes to Eco’s criticism. One could argue with Kevin O’Reilly, in his recent Aesthetic Perception: A Thomistic Perspective (2007), that Aquinas does give us an intellection by intuition as Maritain claims; how else could we know first principles, since they do not admit of demonstration? Also, as I shall elaborate, the abstraction of the form may occur, in principle, after sense perception, but this does not mean it must occur temporally afterward. When was the last time anyone had sense experience of a bowl of pretzels and only secondarily recognized it as a bowl of pretzels?

But let us turn from these questions and note that in one respect Eco’s judgment seems sure. If one wishes to understand integrity, proportion, and clarity properly, one must acknowledge a certain redundancy to them as a definition, Eco tells us. To wit, proportion is the term keyed into the idea of intelligible form and so it must be the central term in our understanding of beauty, since form is the sine qua non of beings. We recognize something as beautiful because it seems justly proportioned and fitting, both in itself and in relation to those things that meaningfully surround and interact with it. Integrity, according to Eco, signals merely an affirmation that the first proportion is that of a thing to its nature, its fulfillment of its end as a particular kind of thing and its internal self-coherence. Claritas, he says more ambiguously, means what Maritain says it does: it indicates a participation of the individual thing in the absolute; but more than this, it bespeaks the proportionality of the thing to the subject perceiving it. When something is so proportioned to our senses and our intellect, we perceive it as showing forth a certain radiance, a certain splendor. Thus, Eco reconnects the essential qualities of beauty with the definition Aquinas gives “for us,” that beauty is that which pleases when seen. Clarity is above all the kinesis of that pleasure, the experience of the visio, the spark of an intelligence encountering what is suited to it: intelligibility is clarity, it is the form of something recognized as proportioned to itself and to us.

Umberto Eco

Whereas Maritain absorbed proportion into clarity, Eco insists that clarity is a secondary or phenomenal attribute of proportion. Integrity and proportion constitute the “objective” criteria of beauty, whereas clarity comes into being only through the encounter of a thing with a knower. Eco confesses that clarity is more than this, or rather, that its definition accumulated a plurality of reconcilable meanings, as it passed from the hands of Dionysius the Aeropagite to Albert the Great and on to Aquinas, with Maritain reproducing Albert’s thought and ignoring Aquinas’s. Understandably, scholars have been drawn to these provocations regarding which interpretations of “clarity” most accurately reflect its use in medieval documents, but they seem less important and less convincing than what Eco illuminates by reorienting beauty to proportion.

In sum, the proportion of a thing is not reducible to any one relation, not even to the particularly important relation of a thing to its essential nature, which integrity describes. The proportion of a thing to its knower, and of a thing’s essence to its existence, are just two of the most important relations that must be “fitting” if a thing is to be beautiful. Moreover, so numerous are the possible relations of a real thing to itself and to another (to other things) that the proportion of a material thing to the senses—something Maritain celebrated—is not essential to beauty. A thought can be as beautiful as, or more beautiful than, a face: “The fact is,” Eco writes, “rather that proportion, because it is constitutive of beauty and thus coextensive with it, has its own transcendental character. Proportion therefore has an infinity of analogues.” The fingers of a hand may be “proportioned” relative to each other, individually to themselves, and also relative to the whole human body, and—long though the study may be in determining this—if they are proportioned to the creation of which they are one small part. The proportion that constitutes beauty is

not a single type of relation between two things, but rather a dense network of relations. It can pertain to a relation between one item and another item, or between two items and a third. In fact we are free to consider the relation of three, four, or an infinity of things, proportionate among themselves and proportioned also in respect to some unifying whole. This unifying whole may then be taken as one item in a new set of items unified in their turn among themselves; and so on to infinity.

The totality of these proportions constitutes beauty. Something may be somewhat beautiful if it is “fitting” in a certain number of relations but not in others. And, naturally, these proportions form an order and lead us intellectually to ever greater and higher levels of order; thus, Eco continues:

All creatures have an order of congruity in respect to one another, and beyond that there is a superior order in virtue of the fact that all creation is oriented toward God. This idea of a universal order is the source of a number of central features of Aquinas’s thought: his teleological conception of the created world, his conception of divine providence as an ordering force, his conception of a Supreme Good realizing itself in things.

Maritain’s idea of claritas seeks a shortcut from the immanent interior order of a work of art to the beauty of God. He may be right that all beautiful things do participate in God as Beauty, but in ignoring the role proportion plays in beauty, he ignores the perceptible means of this participation, presses too hard for an intuitive vision, and gives inadequate attention to the intimate link between the vision that sees and knows beauty and the more gradual means of reasoning that guides us from one perception upward to another until we have attained a vision of the whole. Truth and beauty, art and metaphysics, are even more closely joined than Maritain acknowledged—an odd oversight for a metaphysician, but understandable for someone convinced that there must be not only degrees of knowledge but also distinct ways of knowing.

The consequences of Eco’s correction are not limited to this already weighty point. Beauty remains for us in one sense always indeterminate insofar as we can always theoretically add another relation to which a thing might suitably be proportioned. “Such-and-such is fitting in this respect, but does it belong to a particular thing’s beauty also to be fitting in that one?” we may ask. Thus, Maritain has erred somewhat in suggesting that art could theoretically be autonomous and inhuman—that it could be beautiful objectively without brooking any proportion to us as sensuous embodied beings. If art might justly be proportioned to the absolute spiritual beauty of the divine and if we are to judge it to be thus beautiful, it must also be oriented to our human reason and perhaps to our senses—however much inferior these things may be to the eternal and divine intellect. Lacking this, the object would be short at least one sort of proportion—and not the least important one, for our purposes.

Moreover, a work of art made by a person must surely be proportioned either to that person or to the human condition in general. It takes its place among the world of things, but also among the world of actions and events. As such, and once again, the fittingness of a thing to the human world is not the least of its attributes and is one that we can address best in terms of “moral beauty.” A woman with beautiful features who spits into the cup of a beggar cannot be wholly beautiful. Goose-stepping Nazis impressed the world with the beauty of their discipline and organization, but their image often makes us shudder now, for we know the great evils to which they are bound and which deforms their potential beauty with violence. Such things are not without proportions that make them beautiful—they just evidently lack others of greater metaphysical weight. One cannot say that a woman’s actions are extrinsic to her facial features, or an army’s discipline a separable matter from its cause. For the order of beauty is a metaphysical order; it judges all things in terms of totality and being. If all things participate in the absolute beauty of God, they do so imperfectly—in one way, but not another, or in some ways better than others. Our judgments of beauty therefore may often be as partial as are those about what is true or what is good. Yet proportion describes and measures form, form constitutes beings, and beings do lead us to conceive the principle of all things, Being Itself. And so Maritain was surely right to tell us that in beauty we discover intelligibility and mystery at once: we drink in the orderliness, the fittingness, of things and sense that they conceal within themselves no relative and private mystery, but clues to the eternal reality of God.

I have called into doubt Maritain’s focus on creative intuition and poetic knowledge in one respect and affirmed it in another. Such ideas lead him to think of the perception of beauty as intellectual but preconceptual: beauty is the splendor of form radiating on matter. While he was right to try to account for the immediacy of the perception of at least some forms of beauty, and to suggest that this perception leads us from the particular encounter with the beautiful existent thing to an encounter with Beauty Itself Who is God, I noted it led him to give short shrift to proportion. This oversight has consequences. As Harold L. Weatherby notes in a brilliant but neglected study, The Keen Delight: The Christian Poet in the Modern World (1975), Maritain’s nonconceptual form of beauty understates an aspect of our experience that a solid understanding of beauty as proportion clearly explains. The better we know something, the more beautiful it becomes.

True, in trying to account for the interior rules of art, Maritain observes that “the artist’s friends, who know what the artist sought to accomplish—as the Angels know the Ideas of the Creator—derive far greater enjoyment from his works than the public; so it is that the beauty of certain works is a hidden beauty, accessible only to a small number.” Maritain intended this experience only as an incommunicable instance of connaturality: friends share in the nature of the artist, and so grasp intuitively his particular virtue of art. But, as Weatherby argues, such knowledge is communicable—it can even be written down in a scholarly monograph!—and is frequently communicated in fact. If I look at a Vermeer painting—say, “Woman Holding a Balance”—I may find it beautiful immediately; the more closely I examine its absolutely focused and minute details, the more beautiful I may find it. If I can follow the invisible threads of its proportions beyond the canvas, to the narrative of which it represents an eternal moment, to the narrative of its creation in the work of the artist, to the great body of cultural symbolism its elements manifest—if I discover each of these things, the painting becomes more vividly beautiful to me. Most persons in Shakespeare’s day and in ours can hear the beauty of the playwright’s verses if they are well spoken, but a trained audience tends to hear, understand, and connect them in myriad ways that deepen the impression of their beauty.

This deepening of knowledge seldom dulls but deepens the experience of beauty—even though the prejudice in favor of the immediate and intuitive nature of it since the time of Kant has filled the popular imagination with clichés to the contrary. The unlimited number of possible proportions we may perceive helps explain not only why we often find most beautiful that which we most richly understand, but also why objects of very minor beauty may, to an informed sensibility, seem particularly exquisite. We need not dismiss such instances of rapt appreciation as either eccentric or subjective. To one who sees into the depths of the form of something, who sees into the network of its proportions, a superficially minute object may take on grandeur. We may rightly call this “eccentric” only in those instances when such a person, swept up in the depths of some object, fails to discover the even greater and more various beauty in other things; he deforms his own beauty in such disproportionate fixations. If, then, beauty sometimes strikes us like instant combustion, it just as often stretches itself out in time like the slow, deliberate burrowing of a hedgehog.

Because beauty is a transcendental property of being, it subsists in all things. Maritain therefore distinguishes between the beauty of the fine arts and ontological beauty in general simply by noting that the fine arts are specifically ordered to beauty as their end. The beautiful three-volume novel fulfills itself in the proportions proper to its story, and not the useful but inessential proportion it may also have that allows it to serve as a doorstop. So Maritain’s account rests. But we should note the way in which the beauty of fine art tends to train the intellect, honing its capacities of attention to see the form of all things with greater penetration. As O’Reilly argues, here lies the great value of aesthetic education. While objects and proportions may vary infinitely, beauty is one, and so learning to perceive form in the comparative “experimental” isolation of a work of art prepares one to see the forms that constitute creation and to perceive the ordered network of which they are a part.

This has two great consequences, which draw together all the observations we have made in this essay and so may bring it to a close. First, when the Schoolmen listed the transcendental properties of being—if they did so at all—they ordered them as follows: unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. One first perceives the singular “it-ness” of a thing; then that it can be known as a form; then its worth and function (its good or end); and finally its goodness as a form, its beauty. Without calling into question this ordering, I would suggest that in experience there is no significant temporal differentiation between the perception of these ontologically identical but conceptually different properties. Beauty therefore stands out as the most “inclusive” of the transcendentals, containing all the rest and drawing them into conceptual relation (or proportion). Taking some license with his Scholastic sources, Maritain says much the same thing in a problematic formulation: “Strictly speaking, Beauty is the radiance of all the transcendentals united.” If this is true, then the more we approach perfect knowledge of the reality of a being, the closer we come to its beauty. But also, because beauty is a property of the form of every being, it seems reasonable to argue that it is contemporary with the truth and goodness of a thing; because it is so directly tied to the perception rather than the knowledge (the naming) of a form, it may even, in our experience, seem to come first. Thus, we are left with the possibility that beauty bespeaks both the first perception of a reality and the fullness of knowledge of that thing as good.

Because Maritain was anxious to preserve beauty from the conceptual, he could not fully appreciate the consequences of this: our encounter with reality comes to us as fully and with as much validity in terms of beauty as it does in terms of truth and goodness. As such, arguments from beauty ought to have greater binding force on us than our culture likes to acknowledge. I will say something even bolder: they in fact do have such force on us, but because we, as a culture, suspect beauty, we tend to have no way to explain this power except in terms of misleading clichés about rhetorical “artifice,” “superficiality,” and “image.” The modern age routinely denies the existence of things simply by denying itself a vocabulary to express them, but if we would be true to reality, above all the reality of our experience, we would acknowledge that much of our lives are formed and moved by the perceptions of the beautiful. Proportion is to beauty what reasoning (ratio) is to truth; if this entails that beauty has little logical weight, it also entails that it has a claim on us as real, and so teaches us about reality by distinct but equally strong means. John Keats was correct to declare, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but not for the reasons he suspected.

A keen sense of the various proportions that contribute to the beautiful is thus necessary if one is to understand what is real. A mere aestheticism that prizes only the sensuously beautiful truth, or a “politicized aesthetic” that registers only the beautiful as noble, serve as just two instances of a myopia before the real. Our culture thus lies to itself in denying the reality of beauty and barbarizes and shallows its intellect in treating aesthetic education as unimportant to the formation of a complete human being. Within that culture, conservatives willfully fragment its sensibility and everyday life by treating only certain modes of beauty as relevant, while liberals perform an even more radical disservice to the society they purport to help “progress” by scouring the public realm of the claims of the beautiful in an effort to reconstruct society along isolated, desiccated, and often perverse forms of rationality.

Though the burden of my argument has been to make a defense of art and beauty in an age and culture that minimizes, deprecates, or denies their function, we arrive now at a second consequence of the reality of beauty that extends well beyond works of fine art. Rather, we arrive back at the concept I mentioned near the beginning of this essay, that of the political aesthetic. Because the beautiful is the mode of our perceptions and our deepest knowledge, it must be one way of knowing that would inform our conceptions of ethical and political life. When we think ethically, we are asking ourselves questions about what a good life looks like—what is its form. So, too, on a wider scale with politics: political speculation tries to imagine the desirable form of communal life. No society can understand itself without understanding and seeking its proper form, and so no society can exist without being graspable primarily in terms of beauty. Such was the insight of Edmund Burke and of the conservative tradition to which he was inadvertent godfather.

To preserve and reform political forms according to a vision of beauty has been the call of every true conservative. If that summons has too frequently sounded narrow, even monotone, and so failed to register on as wide a range of sensibilities as it might have, that has been a problem of aesthetic or metaphysical vision first and only secondarily one of particular policies or practical politics. Thus, in drawing the attention of conservatives specifically back to a knowledge of the beautiful, I hope to point out shortcomings present in individual persons, in a portion of our society, and in our culture in general. If we would do what is right, what conforms to reality at its depths, we must grasp with clarity and conviction the being revealed to us only in beauty.

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