Thursday, August 7, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section II: The Intellect & Our Experience of Beauty

In the pre-modern era, the construction, as well as the perception, of any work of art was something intellectual before anything else. In creating and apperceiving something, the intellect plays the crucial role in the operation; it possesses sovereignty over every other faculty involved because the intellect is responsible for comprehension, and the aim of art is to communicate something comprehensible. Jacques Maritain says that, '[the artistic] action consists in impressing an idea upon a material: therefore it resides in the artifex'. This hearkens back to Plato and Aristotle and the mimetic doctrine we already glanced at, namely that the thing to be made must first be conceived. The creation already occurs in the mind - it is only acted out materially as a consequence of this first perception.  St. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between two 'perfections' in the act of creation, the first being the perfection of a thing according to its proper end or nature, while the second is the perfection of its operation in the world, and therefore regulates the first perfection. The first perfection is the form of a thing and how it is perfect in itself, while the second perfection consists in how that form operates in the world; the function of a thing must accord with how it is used. The first perfection of a paint brush, for instance, is in its use as a tool to paint something, because that is what it is and what it is meant to do; using the paint brush as a broom to sweep off a driveway, on the other hand, would be an imperfection, because it is not used according to the second perfection of a thing, which is its use.

The thing made therefore always has an intellectual character, not only because it is the sensible image of something intelligible, but because of the precise proportions of that image, and how they relate to its archetype; only the intellect is capable of determining these facts. Aquinas says, 'everything in nature has a certain end, and a fixed rule of size and growth....'. The teleological system applies to understanding the making of things as it does to biology (God's making of things) because any species has a specific nature and range, and the determination of what belongs to what species depends upon the knowledge of both and how they relate to one another. The dachshund, for example, in spite of the myriad differences between it and the greyhound, nevertheless shares a common species with it because they have the same fundamental nature. The same phenomenon applies to art (man's making of things), because knowing how a particular chair is a chair is essential if we are not going to classify it as a table or a sofa. Every thing has its telos, its intellectual property and purpose, and any art is the unfolding of something's intellectual quality into something with a material quality: 'Art was not expresssion, but construction, an operation aiming at a certain result' (Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, p. 93).

'The work of Art has been thought out before being made, it has been kneaded and prepared... ripened in a reason before pressing into matter. And there it will keep for ever the colour and the savour of the mind. Its formal element, that which constitutes it in its category and makes it what it is, is its regulation by the understanding.... The work to be done is only the material of Art, its form is right reason.... Art is the right deduction from things to be made' (Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism).

If the nature of a work of art is above all something intellectual, the relation between the art work and one who experiences it is equally of an intellectual quality: 'The pleasure experienced in perception is a free pleasure, the pleasure of contemplation free from desire and content with the perfection which it admires. Beauty is what pleases when it is seen, not because it is intuited without effort, but because it is through effort that it is won, and when the effort is successful it is enjoyed' (Eco, p. 82). There is in this something of Schopenhauer's aesthetics wherein the 'pleasure' of art is a momentary relief from the world's pain, but Aquinas's profound, Aristotelian respect for the empirical functions already tells us that there is an important distinction between the two philosophies. Where the aesthetic experience was for Schopenhauer a temporary reprieve from the pain of existing, for Aquinas it is a joyous reminder that the world is something good; it was not the 'negation of a negation' as it perhaps was for Schopenhauer, but rather the affirmation of something absolutely affirmed.

Contemplation, at any rate, is at the root of the so-called 'aesthetic' experience; one's foremost pleasure in a work of art consists in his understanding of what it is and how it accords to reality, to the cosmic order or even to chaos. Moreover, we identify with something most powerfully when we apperceive how the work contains something within ourselves; the fact that an inner idea or secret knowledge of our own nature is made into something concretely beautiful and eminently sensible fills us with joy: 'The understanding enjoys the beautiful because in it it finds and recognizes itself, and gets contact with its own light' (Maritain). This is reminiscent of Plato's 'Myth of Er', and of his theory of knowledge as outlined in the Meno, where all learning is really the soul's recollection of its past life, in which it knew of the forms. The difference in Maritain's statement, which has its origins in St. Augustine, is that there is no 'recollection' per se; there is no awakened memory of a previous life, but simply the recognizance of what already exists in the soul. We rejoice when our conscious mind learns something which we already knew, something which was hitherto hidden in the depths of our soul.

The central artistic experience in the Christian tradition that transcends all others is the Eucharist. This is due to its sacred mystery, to the incomprehensible simultaneity of spiritual and material presence that occurs through the transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. In the Eucharist, the 'dullness' of the ordinary world is swept away by something which accords with our soul; the dull reality becomes transfigured as our soul tastes the redemption that was offered us. The Eucharist is the mystical union of God and man, the purest connection between humanity and divinity since Christ's Incarnation. Our fallen nature is infused into the divine, and is redeemed thereby. This is an experience that every faculty celebrates, but most of all our intellectual one, because it is the intellect that truly understands the fallen-ness of our nature and its need for reintegration, not only with the divine, but with itself - which is precisely what happens during the Eucharist. It is the intellect that bears the 'image of God', and can therefore delight in the communion with its original Mind; it is the intellect that can contemplate the event in its entirety and all that it means for us. There is in the Eucharist the act of anamnesis, which means the memorial event of Christ's crucifixion; this is where the intellect engages with its own disintegration, and fights against it via the inner memory of Christ's work. This is essentially where the intellect works to lift itself into spirit, and to thereby complete the integration of the self: heart, mind, and soul are together entwined into one complete whole. At this point we remember God, and forget our own spiritual maladies: we rejoice in joining with the New Adam.

This becomes clearer when we remember that the intellect constitutes more than what the rationalists call 'reason', more than the quantitative logic that determines the world around us on an exclusively sensible basis, with no recourse to a thing's intelligible quality. The intellect is the point where the human consciousness can meet the intelligible, and thereby be satisfied in the understanding that such a meeting gives us; as such, the intellect has in its employ the entire range of human faculties, which include the senses, intuitive knowledge, memory, imagination, reason itself. The intellect connects us with the transcendental (re: intelligible) domain because it has the transcendentals imprinted upon it, and this is what connects us with God and our redeemed selves: 'As soon as one touches a transcendental, one touches Being itself, a likeness of God, an absolute, the nobility and joy of our life; one enters the domain of the spirit' (Maritain). Fed by the information provided by the senses, the intellect (and the person as a whole) is glad when that information accords with its own understanding; the beauty of the world is only comprehensively appreciated by the intellect because it alone comprehends the source and preserver of that beauty and how He makes Himself known:

'When we reflect upon the objective and rule-governed character of perceived phenomena, we discover our own connaturality with their proportions, that there are properties also in ourselves. Thus proportion is conceived of as something objective, something realized on an infinite number of levels, and something which finally coincides with the cosmic proportions of an ordered universe' (Eco, p.77).

Now, there is of course an enormous amount of sensual information imparted to us on a daily basis, but obviously not all of it is what we would normally call 'beautiful', especially if we discount natural beauty, the 'artwork of God'. Technically, all sensual information is 'beautiful' inasmuch as it connotes experience with reality and inasmuch as reality is good - but clearly we desire and infact need more than this, which is why there is human art; every culture ever known has been compelled to create things which they have deemed, in various ways, 'beautiful'. This is mainly the consequence of two facts (1) the Imago Dei, which motivates us to creativity in imitation of our Master, to make things that are at once useful and beautiful; and (2) our inherent hunger for beauty which extends beyond the natural world - we are not satisfied with merely wondering at the world, we want to engage with it in a way that meets the demands of the human spirit. This is why there is the production of art, and why it categorically differs in our experience to our relationship with nature, with God's art. The working of the intellect upon matter organizes the material to meet our own specific ends, whether it be the construction of planes to cross oceans or a simple poem that tells a story.

'Theophilus wrote that, since man is created in the image of God, he has the power to give life to forms. He discovers his need for beauty both by chance and by reflection on his own soul, and by practice and endeavour he develops his artistic powers. He finds in the Scriptures a divine commandment on art where David sings, ''Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy house''. These words are a clear directive; the artist must work in humility, inspired by the Holy Spirit, for without this inspiration he could not attempt his work. Anything that he can invent or learn or understand about art is the fruit of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit' (Eco, p.100).

Strictly speaking, we never truly create anything, for only God is capable of making something from nothing: 'The soul can make new compositions, but it cannot make new things' (St. Bonaventure). Nevertheless, as Theophilus was suggesting, we are able and indeed required to adapt material to at once make life better for ourselves and to imitate God in doing so; we are compelled to 'give life to forms', which is what we might call the 'sub-creation' of matter in the attempt to make it good and beautiful - God's creativity is ex nihilo, while our own is ex materia.  Admitting that there is a fundamental difference in the pleasure we derive from each type of creation, the source for either is nonetheless the very same: God created and sustained the material which we then re-arrange by impressing upon it the power of our intellect, which is done out of love for God. God is both the source of our efforts and the port to which all things return.

To clarify, John Dewey states that, 'Through art, meanings of objects that are otherwise dumb, inchoate, restricted, and resisted are clarified and concentrated.... But whatever path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness. It does so by reducing the raw materials of that experience to matter ordered through form' (Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 133). The natural world is very often a disorganized mass, offering limited beauty to us because there is no apparent or immediate form for the intellect to behold; this is where human creativity fills the void, namely by organizing that mass into shapes and figures that correspond with our innate knowledge of form and which manifestly heightens our experience of the world. Before Michelangelo sculpted it into David, the material of the statue was a dull, lifeless marble. After being artistically formulated, however, it became one of the greatest and most recognizable artefacts of the Renaissance, because it was something that readily appeals to man's intellectual and aesthetic sense of beauty.

By imitating the transcendentals or forms, God's highest creations, we perform His work on earth (we are indeed the only known being capable of doing so); by helping our world become more 'real' and more beautiful, we execute God's will, whether we acknowledge it or not. This plays a significant role in why the experience of being alone at the top of a mountain and the experience of a Beethoven symphony are different for us; whereas we play the part of the passive beneficiary of God's creative splendour in the first instance, in the second we celebrate the triumph of man's creativity, shouting back at God in the spirit of worship. In either case the intellect is active - it revels in the magnificence that the senses have gifted it because it understands the intelligible foundation behind the sensual data, whether it be of a divine or a human origin.

So, because it has an innate (if often obscured) knowledge of the transcendentals, the intellect has an objective appreciation of form, which is the principal quality of all art: 'The operative intellect preconceives the form of what is made; it possesses the form of the thing imitated as an idea' (Aquinas). The one who receives the art work shares in this conception, because he is likewise able to apperceive the form that is imitated. As the sole faculty capable of deductive reasoning, the intellect alone is able to deduce firstly the formal perfection of the thing imitated, and secondly the proportions of the imitation to the form, its mimetic quality, its integritas: '...people may differ from another in size and shape, but if the variations go beyond certain limits there is no longer a true and proper human nature, but abnormality instead. This kind of perfection is related to another criterion of beauty, integrity. Integritas means the absence of an organic whole of all the parts which concur in defining it as that which it is' (Eco, p. 78). In the traditional civilization, especially that of the medievals, wholeness was crucial. If something was imperfectly whole, if it lacked something, or if it was not ordered to its proper end, that thing was faulty, and therefore ugly.

The intellect alone can totally appreciate beauty because we cannot 'feel' form, only understand it. If the reader will permit a vulgar example, consider the difference between copulating with one's beloved and with a complete stranger who happens to be remarkably corpulent; allowing for the extra flesh, the sensual impact is fundamentally identical, but the experiences taken in their entirety are, at least to the normal man, wildly opposed. This is true because, in the first instance, we love one woman and not the other; love is in part an intellectual action that sees in the beloved something which he himself is lacking in, and wants to fulfil. It is an intuitive going out of oneself in order to complete oneself. More to the point, this is true because the beloved is closer to the human form because she is not obese; whereas she is loved in part for her natural, objective beauty, conversely the stranger loses her beauty when she abandons the human form due to her gluttony. The one is more beautiful because she more closely resembles the ideal human form, while the other has moved away from it. In copulating with the beautiful woman, our sensual experience is heightened because it is enlivened by our intuitive, intellectual understanding that she is profoundly human, and therefore what she is supposed to be; she has come closer to her telos than the other, who lacks form for her decision to be more like an animal. Although in a more coincidental respect, this is true also of losing a limb or some other integral part of the human body: 'we call mutilated people ugly, for they lack the required proportion of parts to the whole' (Aquinas).

To conclude, the senses inform us of the matter and aesthetically enjoy doing so, but it is the intellect that delights in the totality of the experience. The former is intimate with the temporal, and is gratified by it; but it is the latter that touches on the eternal, on the things that transcend momentary pleasure. This is due to the joy that we possess when we comprehend the unity of the exterior world with our interior self; it is the unity between what we see and what we know, between what is without and within, that makes the beautiful so necessary for the human experience. It unifies the fragments, awakens us to truth, and stirs again the thought of being complete. The sensual and the intellectual joys are alike essential to the fullness of beauty because together they represent the connection between ourselves and what we have lost:

'[Man] may doubtless enjoy purely intellectual beauty, but the beauty connatural to man is that which touches the understanding with delight through the senses and their intuition. Such also is the beauty proper to art, which works upon the sensible material so as to give joy to the mind. Thus would it persuade itself that paradise is not lost. It has the relish of the earthly paradise because it restores, for an instant, the peace and delectation at once of understanding and of sense.... Without doubt all sensuous beauty demands a certain delectation of the eye itself or the ear or of the imagination; but there is no beauty unless the intelligence also in some way rejoices' (Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism).

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