Counter Culture

The website of moral theologian Christopher Klofft

Art, Insanity, and the Nature of Everything

A couple weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with an artist friend of mine about the nature and purpose of visual art.  It was particularly interesting to me because, while I have some competence in understanding literature and music, I am not as confident when it comes to the visual arts.

I took many things away from that conversation that I am still considering, but one point especially jumped out at me on that day that I wanted to share.  The point I am ultimately making in this post is hardly revelatory to my typical audience, but I think it bears repeating nonetheless.

While discussing art, I mentioned that there is a subjectivity to art; this subjectivity is noted in the method and intention of the artist, and to a certain degree in the effect of the art on the viewer.  This subjectivity even applies to the skills and means by which the artist approaches his or her work – and that’s where my friend corrected me.  He described how, in fact, there is a greater objectivity to visual art than most people ever account for.  Simply put, there is such a thing as objectively “good” art and the subjective intention of the artist cannot make objectively bad art into good art.  Rather, one can have a mistaken notion of what constitutes good art, or one can learn to make good art and develop one’s skills towards that end.

Is this accurate? Isn’t there any truth to the cliché phrase, “I don’t know art but I know what I like?” Sure.  But what you like may be wrong.  An analogy from music may be apt here.  I can bang away at random keys on a piano and call it music, but it simply isn’t.  If the “artist” in question is my five-year old son, I may find the noise endearing, but that has to do with my affective relationship with the artist and nothing to do with the “art” itself.  If the same “music” was being produced down the hall from my office while I was trying to write, I assure you it would not be in the least endearing.  And so it is with visual art as well.  I may be moved by a piece of art, I may enjoy a piece of art, but that doesn’t make it good art and in truth it may ultimately reveal my own lack of knowledge of the truth.

Music has rules that guide it (and anyone who doesn’t think music is science as well as art has never studied the mathematical foundations of music).  Language has rules that guide it, so one can discern between actual communication and mere gibberish.  Literature has rules that guide it to distinguish between a good story and a bad one.  And so does visual art.

Now I arrive at my rather simple point: the objectivity of visual art, recently revealed to me in more cogent form, combined with the objectivity of music, the objectivity of literature and language, the objectivity of the natural sciences, all combine to present a ridiculously strong case for the objective structure of reality, put in place by an Intelligence who did so with a design in mind.  As human beings, we can learn the “rules of reality,” as it were, or one can essentially be insane, even if one appears functional according to the dysfunctional standards of post-modern humanity.

And, if there is an objective structure to reality, that extends not only to the “physical” universe (though it is odd to speak of art and music as “physical”) but also to the moral universe.  For a mathematician or a physicist to marvel at the complexity of the universe and its structures and then conclude that they are free to make choices however they want according to their subjective feelings and desires is the very definition of delusion.  So many people live according to a variation of the above cliché: “I don’t know morality, but I know what I like.”  The key difference here is that people don’t acknowledge their lack of knowledge about morality; instead they assert that their feelings are already truth…”for them.”  (The same wrong-headed thinking applies to the whole of theology for most people, but I’ll stick to morality for now).

My friend’s revelation about the objective nature of art was a new thought for me, a new concept by which I was able to better understand the nature of God’s tapestry as a whole.  Even when something seems like it might be purely subjective, what it might actually be is an invitation to go deeper and come to a better understanding of what it means to be a part of this awesome design.

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