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What Is Art For?

I have long enjoyed “Eyes to See” in This Rock. The world of art seems a splendid meeting ground for thinkers from differing backgrounds, precisely because it is full of particular depictions that nevertheless point to abstract ideas. (A painting of a man, while not really an argument of any kind, is nevertheless one step removed from an actual man, and so may tickle the intellect in a way that that simply seeing a fellow pass by on the street may not.) An appropriate feature in a magazine that focuses on the meeting ground between Catholics and the rest of the world.

And I was happy to see you tackle a disturbing work like Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (“The Heart’s Darkness,” September-October 2010). Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right word. “Edified” might be better. “Art need not be pleasant to look at” is “a point worth repeating to those tempted to turn from what they don’t like.” Indeed, one of the things I admire about Catholicism is its willingness not to turn from what humanity doesn’t like—sin and suffering most of all. Rather, it seeks to engage those twin terrors, and even to find meaning and worth in the latter.

But, but, but. I understand what you say in your defense of Goya’s molding his technique to his subject matter, and how such a move serves as the forerunner to artists who “make their emotions, especially their stronger and more turbulent ones, the entire point of what they do.” As you note, this practice risks making “art an exercise in narcissism.” But, you argue, “its potential to fulfill what may be the deepest purpose of art—communication—is what redeems it, for art itself is the fruit of some of the deepest motions of the human spirit: the desire to be known and to be understood, to give of self, to bare the soul to the world.” As an example of such expressionist art, you cite Mark Rothko’s “floating clouds of pigment . . . the ‘pure’ embodiment of the artist’s inner, subjective life—‘pure’ because unencumbered by the distraction of imitation.”

That bit made me pause, and then made me think of Robin Williams quoting Walt Whitman in the movie Dead Poets Society: “I sound my barbaric Yawp over the rooftops of the world.” Here, the artist is baring his soul to the world, seeking to be known and understood in blunt but expressive fashion. Here also, his Yawp is unencumbered by the distraction of reference to anything—it signifies nothing beyond the artist making the sound. But Whitman has a name for such a thing: barbaric. The Yawp is nothing more than an assertion of the self’s presence, possibly the most primitive sort of communication imaginable.

“Barbaric,” of course, is not the same thing as “simple” or even “crude,” a word you use aptly to describe Goya’s technique for Saturn Devouring His Son. Lord knows, a work of art need not be a nuanced philosophical commentary on the artist’s interior life, or on any other subject. Goya’s work here is not subtle,  but it is powerful. And I think its power comes from a depth—of feeling, but also of meaning—that no Yawp could ever hope to approach. Because of this, I will risk sounding hopelessly middlebrow in suggesting that both artist and viewer benefit from sharing something that signifies beyond what is offered by the Yawp. Case in point: Had Goya simply smeared a handful of paint along his dining room wall, your fine analysis (Goya tearing apart “the pretentions and foibles, the vanity and stupidity, the savagery, injustice, folly, and ignorance of allegedly civilized man”) would perforce have been a good deal shorter. Certainly less enjoyable and engaging.

— Matthew Lickona
La Mesa, California

Michael Schrauzer replies:
I thank Mr. Lickona for his thoughtful comments, and if I understand him correctly, he is giving voice (with the assistance of Whitman’s barbaric utterance) to a variation of the Emperor-has-no clothes critique of modern art: Dress up an “expressive” Yawp with all the fancy apologias and high-falutin’ justifications you like, but it will never be a soliloquy, even if sounded with Shakespearean accents from the stage of the Old Vic, just as a smear of paint, even directly from the hand of Goya, will scarcely rise above utter meaninglessness. Such “blunt” expressions, he submits, can signify
“nothing beyond an assertion of the self’s presence, possibly the most primitive sort of communication imaginable.”

Allow me a moment to assume the dread mantle of Public Defender of Modern Art, before stating that these observations stem from a not-uncommon but—if I may say so—overly conceptual approach to art, one that effectively values the message more than the medium used to communicate it.

I agree that everyone benefits from sharing deep meanings in art, and I have written often enough in these pages about the symbolic “work” of art, that its great task is to use the visible world to point us to the invisible world. In fact my aim has been to avoid exaggerating the importance of either world by laying equal stress on both material form and conceptual/ spiritual content, in order to develop a balanced and, I hope, authentically Catholic view of art.

The inarticulate Yawps and smears of modern expressionism would certainly seem to be firmly earthbound, though they were lobbed in opposition to the too-cerebral proclamations of neoclassicism. But setting aside those historical battles, and more to Mr. Lickona’s point, I believe their bluntness usefully counters the propensity he or any of us today might have to turn art into a predominantly
intellectual exercise. Every now and then we need our noses shoved into the raw, earthy, physical reality of art, its barbaric sound, its slippery smeariness.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “when anybody asks  what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story,” adding that “the meaning of fiction [or as I would insert, art] is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.” That, I think, sums up my point nicely.

Every encounter with art is first and foremost an encounter with being, a thing easily passed over or trivialized by our drive to extract meanings and significances. It doesn’t help that the encounter with being is not easily communicated in formulas and words (which is exactly why art gets made in the first place), but it is no less significant for that, for it is really a foreshadowing, very faint perhaps, of the Beatific Vision, when formulas and words will be useless.

The bare “assertion of the self’s presence” which is embedded in the creation and experience of art is therefore not so much a “primitive” but a primal, essential, and fundamental sort of communication. And if it is barbaric for artists to assert their existence that way, then God, who sounds the great I AM through all Creation, is the chief Barbarian of them all.

And Speaking of Aesthetics . . .

This Rock is the most beautiful and arguably the most literate Catholic magazine in print  today. The articles are faithful, interesting, and well-written. The illustrations are gorgeous and appropriate both to the text of the article and to the spirit of the magazine, which seems to be to express the beauty of Catholic truth and Tradition while also teaching—as Catholic art has always sought to teach the Faith. It avoids all “snarkiness” while not fearing to tackle true controversy in an adult and intellectual way. Thus, it is a magazine one feels proud to have on the coffee table . . . that is after every word has been devoured on the kitchen table.

The only problem with This Rock is that it is bimonthly instead of monthly.
— Gerald S. Murphy, MD
Honolulu, Hawai’i

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