Belief in the congruity of aesthetics and morality is widely shared. The conviction presupposes that a developed aesthetic sense points, by some means, to the Good. Or, at least, to an expansive analogy to it. But on the ground, aesthetic impulses exist independently of goodness—which is as close as quotidian reality gets to the Good.
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They know nothing of simple kindness or decency. That was the implicit reason for my earlier post on Hilter’s aestheticism.
Elizabeth Powers, a Goethe scholar and previous contributor to FT , wrote to remind me that Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg had written a ground-breaking text on the history of the sublime in England. Published before 1917, Longinus in England: Bis Zum Ende Des 18. Jahrhunderts remains a seminal work in scholarly bibliographies of the subject. Her final comment: “Some have seen the Holocaust as ‘aesthetic totalization.’”
Could Keats have gotten it wrong? Or perhaps overstated the case? Is it really so that truth is beauty and beauty truth? Vernacular culture has taken Keats’ ode to that well-wrought urn as gospel. Literary studies, however, have long bubbled and churned over whether the poet himself intended the line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” to be taken literally as the capstone of wisdom. Might there have been some irony up his sleeve in linking the two? Beauty, after all, is transient and, as Shakespeare’s sonnet 70 reminds, suspect. Beauty can lie, and often does.
Specifics of the controversy over the ambiguities of Keats’ final iconic stanza are not germane here. What matters is the red flag at the heart of the argument. Platonic ideas of transcendent perfection against which all art must be judged are poor help to those who take art seriously, still less to artists themselves. The artist’s bailiwick is forever in exile from any immutable world of absolutes.
We reject as fallacy any notion that the distinctions on which moral judgments are made can be merely subjective. Trusting in the existence of a natural law, we expect aesthetics to share a corresponding base with ethics. And that is where our troubles start. Ideals of beauty, in all its variegated forms, are inextricable from history and culture, bound to place and time. The temptation for artists—particularly contemporary Christian ones—is to conjure up a Platonized mysticism as justification for their work. Metaphysical props can too easily stand bail for the perfection of one’s craft.
Vincent Turner, S.J. discharged a well-known deflation of idealist aesthetics. His 1958 salvo “The Desolation of Aesthetics” argues that idealism itself was “about as false a philosophy as even a philosopher could devise.” E.H. Gombrich opens “Art and Self-Transcendence” with a statement of explicit sympathy for Father Turner’s skepticism toward the ambitions of aesthetics: to systematize, tidy up, and simultaneously mystify what might better have been left in the realm of discriminating conversation. Left on the table with pamplemousse and a baguette for the Goncourt brothers.
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Socrates, in the Republic , distinguishes between “the lovers of sights and sounds” and “true philosophers.” Only the latter are capable of seeing true beauty. Where does that leave you and me? John Passmore, rambunctious philosopher and historian of ideas, was blunt: We all fall into the former, incapable class as far as our tastes are concerned. The aesthetic preferences of philosophers are no more reliable than anyone else’s.
Passmore, never one to shrink from battle, declares, “Aesthetics itself is irretrievably dreary.” It is dull because it fails to reveal with any clarity the necessary characteristics of its subject matter:
Aesthetics fails to illuminate, often enough, because the aesthetician wants to retain “mystery” rather than to dispel it, to conceal his subject rather than to reveal it. He wants to treat art instrumentally, as a “clue to reality “; his aesthetics is a spring-board to transcendental metaphysics.
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Admitting the possibility of a bad translation from the French, he offers as illustration this wooly passage from Jacques Maritain’s Art and Poetry :
The music of Lourie is an ontological music; in the Kierkegaardian style, one would also say ‘existential’. It is born in the singular roots of being, the nearest possible juncture of the soul and the spirit, spoken of by St. Paul ” or again, ” Why should a musical work ever finish ? . . . Let us say that as the time of the world shall one day emerge into an instant of eternity, so music should cease only by emerging into a silence of another order, filled with a substantial voice, where the soul for a moment tastes that time no longer is .
Passmore follows up by noting that, too often, aesthetics “consists in saying nothing at all in the most pretentious possible way.” Or, as Pope put it: “In clouded majesty here Dullness shone.” Even the best of minds can slip into nonsense when talking about art.
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“ Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer; art is everything else. ” —Donald Knuth , Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About