GUEST POST: With Great Art Comes Great Responsibility

One of my readers answered my question about the true and the beautiful in words so clear and sentiments so true that I thought it best to reprint them here. Consider this to be a guest essay:

 For some reason I could not log in to comment on the Magnificat post. I did want to draw your attention to Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment from 2003. In this book Dr. Murray goes through an extremely rigorous statistical analysis of the importance of various historical figures in the most important areas of human endeavor: Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Physics, Mathematics, Medicine, Technology, Combined Sciences, Chinese Philosophy, Indian Philosophy, Western Philosophy, Western Music, Chinese Painting, Japanese Art, Western Art, Arabic Literature, Chinese Literature, Indian Literature, Japanese Literature, and Western Literature.

In all cases he found that human beings accomplish more when they have a cultural and personal sense of higher goods. That the formulations of the schoolmen: *Unum, Bonum, Verum, et* *Pulchrum* is correct. Keeping in mind that Dr. Murray is an agnostic at best, and I believe he is an atheist, it is a powerful admission against interest. Indeed when discussing these issues in interviews and in lectures Murray becomes visibly uncomfortable when the subject comes up. He knows that his own particular lack of faith is borrowing from a greater patrimony, and does not personally replenish the well. To his credit, he is aware of it, and honest enough that he is uncomfortable about it and it’s implications.

To the extent that our culture produces any art worth passing on to the future of mankind, it is in the realm of popular art. Movies, video games, comic books. etc. The great failing of the traditional arts in our time is the notion that the artist need not be an artisan first. My five year old son paints in a very similar style to Picasso. However, no one pretend that his art has universal meaning, or that anyone other than his Mother and Grandmother would voluntarily display it in public. (Wait, I lied, his Godparents, Aunts, & Uncles also display it.) While I believe my son has an aptitude with the visual arts, he does not yet posses the necessary skills to clearly make his point. Painting and sculpture with no form do not communicate clearly. Music with no harmony does not convey anything but noise. Books where the author discount the meaning of words might as well be toilet paper. (That last always struck me as insane, to be a writer, and to hate words is a tragic and terrible madness.)

Only when the forms and structure of a piece of art are clear is it possible for the art capable of lifting the audience to a higher realm. My wife disagrees with me that Spider-Man is great art, (She likewise thinks similarly of Girl Genius, Lara Croft, and Dejah Thoris, but we shall pass over that in silence) What Spider Man does that Picasso does not, is make it perfectly clear what the artist wishes to communicate. You cannot read issue #1 of The Ultimate Spider Man, and not come away failing to “get it”. Only when you understand that Peter Parker is not just a hopeless nerd, and that he could be rich, famous and get all the girls he wanted, does his chronic lack of funds, menial job with a jerk boss, and pining away at MJ become the noble self sacrifice that it is meant to be. If Lois knows about Clark, his sacrificial avoidance of Lois becomes meaningless.

One area that our culture has indisputably produced great art in is at the movies. Consider UP, the great Pixar film from a few years ago. In slightly under ten minutes, with almost no dialogue, manages to tell the best love story put to screen in my lifetime. If you do not get misty eyed when you are finished watching the opening sequence, you have a heart of stone, and probably look funny too. Only technical mastery of the medium of film and computer animation allowed Pixar to tell that story, and it is only a great story because it so clearly points to higher things. If you want to show children the love of The Father, show them Marlin the Clownfish. Even the stoic paganism of a Howard, or Burroughs has some higher values. Would Conan or Tarzan forsake their friends? or break an oath? The stern and grave pagans of old came to the church because she praised their devotion to their fathers and to duty, the contempt they had for oath breakers, and the terror they had for the spirits. I believe that if I was able to sit down and with Sts. Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas, All three would agree that what elevates art is that it points towards the unity of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Further that, in order for art to become Art, it must clearly and distinctly point to these higher things, else it will be twisted by the fallen nature of man into something else entirely. In our tales for children, we still support these old values, mostly. At some level we recognize that children must be taught to tell the truth, to succor the weak, that boys must uphold the right, and girls must create warmth and life and laughter, else we shall all perish. We have erred, perhaps fatally, in believing that grown men need not to be told to keep oaths, or need not to be told to protect the innocent; that it is perfectly alright to lie when we tell women to be unchaste; that they are the same as men and can fornicate like dogs with no consequences.

We do not create good art as a society because we do not venerate the skill necessary to become a good artist. We do not create great art as a society because we do not venerate that from which all greatness proceeds.