Art and Values

We began with the Platonic vision of beauty and then considered the nature of works of art and their meaning.  A broadly aesthetic account of works of art has been defended and a modest form of what may be called critical realism has been produced in deciphering the meaning of art works.  The term Critical realism seems to capture the idea that texts do have a meaning that we can (often but not always) discover (hence “realism”) rather than only invent it ourselves.  It says that inquiry into much meaning involves critical reflection—weighing different interpretations and so on. Let us now further consider the values to be found in works of art, giving some attention as to how one may fairly assess excellence in art. Let us consider imagination and creativity, communicability, truth, ethics, science, religion, and some distinctive aesthetic values such as the sublime and the beautiful.


Imagination and Creativity

Of all the values one may find in works of art, it seems that the creative imagination is the most salient. Defining exactly what the imagination and creativity are, however, isn’t easy. One of the most common definitions of the imagination in modern philosophy is that it involves the power of imaging or making images. On this definition imagination can play a role in ordinary perception as when one imagines or possesses an image of objects not wholly evident in sensation.  What enables a person to say she sees a baseball rather than merely the surface of a baseball is that she imagines the ball as a whole object.

A further definition of the imagination is that it involves a power to grasp values. Some of what enables this grasp of value through imagination (in line with the British Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge) is the result of our being able to see the world from other people’s points of view. Iris Murdoch underscores the role of the imagination in moral reflection.

“We may identify with deprived or persecuted people through our imaginative understanding of their plight.  Such understanding is an instance of moral knowledge. How much do we know, what do we know, about “what it is like to be” other people? As moralists, as political moralists, we specialise, we have favourites. We sympathise with, know about, some sufferers not others, we imagine and desire some states of affairs not others.” (Murdoch 1992,  391′)

Murdoch’s highlighting the important role of imagination in filling out our moral sensibility is consonant with what was noted about Balzac in chapter two: being detached from ourselves allows us to aesthetically explore the lives of others. C.S. Lewis articulates the way in which the imaginative reading of imaginative books helps us to transcend our narrow points of view:

“Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own…We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.”  (Lewis 1992,  137)

As for creativity, there is no current consensus as far as definitions are concerned, but there is an abiding tradition that creativity involves the power to see or make novel objects (“objects” understood broadly to involve sounds, thoughts, and so on, and not only concrete physical things) in a way that is not determined by rule-following. For Kant, such creativity was a distinctive feature of the genius. Creativity, like originality, may vary in its praise-worthiness depending on the context. You might be praised for your first creative painting, even though it is not original in the history of art and it is only original for you.

Imaginative creativity may mark a genuine value in a work of art and be evident in the invention of characters, landscapes, use of color and depth of field, agility in performances, boldness, drama, and so on for the many different genres of artworks. Imaginative creativity can be demonstrated in what we described as a Kantian framework (chapter three) without explicitly bringing in a historical, anchoring framework, but in assessing the overall value of a work of art, history is almost unavoidable. Even if one designed a Brillo box artwork after 1968 with no knowledge of Andy Warhol’s work, our artwork would not be original. It would more likely be considered derivative or a critical appropriation.

“Creative originality” as a term may be too open-ended to name a basic good in artworks (there is nothing strictly incoherent about calling a work of art bad despite its originality and creativity), but it is an at least presumptive or prima facie good.


The Virtues of Communication

Works of art are appreciable not just for their being the outcome of the creative imagination, but for what they can tell us about the world, our emotions, values, the divine, and so on. The communication account of artwork we considered earlier in Tolstoy’s philosophy of art may not be adequate to all artwork and performances, but it is pertinent to some. Artwork designed to advance a political, religious, scientific, ethical or personal message may be assessed in terms of the clarity and success of the communication and the quality of the message. Some philosophers worry about whether some objects are artworks if all of the aesthetic components are completely subordinate to commercial or political messages.

So, good communicability (like creative originality) may be only a presumptive good. Someone may be quite effective in sending his message but the message is itself defective (unintentionally incoherent) or so overwhelms the aesthetic that the work is more like a political ad, a work of propaganda, than a work of art.


Truths in Works of Art

Works of art may be commended for what they reveal truly about the world and values. Some works of art seem to require us to come to terms with their truth or reliability. Is James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson trustworthy? Can we learn something of Russian life during the Napoleonic era by studying Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace? Some works of art comprise alternative worlds quite remote from our own, but they still have to have some traceable connection with our world.  As Eddy Zemach writes:

“No writer, fantasy writers included, can forgo borrowing from reality. An utterly fictitious work will be too enormous to write; if it is given us by aliens we shall find it irrelevant and boring. An artist’s target world may differ from reality in detail, but not in basic features: the kind of beings in it, their beliefs and desires, what motivates them, the emotions they have, and most laws of nature, cannot but be those that occur in [our world]. Now if a work has considerable aesthetic value, its world. . .is well organized; it is unified yet variegated, revealing a new, exciting kind of unity in a multifarious world. . .An author is a world-sculptor, who mostly works on borrowed material. We, who are that material, are keenly interested in what is done with it, for the features salient in the target world may fashion our own life.” (Zemach 1995,  438)

So, many great works of fantasy can still offer portraits of life that we can access for credibility or illumination. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings can and does offer an understanding of the heroic quest and goodness that we may or may not find helpful.

I am not proposing here that if a work of art seems to be built on or expresses a false view of the world, it is thereby a failure. Take two highly successful, radically different works: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Camus’ The Plague. Both visions of life cannot be true. Dante’s cosmic vision is full of divine light and concludes with an ecstatic vision of the love that made and sustains the cosmos. Camus’ world is without God or cosmic purpose. Instead of an ecstatic vision of love, we are presented the brave, resilient portrait of a good physician determined to serve humanity notwithstanding the certainty of there being future plagues and calamities. While both works cannot be true or the full truth, both can offer deeply moving accounts of what reality is like if Christianity or atheism respectively are true. So, while I certainly do not think a work of art that has a vision of reality has to be or seem true to be recognized as excellent, I do suggest that one of the features of a work of art that is of genuine value includes assessing whether the work aids us in seeking out the truth—the truth about ourselves and others. To Kill a Mockingbird is good, in part, because it unmasks some of the ugliness of racism.  One of the features that make Francisco Goya’s painting The Third of May, 1808 outstanding is that it compels us to come to terms with the awful truths about warfare. Artwork can (as we noted in connection with Aristotle’s reply to Plato in chapter two) have a cathartic, purifying impact that helps clarify our moral judgments.

I believe it is because we take truth to be an important value in artwork that we tend to not approve of or delight in forgeries. Some forgeries do have extraordinary merit as copies or as original works that are in the style of other artists. From what we have called a Kantian perspective in chapter two, of the origin of a work of art, forgeries would not be problematic. The problem with forgeries, however, is that the forged work is itself a kind of lie, a pretense or deceptive simulation. Even if the forgery is never detected it seems that the work is as defective as a so-called friendship in which the friend engages in undetected systematic lying. See for example, Figure 9, which sets a true masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer against a forgery of Han van Meegeren, who sought to make a fortune during World War II by forging Vermeer’s work (van Meegeren was eventually caught in 1945, but died in 1947).

The case of forgery needs to be distinguished from cases of copying, as in China when copying works of art is done out of esteem and to maintain high cultural and individual artistic standards. In this case, the Chinese copy is much like a forgery except in intent and outcome. The forgery is made for deceit and profit. The Chinese copy is made out of respect for the true value of the original.


Ethics In and About Works of Art

In the next chapter we will take up issues of censorship and consider briefly whether works of art may advance such profoundly evil ends that they should be censored. But we may begin with noting that works of art that seem to embody or reflect authentic values have some merit over those that do not. The Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, may be a brilliant film with creative, original cinematic effects, but don’t we want to qualify our praise, e.g. “Oh, it’s a film valorizing Hitler (who turns out to be a bloodthirsty genocidal maniac responsible for millions of deaths), but it’s still a great film”?  However you assess the aesthetic merits of artwork in the service of evil empires, it seems we do in fact praise works of art for enlarging our understanding of ethical values. The novels of Jane Austen help us in understanding pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility, power and humility, condescending usury and genuine charity. Charles Dickens’ novels offer a kind of non-aristocratic, democratic aesthetic as we come to see beauty and worth in “ordinary people,” notwithstanding the horrible impersonal conditions of the industrial revolution.

As noted at the outset, insofar as works of art enhance our ability to imaginatively and affectively appreciate the points of view of others, they can have a vital role in the formation of our own values—a role that can be played well or badly. On this point, we do well to appreciate two vexing matters. First, works of art can actually distract us from pressing moral matters. This is part of the postmodern critique of mid-twentieth century abstract painting and minimalism. It has been claimed that these art movements distracted us from more vital, cultural, political, and moral concerns. Second, there is what some call the new art history in which some works of art are heavily interrogated for their pernicious effects. In the anthology The New Art History, Margaret Iversen writes:

“Art is no longer regarded as part of the solution but as part of the problem, laden as it is with the ideological baggage of history be it bourgeois, racist or patriarchal. The new critical procedure…involves a…critique of visual imagery, from painting to pop videos…[in order to] lay bare the contradictions and prejudices beneath the smooth surface of the beautiful.” (Iversen 1988,  84)


Science and Artwork

Science and art are interwoven on different levels. Science is often behind the development of the tools employed by artists, from the chemistry of paint to the optics and electronics of cameras, video, and other digital equipment.  The extent to which some artists make use of such equipment amounts to an appreciable positive value in the artwork.  Art has also been employed in the advancement of science both cognitively and in terms of highlighting the concerns that arise in the scientific community.  On the first point, early modern science was supported by collections and drawings amassed by artists as in the field work and art of the Academy of Linceans, founded by Frederico Cesi in 1603.  This group encouraged and supported the work of Galileo.  As for the second point, artists today, the painter Christine Baeumler, for one, are producing work that highlights the danger of global warming and the mounting loss of endangered species.


Religion and Artwork

A remarkably high percentage of works of art throughout the world and over time may have merit from a religious point of view. For Christians, for example, virtually all domains of the arts have produced works deemed by many non-Christians to be excellent: literature (The Divine Comedy or T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets), painting (the Sistine ceiling), music (Bach), sculpture (Michelangelo’s Pietà), architecture (Chartres Cathedral), and so on. The same is true for art made in the service of the other world religions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Insofar as artwork helps embody or express the insights and practices of these traditions, they may be deemed to have great religious value. It is difficult even to conceive of Hinduism without taking into account the abundance of aesthetically rich images, from early cave engravings to temple and manuscript illustrations. For most Hindu philosophers, such images are believed to be of representations of the divine rather than unconditional displays of ultimate reality. They are nonetheless prized as vital for religious practices. From a Hindu point of view, then, a sculpture of Lord Shiva can be an important, vital display of divine energy as represented by dance.

In the three monotheistic traditions, however, there has been strong resistance to image making. Part of this is due to prohibitions against idolatry (treating something non-divine as divine) but it was also prohibited on the grounds of the transcendent “otherness” of God. God is the uncreated, non-contingent, omnipresent reality who makes and sustains the cosmos and to represent God as an image threatens to undermine the radical difference between Creator and creature. Because Christians believe God to have become incarnate as a human being (Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine), they believe it is not just permissible but good to picture God iconographically. Still, it is worth pausing for a moment more and considering why religions might seek image-less worship and reverence.

Arguably, some image (or at least idea) of God is essential to love and worship God, just as some image or idea of someone or something is essential to loving and respecting that person or thing.  If I have no idea whatever of your identity, it would be difficult even to imagine loving you. That being said, images and ideas can stand in the way of love: what if my image or idea of you is wrong? Imagine I picture you as an aviator-poet whereas you hate flying and only like prose. In that case, perhaps I only love my image of you and not you yourself. In a loving relationship, presumably the images and ideas we have of one another are dynamic and ready to shift as the occasion calls for it, but might there also be a good found in a non-mediated presence or imageless state of mind before the beloved?  This would be a state of mind with no work of art in the mind’s eye but there still may be what the ancients and many would call “art” today, such as the art of meditation.

Before turning to the final, rather broad category of values to be found in artwork, we should note the tradition in British Romantic poetry that saw in the imagination and love a deep religious or spiritual resource. In ending this section, consider this selection from The Prelude by William Wordsworth.


“. . .From love, for here

Do we begin and end, all grandeur comes,

All truth and beauty, from pervading love,

That gone, we are as dust. . .

. . .in some green bower

Rest, and be not alone, but have thou there

The One who is thy choice of all the world,

There linger, lulled and lost, and rapt away,

Be happy to thy fill:  thou call’st this love

And so it is, but there is higher love

Than this, a love that comes into the heart

With awe and a diffusive sentiment;

Thy love is human merely; this proceeds

More from the brooding Soul, and is divine.

This love more intellectual cannot be

Without Imagination, which, in truth,

Is but another name for absolute strength

And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,

And reason in her most exalted mood.

This faculty hath been the moving soul

Of our long labour:  we have traced the stream

From darkness, and the very place of birth

In its blind cavern. . .

. . .And lastly, from its progress have we drawn

The feeling of life endless, the one thought

By which we live, Infinity and God.

Imagination having been our theme,

So also hath that intellectual love,

For they are each in each, and cannot stand

Dividually.” (Wordsworth and De Selincourt 1926,  480-482)

Aesthetic Values

Many other values might be found in works of art: art may bolster cultural and national identities, celebrate public service, undermine the status quo, and so on. There are also at least three sorts of values to be noted that are distinctly aesthetic: aesthetic texture, the sublime, and the beautiful.

Aesthetic texture: Literature, painting, sculpture, and all the arts can display or embody aesthetic features. An important value can be seen in the way these features are interwoven. Does the instrumental music drown out and overwhelm the singing? If so, does this make for a better or worse performance? Does the size of the sculpture dwarf what appears to be the humility of its thematic content? Does the length of the film diminish its power? Does the play have distracting scenes that serve no purpose, not even comic relief or to set up an interesting red herring? Is the scene in the novel deeply moving in a way that involves a genuine lament or is it sentimental, saccharine and unconvincing? The overall aesthetic impact of a work of art can be of great importance.  We may well praise works of art for their dissonance, apparent incoherence or absurdity (some of Kafka’s work). But (as with anti-art art or anti-philosophy philosophy), there are limits. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a classic, highly successful fantasy because its child heroine is sane and (for the most part) good and innocent, but if Alice was as mad as the Queen of Hearts, all of the jokes about executing different characters by decapitation, et cetera, would lose their humor and puzzling/enigmatic enchantment.

The sublime: The sublime is often contrasted with the beautiful and is most often used to refer to awesome greatness that inspires fear without endangering the observer.  Kant describes the sublime in nature as follows:

“Bold, overhanging . . . threatening rocks, thunder clouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river . . . make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided that our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for it its fearfulness.” (Kant 1964,  110)

Edmund Burke argued that the sublime was found in astonishment, a “state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror”(Burke 1856,  72). Another major source of the sublime is infinity:

“Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime…Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime. There are scarcely any things which can become the objects of our senses, that are really and in their own nature infinite; but the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so.” (Burke 1856,  92)

The sublime can be found in works of art, too. According to Kant, Homeric poetry about Venus is beautiful, while Milton’s depiction of hell is sublime with its arousing fearful horror. J.M.W. Turner’s paintings of outrageous seas with ships amid titanic storms are often considered the gold standard when it comes to the sublime.  According to Kant, the sublime often involves greatness and scale, whereas beauty can be humble and small. And if the sublime can be experienced by the infinite or the eye’s belief that it is seeing the infinite, vast scenes of grandeur like Turner’s would evoke both astonishment and fear.

Some philosophers today are wary of the sublime for it seems to involve ecstatic rapture without any essential reference to moral values. Perhaps it is so dangerous because the sublime marks one of the great merits of certain kinds of art and some of our experiences of the natural world.

Beauty: Some important, highly valued works of art seem profoundly unbeautiful. The portraits of some figures by the painter Francis Bacon seem rife with terrifying torment. Given a narrow definition of beauty where beauty is equated with harmony, pleasing symmetry and sweetness, very little contemporary art in all genres seem beautiful. But as we say in chapter one, beauty can be understood as a fitting or proper pleasure or aesthetic delight. In this broader category, one may well rank the values of works of art or events or objects in general on the extent to which they arouse intrinsically appreciative aesthetic delight or pleasure. From one point of view, Francis Bacon’s subjects may indeed be ugly, but isn’t the overall effect (his masterful command of color and form, the close study of piercing expressive raw emotion) something we aesthetically prize and find mesmerizing? Paradoxically, sometimes the ugly or horrifying can be so framed that we deeply value (and so, in a sense, find beautiful) the work of art as a whole.

Baumgarten held that the sharpening of our cognition and our increased awareness of the world and values are in themselves beautiful.

“The perfection of every kind of cognition grows from the richness, the magnitude, the truth, the clarity and certainty, and the liveliness of cognition, insofar as these harmonize within a single representation and with each other, e.g. richness and magnitude with clarity, truth and clarity with certainty, all of the rest with liveliness . . . ; when all of these perfections of cognition appear together in sensory appearance they yield universal beauty.” (Baumgarten 1750)

If Baumgarten is correct, seemingly ugly works of art (or art with revolting content) can be beautiful as they aid us cognitively.

As a term, “beauty” does not enjoy a conspicuous, dominant place in contemporary art criticism, though it is making a comeback (inspired by Iris Murdoch; see Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just). However, its lack of explicit use is not evidence that matters of beauty are sidelined. I suggest that calling a work of art beautiful amounts to claiming it is worthy of appreciable observation (engagement or overall enjoyment), but this in and of itself does not specify why the object is worthy of such attention. Criticism, then, comes to the fore.  It spends little time reflecting on whether artwork is worthy of attention and dives right into why or why not some of the features of the artworks do succeed or fail in the work as a whole.

This chapter has focused on values in artwork, but it is worth considering in closing that some philosophers have considered the lives of human beings ourselves as possible art works. Nietzsche commended such a philosophy.

“One thing is needful. – To “give style” to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan . . . Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed – both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime . . . For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art.” (Nietzsche 1974,  232)

Nietzsche’s ultimate commendation is to find one’s own life beautiful.

“This secret self-ravishment, this artists’ cruelty, this delight in imposing a form upon oneself as a hard, recalcitrant, suffering material and in burning a will . . . into it, this uncanny, dreadfully joyous labor of a soul voluntarily at odds with itself . . . brought to light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation, and perhaps beauty itself. – After all, what would be “beautiful” . . . if the ugly had not first said to itself: “I am ugly” ?” (Nietzsche 1969,  87-8)

Nietzsche’s conception of self-stylization, then, is not exactly a recipe for complacency. In order to understand its full significance, however, it will be helpful to examine the interpretative and the transformative aspects of self-stylization separately. Interpretatively, the notion of giving style to one’s character is tied to deception: specifically, to the telling of lies to oneself about oneself and one’s relation to the world, so that recalcitrant facts about either are rendered bearable. Take, for example, the large and recalcitrant fact of human suffering. Uninterpreted, Nietzsche thinks, suffering is intolerable. It is the “senselessness of suffering,” he claims, rather than “suffering as such” that “really arouses indignation.” The challenge, then, is to interpret suffering – to tell lies about suffering – in such a way that it appears, not as “the principal argument against existence,” but as “a genuine seduction to life” (Ridley 2001,  82). The cost may be great (telling lies) but in a sense Nietzsche is here endorsing the beauty and value of life; its value is so great that even truth should be subordinate to beauty.

The Nietzschean vision is some distance from the Platonic vision we began with, in terms of affirming the unity of beauty, truth, and goodness, but perhaps Nietzsche’s position is a more telling revelation of the fragmentary nature of the modern era.