Friday, November 25, 2016

Heavenly Outlook

From Daniel Mitsui:
Opinions about art are diverse, strongly held and contradictive. Facing such conflict, many hoist a flag of surrender and say that art is just a matter of personal taste. Some even fly that flag triumphantly. They heatedly argue that art is not a thing worth arguing; they insist that nothing about art is objectively true except its objective lack of objective truthfulness.

This idea is not entirely new; de gustibus non est disputandum has been uttered for centuries, although I suspect that it has only recently been understood in an absolute sense. I see an error at the start of this line of reasoning: the assumption that in order for a thing to be real (and not just a product of the mind), it must be quantifiable. This is the perhaps the most popular error of modern thinking. At the end of this line of reasoning is a colorless, mechanical view of reality. The Catholic philosopher and physicist Wolfgang Smith described it well:

We are told that [the physical universe] consists of space, time and matter, or of space-time and energy, or perhaps of something else still more abstruse and even less imaginable; but in any case we are told in unequivocal terms what it excludes: as all of us have learnt, the physical universe is said to exclude just about everything which from the ordinary human point of view makes up the world.... What is being bifurcated or cut asunder are the so-called primary and secondary qualities: the things that can be described in mathematical terms, and those that cannot. Logically speaking, the bifurcation postulate is tantamount to the identification of the so-called physical universe (the world as conceived by the physicist) with the real world per se, through the device of relegating all else (all that does not fit this conception) to an ontological limbo, situated outside the world of objectively existent things.... Let it be said at once that this reduction of the world to the categories of physics is not a scientific discovery (as many believe), but a metaphysical assumption that has been built into the theory from the outset.
New technology impresses this way of thinking even more deeply. Computers have it built into their every function, for they actually cannot heed anything unless it is reduced to a number. And technology imparts its bias to its users. To a man with a hammer, the adage goes, everything looks like a nail; to a man with a computer, everything looks like a datum.

The modern mind has acquired the habit of quantifying, sorting and ranking things that are not inherently numerical: beauty, intelligence, friendship, originality, love. This is, to the modern mind, the only way to prove that they are real. Art is recalcitrant to numerical description; hurrah, I say, for art. The criterion of the modern mind does not need to be met; it needs to be dismissed.

My first advice to anyone who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is not to treat art like data. Do not rate it with stars; do not make top-ten lists. Real appreciation is gotten by paying serious attention to a work of art, just looking at it for a very long time. It is in the looking that communication through art happens.


Truth and Good, those things that sacred art intends to communicate, are transcendental; they are names of God. According to Dionysius, the author of The Divine Names, Beauty is another:
The Beautiful which is beyond individual being is called Beauty because of that beauty bestowed by it on all things, each in accordance with what it is. It is given this name because it is the cause of the harmony and splendor in everything, because like a light it flashes onto everything the beauty-causing impartations of its own wellspring ray.... It is forever so, unvaryingly, unchangeably so, beautiful not as something coming to birth and death, to growth or decay, not lovely in one respect while ugly in some other way. It is not beautiful now but otherwise then.... It is not beautiful in one place and not so in another, as though it could be beautiful for some and not for others.... It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have beauty.
Sacred art has a permanent content that is knowable from tradition. The art called Gothic, which began in the twelfth century, is fully traditional; its makers did not predicate their originality on a rejection of the art of the past. Rather, they put it into order and expressed it more clearly. Gothic art is the visual equivalent of a medieval encyclopedia. It is as complete and disciplined a system as Byzantine iconography, but aligned to the Latin liturgy and the Latin church fathers. This is why I make it the basis of my own artwork.

I do not think of Gothic as a mere historic style belonging to a certain time and place; that would make it a very boring thing. Rather, I think of it as the best example of an art made according to Catholic principles - principles that are always and everywhere true. They are not merely useful for creating sacred art as it was during certain centuries of European history; rather, they are useful for creating sacred art in any place or time, including our own. (Read more.)

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