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Art Without Truth, Beauty and Goodness is Not Art at All

Guest post by Greg Blankenbehler

It is the birthright of all humans to appreciate and imitate Beauty, but it is not necessarily something that comes automatically. There is beauty on all levels of perception and understanding, and it often takes a good deal of training and experience to appreciate the more sophisticated and sublime manifestations of it.

Perception

One way of looking at education is as a training in how to see Truth-Beauty-Goodness in various areas and degrees. The natural sciences and visual arts train us on how to see the truth/beauty of our natural world. The humanities, and the performing arts show us how to see the truth/beauty of human nature. Mathematics and the more abstract sciences show us the truth/beauty of the underlying order of the natural world. And so on . . . it is the job of every teacher of every subject to open the eyes of her scholars to the previously-invisible Truth-Beauty-Goodness of that part of reality.

This is an especially important job in the arts, an area that creates imitations or models of the “contours” of reality through a medium of expression. This could be painted shapes on a canvas that represent whole landscapes of mountains and rivers, dialogues on stage that suggest an infinitely complex web of individual and interpersonal lives, and songs and poetry that hint at subtle and otherwise inarticulate emotions and sensations. Since the smallest object in reality is still too complex to reproduce in full detail, the arts uses media (paint, clay, pitches, rhythms, gestures, expressions, etc.) to “render” reality and emphasize the aspects of Beauty that the artist wishes to point out to the observer. It takes a good deal of training, experience, and reflection to increase one’s aesthetic perceptive abilities.

Imitative Skills

As I mentioned before, once a person identifies and appreciates Beauty, there is always a drive to try to more intimately experience it themselves by imitating it. Those who do have experience in imitating Beauty can more fully appreciate it in the creative imitations of others. This is especially the case in the arts. The sculptor who has worked in the language of three-dimensional human form is the best equipped to understand the expression of beauty in Michelangelo’s Pieta. Even a little dabbling in creating art goes a long way to better understanding the ongoing Great Discussion on Truth-Beauty-Goodness in that particular arts genre.

For the musician, these skills could include the following and more: ear-training in pitch, harmony, rhythm and meter; reading and writing music; musicianship experience with dynamics, texture, and musical form; and technical and expressive experience in singing and/or instruments. For the actor, these skills include: diction, vocal tone and inflection, pacing, facial expression, physical gesture, and dancing. For the visual artist: skill with the pencil, pen, brush, chisel, or computer; understanding of the principles of visual art including color, shape, texture, and perspective.

Connecting Skills and Beauty

A drawing without skill cannot be good art because it fails to effectively imitate the subject it is portraying. Likewise, a skilled drawing without underlying Truth of Beauty cannot be good art because it portrays the physical aspects of the subject without any deeper meaningful aspects of it. This is why an artistic drawing has the ability to evoke aesthetic feelings while a technical drawing typically does not.

In developing both technical and aesthetic skills, great artists traditionally experience the following areas of growth:

Imitation and Rudimentary Skill Development — Early on, this is traditionally accomplished in all of the arts through the instruction and model of the master artist. Piano teachers lead their scholars through daily training drills and demonstrate with their own playing how to breathe life into a Chopin etude. Aspiring painters likewise were traditionally apprenticed to a master painter and learned daily how to paint simpler to more complex things under their careful tutelage. It has always been common to see young painters with their easels at art galleries copying great works of art on display. This is one thing the general public often misunderstands about artistic excellence: it is not so much granted by a favorable fairy at birth, but rather developed minute by minute through good role models, coaching, and an astonishing amount of practice.

Self-Discovery — Great art, however, cannot come from simply imitating another artist. In addition to perfecting their technical and artistic skills, every great artist must go out into the world and discover the Beauty and Truth to be found out there, and delve deep into their own selves to discover the Beauty and Truth to be found inside themselves. This concept is wonderfully demonstrated in Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of correspondence from the experienced poet Rainer Maria Rilke to his younger colleague Franz Xaver Kappus. In these letters, Rilke repeatedly encourages Kappus to live life with his eyes wide open, experiencing and carefully noting the Truth and Beauty it has to offer. This includes deeply examining his own thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and expressing the genuine aesthetic experiences he has through his art. This process is the only way to create original and authentic art that moves others.

Performance/Presentation — The creation of great art is never a “safe” endeavor. It requires the bold exploration of Truth (both within and without) and bravery in presenting it to a potentially hostile world for their contemplation. The artist grows in skill and eloquence by repeating the artistic process again and again, creating more and more art. Each step can feel like a “leap of faith” or a “baptism of fire,” but the successful artist is courageous and inventive in repeatedly turning out works of personal, authentic art.

Evidence of Aesthetic Skills Development

According to Roger Scruton in his article for BBC News entitled Faking It, ever since Duchamp’s infamous inverted urinal, the modern art world has created a racket in which disingenuous artists create silly or disgusting art that they claim is profoundly meaningful, insincere art critics publish fawning articles praising their “originality” and aesthetic genius, and art museums spend millions of taxpayer and patron dollars to put those artworks on display, thereby “proving” to everyone that the artwork (and the artist, critic, and purchaser) is worth so much. And so, Scruton asserts, the indecently dressed emperor continues to be praised for his non-existent clothing. This great art con continues to repeat itself because no one seems to know what great art is anymore. No one knows what great art is because anyone can claim to have created or experienced art that generates profound aesthetic experiences, but it is much harder to prove it, especially in a society that values individualism and diversity.

This dilemma reproduces itself in our scholars’ classrooms. If technical skill cannot reliably assure a great artist, and we can’t just take people’s word that they are truly having great aesthetic experiences, how can we recognize if our scholars are making or experiencing great art, or at least progressing towards it? 

The solution to this problem is to be found in the classical model. It is really very simple: great art elicits profound and generative meaning, which comes out in personal reflections and discussions. If, due to problems with its execution or subject matter, a work of art fails to mean much to a group of aesthetically-skilled observers, it fails to be a great work of art. (Sometimes it does take an “interpreter” to show the world the meaning in certain works of art, but the fact that the work of art is able to generate meaning after the individual helps society to see it still proves my point.) Likewise, the clearest evidence that a scholar or anyone has developed aesthetic sensibility is their ability to perceive, interpret, analyze, and synthesize the deeper meanings of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in a demonstrably great work of art. You can tell if a scholar (or adult) has developed aesthetic sophistication in the way they discuss the piece: they excitedly make connections to other great classics, to themselves, and to fundamentals of the human experience. In the most profound interactions with Beauty, you can see the moral and existential effect that the work of art has on their lives moving forward. It is barely a metaphor to say that they “glow” with the enlightenment of Truth-Beauty-Goodness.

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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