Is art separable from the artist and from virtue?

Giorgio Vasari, "Justice" —1542 Meant to be viewed from below so that the figures appeared to be looking over a parapet.  Originally created for the Palazzo Corner Spinelli in Venice.

Giorgio Vasari, “Justice” —1542
Meant to be viewed from below so that the figures appeared to be looking over a parapet. Originally created for the Palazzo Corner Spinelli in Venice.

I’ve recently begun a marvellous book, and wanted to share bits of it and some thoughts about it with you today, for it has given me much to think about; I also think it will be of interest to many of my readers. The post will be accompanied not by my own work, as I do not entirely consider myself an “Artist”, but work from some of the artists mentioned and those I just plain like.

The book is so wonderful and with so much to ponder and absorb, this may end up being a series of sorts—conversation about such things is very appealing to me; moreover, the thoughts put forth seem to me very important, especially for those of us interested in or concerned about culture and art. Fair warning: As these posts are mostly my thinking things out, they’ll probably be a bit meandering!

For months, Jacques Barzun’s highly-praised From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present had been sitting on a shelf in the library, awaiting my attention (two copies, in fact—whoops!), but two weeks ago, I was finally able to pick it up (thank you, back injury!).

13 - palladio capitello 1570, By Fuzo at it.wikipedia (Transferred from it.wikipedia) [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

By Fuzo at it.wikipedia (Transferred from it.wikipedia) [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Though only 80-some pages in but love the book already. Barzun’s voice is terrific, and the narrative is wonderfully well-written. History books can be lively or dry; happily, this is the former sort and I’m savouring every word, even laughing out loud at some of Barzun’s remarks. He is very even-handed thus far, keeping himself from sharing his own opinion on the topics discussed, but when he does interject his own opinion (for instance, about Europe not actually being its own continent), you’re quite aware of it; it’s not posited as fact, and is thus often all the funnier for it. He’s a bit of a smart-aleck, and I have to say I like a little bit of that in a historian—otherwise, we humans simply become too full of ourselves, and that’s a bore.

At any rate, presently I am reading the section “The ‘Artist’ Is Born”. In the mid-15th century, a sculptor named Lorenzo Ghiberti began not only teaching others his craft, but thought that “an artist’s life was important to record for its lessons in craftsmanship. In this view of handiwork lay the germ of a new social type, the Artist…an uncommon individual free to innovate.” Treatises about such things were being released more and more often thanks to that marvellous and revolutionary invention, the printing press, sending the “tricks of the trade” into the wild, as it were, instead of hiding them as had been done before; Ghiberti was one of the first.

He was followed by many such artists, other men writing about their work—Leona Battista Alberti (who sounds like quite a brilliant man), Giorgio Vasari, Benvenuto Cellini, the amazing Palladio (one of my favourites!), and Leonardo da Vinci (Notebooks)These men and many like them wrote about “the new science of perspective, several giving its geometrical rules in great detail and…much miscellaneous advice, ranging from the best way to grind pigments to the proper handling of apprentices.” (Any apprentice in this house would be set to organizing my computer and housekeeping. Volunteers?)

You can see how the idea of The Artist, would be seen as what it was: something new and different. I don’t suppose it is often that an entirely new type emerges into history, especially so late in the game. Some types have nearly always been around—doctors, for instance—only their name has changed (to say nothing of methods!). But this was certainly a brand-spanking sort of situation.

Joachim von Sandrart [Public domain], <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

“Minerva and Saturn protecting Art and Science from Envy and Falsehood.” 1644
Joachim von Sandrart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, reading this portion I could not help but think about how today many artisans and artists (I think Barzun sees them as distinct creatures, and I tend to agree with him) share their own techniques and tips, particularly over the internet. It’s not really new; it’s just a different way of going about it, and the idea of a painter or sculptor or photographer is hardly anything new! There is, or often seems to be, something lacking from today’s such works that stands out to the postmodern reader:

…the space given in these works to the importance for artists to have true faith and strict morals. Virtue is inseparable from good art. It is taken for granted that a work reveals the artists soul as well as his mind. But what is more important, the work of art must by its order mirror the hierarchical order of the world, which is a moral order. Whether by intuition or convention, the artist must know how to convey this reality. Hence the (to us) irrelevant injunctions in the treatises. For eample, in his Notebooks, Leonardo makes excuses for his not being a writer, but he nonetheless shows himself a moral philosopher, a psychologist, and a creator of semi-mystical parables. That all art must be moral is the rule until the 19C, when it cuts loose from moral significance, from regard for virtue in the maker’s character, and from the expectations of the public.

A few paragraphs later,

The Renaissance treatises declare that apart from his moral mission, the artist’s duty (and thereby his intention) is to imitate nature. He must minutely observe “God’s footstool”; it is a way to worship Him. This discipline parallels the scientist’s, and more than one artist of the period thinks of himself as a “natural philosopher”. No “two cultures” as yet divide the best minds.

(Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Presentemphasis added)

Study of horse, da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To me, one key here is Barzun’s noting that in the nineteenth century, men began removing the idea that a man’s art reflected who he was and what he thought (to say nothing of public expectations). I still do not understand how this can be done; as a lover of literature and art, I do not see how someone can create and shape something from their mind and soul only to have it tell us nothing about the artist! In a sense, we are inseparable from our actions and creations. Sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re good, morally speaking, but they still speak to who we are, whether we like it or not. No doubt that issue will continue to arise.

The different mindset—15C and today—is really a very wide gulf, don’t you think? The ideals of faith and worshipping God are high indeed, but since when is a high ideal a bad thing? Seeming or even real unattainability is daunting, but I’d rather strive for something than not. Unfortunately, it seems to me that contemporary culture tells us not to strive, not to seek betterment, but to simply hang out where we began with no concern for ideals, morals, self-discipline.

Also, sometimes I think that today science and art for art’s sake have supplanted faith in people’s minds. This is a fascinating development when we think about how very closely all three were once, something I suspect I’ll be reading more about in the book. Somehow they’ve become enemies.

Finally—and this is bound to be unpopular—I think that the rejection of faith has harmed art,

Study for the Head of Leda (c. 1505 - 1507) is a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. In the public domain, this image is via Wikimedia Commons.

Study for the Head of Leda (c. 1505 – 1507) is a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. In the public domain, this image is via Wikimedia Commons.

artists, and those perusing the art.

Now, obviously not every artist is an agnostic or atheist; there are plenty of people of faith who produce marvellous works and others striving to do so, while there are agnostic artists also producing amazing things. There are also artists of faith churning out…um…well…less-than-stellar work, and people lacking any faith whatsoever doing the same.

Frankly, I think those of faith creating low-quality work have indeed lost sight of their calling, their purpose, and the reason God gave them the gifts He has—or worse, they simply do not care, and want to produce works that are merely commercially successful, “pretty”, and so forth. Thus we end up with the treacly banality of so much Christian “art”. I’d bet even my non-religious readers can name a few Christian artists churning such things out, and that’s depressing, because in my mind, believers should be creating some of the very best art because of the One they serve. Right? If you claim to be serving God, shouldn’t you not only be doing the absolute best you can even while working toward becoming better? I think so! (Can you see why I am unpopular in even Christian circles? You know, God accepts us as we are, warts and all, so we should just stay warty, right? Um…no.)

Dürer Melancholia I

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But to speak very generally…Well, so much art today seems so dystopian, hollow…even ugly. There’s a very strong likelihood that this is a reflection of the age and what the artists feel—which speaks to the foolishness (in my opinion) of separating the artist from his creations, because they’re saying something important even if they don’t have a solution—though I’m not sure just how religious and deeply faithful the great artists of the 15C were. Even so, their works do not leave us with the same response as modern works, do they? It is almost as if there is no longer anything to aim for other than fame or notoriety, both of these being fleeting indeed.

Deep down we all know that we are bound for the dust, that our days wither like grass; perhaps this, too, explains the style and purpose of some of today’s works. And by the way—we can look at an artwork and appreciate the skill that went into it while not agreeing with its message. No doubt we’ve all been in this position!

Considering many of today’s popular (or at least well-known, for I’m not sure how popular they really are) works, I do not think we are always allowed the opportunity to admire the talent because the works or their subject matter are so shockingly portrayed (maybe that is the point of the work altogether?)—they’re almost inseparable. Again, I wonder why this is—what the artist is really up to—and sometimes think that such subterfuge, if that is what is really happening, is quite unmannerly on the artist’s part, though I can certainly understand the various reasons for their taking this tack. Some have made their name simply by being shocking and crass. Why is this?


“Firenze” by Leo D’Lion, CC BY-SA 2.0
This photo gives us a glimpse of Giorgio Vasari’s “Last Judgment”, dome of the Cathedral of Florence. Vasari died in 1574, and Frederick Zuccaro completed the work.

I suppose this returns us to the rejection of a moral order, for which the foundation has long since been yanked away. Virtue no longer has the hold it once did on our imaginations and hearts; indeed, it is sneered and laughed at. Perhaps some of today’s works reflect a dissatisfaction with the result of our tearing down the old moral order and rejection of virtue; maybe there is an anger that not all has turned out as we’d hoped after we released ourselves from these “shackles”, and the nagging wonder if by doing so we are in fact denying parts of our own nature. Instead of trying to understand these things about ourselves, we only become angrier, flailing against the tide we’ve let loose, and this, too, seems to me shows up in many modern artworks.


Basilica of Sant’Andrea (1472-1790), Mantua, designed by Leon Battista Alberti
L1030949 by Darren Milligan, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I do wish to say this—not all “dark” or “unpretty” artwork is, in my opinion, “bad” or “lacking in virtue”. Again, I do not really consider myself an artist, but a quick perusal of my photography and my favourite photos from others should make this very clear, as would a glimpse at some of the things hanging on my walls. We are all racing toward entropy, a fact every one of us struggles with on a variety of levels, and it only makes sense that this will be reflected in artist’s work, because they are after all only human! Life is grimy and we begin to die the moment we are born, really, both spiritually and physically. I just think that there needs, or ought, to be an element of true hopefulness in works of this nature, particularly when the artwork is by a person of faith who believes in redemption and sanctification, of life to come. Even for those who have no faith, what of children—future generations? Do they see no hope there, either? Perhaps that lack of hope in so many works and collections is what (honestly) puts me off from them and leaves me unsettled by them.

Well, this ended up being far longer and even more rambling than I expected! Thanks for hanging in this long if you have, and feel free to share your own thoughts and wonderings. Again, the book I’m reading and so fascinated by is From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun. It’s a rich treat thus far (sugar free, even!) and if you love history or culture, I feel safe already in recommending it.

Karel van Mander [Public domain], <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

“The Continence of Scipio. On the reverse: Allegory on Nature.” 1600.
Karel van Mander [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Click for a larger view, it’s worth it!


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