A Christian critique of art: Two lectures given at the Unionville Study Conference of the Association for Reformed Scientific Studies on August 28 – 30, by Calvin Seerveld edited by John H. Kok. $ US; pages; paperback; ISBN / Discussion of human imaginativity, of ordinary. Calvin Seerveld (b. in New York), professor Emeritus in Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto, received an MA in English literature .
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Skip to main content. Log In Sign Up. Executive Editorial Board Ricardo F. V Leonard Liggio Robert A. Schmiesing Associate Editor Jordan J. Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn http: Static drawn on a U. Make checks payable URL: Please send address changes to Archives are available at: The views expressed by the authors are their own and are not attributable to the editor, the editorial board, or the Acton Institute. The Relational Perspective Dwight R. Capvin The Clergy and Economists: Phillips Getting into Hot Water: Evangelicals and Global Warming Jonathan E.
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I begin with the preliminary question: Does art have any grounding in reality, or is it a mere social construct? I begin here because in order to answer how we should be stewards of art, we must know what it is we intend to steward.
That is, when you say, This is good art, or This is bad art, This piece is beautiful, or This piece is ugly, you are merely expressing personal like or dislike. If, however, it can be established that predicates of value have objective grounding in reality, then a case can be made that the art to which these value judgments are applied also has objective grounding. We can make initial headway by turning to moral values. Because Christianity presumes the objective reality of moral values, it is relatively uncontroversial to suggest that the realm of art is not exempt: Thus, objective values can gain an initial entry into the artistic sphere via the moral sphere.
However, does the realm of objective values end with morality? Certainly not—or at least not for the Christian. Christian theology has long held that the true, the good, and the beautiful are part of the real; our faculties of reason apprehend intellectual realities that are just as much a part of reality as what our senses apprehend.
This concept, known as realism, contrasts with nominalism, which treats intellectual realities such as general nouns and predicates of value as mere names projected on reality. Realism has been the dominant position throughout Christian history and has been assumed in core areas of confes- sional Christian doctrine. Thus, I, for one, am a committed realist, but I will not here appeal to confessional considerations in defense of realism. Instead, I will attempt to introduce some of the more compelling reasons to presume realism in reference to art.
Why then, says Origen, should we deny those incorporeal realities on which the mind asserts itself? Such suspicion robs reason of the dignity due it, subordinating it to our lower faculties, which we share with beasts. Lewis makes a similar case in The Abolition of Man. Gaius and Titius emphasis on accuracy. They demonstrate accurate grammar by scrutinizing a story from Coleridge.
Coleridge recalls witnessing two people before a waterfall. One says the falls are pretty; the other sublime.
Coleridge says the latter is right. But Gaius and Titius GT suggest that Coleridge should have said the waterfall gives him also a feeling of sublimity. Were he speaking about his feelings, the predicate would be the opposite of sublimity—he has humble feelings. If I say a work of art is sublime, such a statement requires modification in order to refer to my feelings—I have humble feelings. Notice, however, that this modification does not succeed in making my feelings the referent of sublime; instead, sublime is now entirely without a referent.
In this modified form, I have a feeling of being humbled, and, from this feeling, I infer that the artwork encountered is sublime. If we reject the reality of sublimity, though, my inference is false, and the term sublime becomes meaningless.
More important, however, eserveld the ramifications for my faculties. If I have a feeling that a work of art is sublime, but there is no such thing as sublimity, then my faculties communicate the existence of something that does not exist. In short, if GT are right, then my faculties are malfunctioning. We therefore face a choice. Either our sense of values is grounded in reality, or we must dismiss values and the faculties that testify to them.
The latter option faces two very serious hurdles. First, on what grounds do we dismiss sublim- ity, or beauty, or any other predicate of value, as chimerical?
It would seem the only seeveld to falsify the testimony of our faculties to these czlvin is to step outside ourselves—which is impossible.
Second, to dismiss our rational facul- ties as unreliable begs the question: Why accept our lower corporeal faculties as reliable? If no satisfactory answer can be given, we are left to either embrace the testimony of our higher faculties, as Origen commends, or accept perpetual skepticism.
Faced with such options, a realist view of values commends itself as supremely reasonable. If, then, realism is right, and if predicates of value have objective grounding, what are the implications for art? To answer this question, I turn to the meta- physic of Saint Augustine. The term matter in this context identifies the substratum that is receptive to various properties. It is pure potentiality, which may be instilled with any number of perfections and formed by God into any number of things.
Yet, matter has no innate properties of its own; whatever perfections are made manifest are instilled from without by the deity. Contrast this with God, who is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient. These perfections are innate in his nature and cannot know increase. Between these poles of being—pure potentiality and pure actuality—creation is formed. Creation is conceived by Augustine as the divine act by which matter is drawn from pure potentiality to ever-increasing stages of actuality.
Rocks, for example, have very limited perfec- tions, possessing existence and accidental properties such as color. Plants stand above rocks, possessing not only existence but also life and capacity for growth. Higher are creatures that possess not only existence, life, and growth but also animation and limited capacities of will. Higher still is humanity, which possesses perfections common to irrational animals as well as the remarkable faculty of reason, and on it goes.
A fundamental assumption of this vision is that there is in fact a hierarchy of perfections. It assumes that existence and life is superior to bare existence; it assumes that the faculty of reason places man, a rational animal, above the per- fections of irrational beasts. Notice that this hierarchy also presumes the reality of values, for superior and inferior, unless read as mere assertions of power, are predicates of value.
To say that a rational animal is superior to an irrational animal in an ontological sense is intelligible only if objective values are granted. Lest there is any hesitation at the notion of ontic superiority, consider the question: Is God seervld to creation? If this question beckons an unflinching yes—which it no doubt does—this reply itself affirms the reality of objective values.
To apply this metaphysic to art, we may consider the etymology of the word. The term art has its calvi in the notion of skill or a practice learned.
Though we are here focusing on the visual arts, it is appropriate to speak of the art of cooking, the art of painting, the art of sewing, the art of filmmaking, or seervelr the art of lovemaking. This notion of skill offers a point of contact with the above hierarchy of perfections.
This connection becomes evident when considering human potentiality, as contrasted with divine actuality. Consider, for example, divine omnipotence. It was stated above that God cannot be any more powerful than he is by nature. Yet, a human possesses a capacity to be stronger through exercise of various sorts.
The same concept applies in the realm of skill. A child has a certain potential to learn music—some greater potential than others. Yet, unless that potential is nurtured, it does not move into actuality.
Calvni it be nurtured, however, that potential becomes a manifest skill—it moves into actuality. That skill can be further nurtured toward increase or neglected to decrease.
The implication is that skill sets are actual properties. When developed, a skill constitutes a manifest property or perfection that the creature previously lacked. The ontic status of skill gives us a foundation for discussing the objective grounding of art.