The Humanness of Art

Caveat: this post is a mental exercise, trying to work out my thinking.

First a quote from Roger Scruton:

“There is also the division that separates merely conscious creatures from self-conscious creatures like us. Only the second have a genuine ‘first-person’ perspective, from which to distinguish how things seem to me from how they seem to you. The creature with “I” thoughts has an ability to relate to his kind in a way that sets him apart from the rest of nature, and many thinkers (Kant and Hegel preeminently) believe that it is this fact, not the face of consciousness per se, that creates or reveals the central mysteries of the human condition. Although dogs are conscious, they do not reflect on their own consciousness as we do: they live, as Schopenhauer put it, in ‘a world of perception,’ their thoughts and desires turned outward to the perceivable world.”

Roger Scruton, “Confronting Biology,” in Philosophical Psychology: Psychology, Emotions, and Freedom, edited by Craig Steven Titus (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Press, 2009), 90.

Reading the phrase “relate to his kind” stimulated me to think about how we relate to our kind. As Scruton says, I have “‘I’ thoughts”; I’m not merely conscious, but also self-conscious. But awareness of my “I” thoughts leads me to understand others “I” thoughts. It leads me to be aware of the fact of a sort of intentionality that is only possible for a self-conscious person. I must be aware of myself and my conscious aims for becoming to be able to intend in the fullest sense.

This cluster of ideas led in a hard-to-specify way to a realization that the sort of art I appreciate is human art (isn’t all art?). What I mean is this, I enjoy art to the extent that I can perceive alongside the artist, and especially when the objects perceived are humans. It is this struggle with self-consciousness and for the the rightness of self-conscious aims that so fascinates me about the human condition. And art that captures this struggle captures my imagination. As an example of what I mean, I am posting below a sampling of my recent and favorite Facebook “Cover Photos.”


Edward Hopper’s Room in New York


Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Horatii


Hendrick ter Brugghe’s The Supper at Emmaus

10575279_10152664475495342_5683220365933775673_oLéon-Ernest Drivier’s La Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Life)

1412739_10152065162000342_341645355_oJohannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid

Quotable: George Steiner

The last couple paragraphs of his brilliant, The Poetry of Thought:

“The radical break with the western historical past would be that of ephemerality. It would entail the deliberate acceptance of the momentary and the transient. There would be no avowed aspirations to immortality. These would be left to the French Academicians. Lines of verse claiming to outlast bronze would be entombed in the archives. Citation would become an esoteric practice and arrogance. The self-destruct, the effacing sweep of death would not only be accepted but somehow enfolded within aesthetic and intellectual phenomena. Sense would be made play: homo ludens. Thus semantics would converge with those mutations in the status of death and personal identity to which I have referred. On the horizon lies the prospect that biochemical, neurological discoveries will demonstrate that the inventive, cognitive processes of the human psyche have their ultimately material source. That even the greatest metaphysical conjecture or poetic find are complex forms of molecular chemistry.

“This is not a vision in which an obsolescent, often technophobic consciousness such as mine can take comfort. It comes after “the humanities” which so bleakly failed us in the long night of the twentieth century. Yet it may be a formidable adventure. And somewhere a rebellious singer, a philosophical inebriate with solitude will say “No.” A syllable charged with the promise of creation.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought, 216-217

Edward Hopper, “House by the Railroad”

housebytherailroadPersonal Reflections
I appreciate the way this picture captures the absurdity of American life, with its competing pulls toward material prosperity and spiritual (or aesthetic) peace (it is clear which is primary). Put in another setting, perhaps with an abundance of trees scattering the glittering sun, hedged by bushes and water, the house would be beautiful. In that way, it could even feel like a home, at least for a time. But this is no home. The blind judgments of material prosperity have either put the track near the home or the home near the track; no sensible person would have done either. It makes me think of Tolkien’s horror in “The Scouring of the Shire” (The Return of the King) that anyone would fashion a house to make money. But here the house stands with stark naked sunlight blasting the mostly shut shades. It cuts hard lines out of soft aesthetic curves. It makes me wonder which would be worse in the morning, the sunlight or the morning train? The only real sign of life in the picture is that obviously the tracks and the house were both designed, but, absurdly, both for utility.

Provocation: “A Defense of Christian Kitsch” by Paul Griffiths

“Sacred Heart,” from

“Sacred Heart,” from

From “A Defense of Christian Kitsch” by Paul Griffiths

The term kitsch is usually intended as an insult. To call a painting or a musical composition or a piece of decorative art “kitschy” suggests that it’s crude, cheap, unsophisticated, unoriginal, mass-produced, and above all sentimental. It’s Norman Rockwell’s urchins, Soviet-era statues of heroic workers, angels and kittens (especially together), velvet Elvises, flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark, and Kylie Minogue. And, it’s the crucified coat hanger and the Sacred Heart you can see on this page.

Such things lack, above all else, nuance. They leave no doubt about how you should respond to them, and they don’t invite varied interpretations. You sigh with warm sadness at the sight of Jesus’ Sacred Heart, or a tear comes to your eye at the thought of hanging your coat on his crucified hands (you’ll probably need to be Catholic for the first and Protestant for the second). You’ll also likely feel, at least for a moment, pleased that you’re the kind of person able to respond in that way.

Kitsch is, by this account, trash; and you, to the extent that you like it, are trashy. You ought to be ashamed of yourself and go to some art appreciation classes at once.

So runs the anti-kitsch argument. It’s usually a finely tuned instrument of class hatred. Those who offer it are typically people who know what kitsch is, don’t like it, and want to educate others out of liking it. They’re rarely far from contempt for kitsch-lovers.

Read on

I think that perhaps Griffiths sets up a bit of a straw man here, but his point is provocative and worth considering.

The point of push back that I would offer is this, if godliness is another way of saying Christian virtue, then surely cultivated emotional responses that are connected to reasonable evaluative judgements (see David Carr, “Literature and the Arts in Emotional Education”) are part of what it means to be moving toward maturity. In this case, it seems obvious that kitsch fails because it moves the emotions irrationally. To put it very crudely, we cry when we ought not to, but leave other more pressing issues uncried for.

That said, his point about artistic sophistication sometimes being a form of class hatred is, I think, exactly right.

An Email Concerning Value Statements

Dear (Friend),

I find your comment immensely interesting. And I want to thank you both for it and for reading the article. What you are touching on is the ethics of making value statements, the ethics of value beliefs and value claims, but especially with reference to literary works. I think that I agree with Y’s statement in a general and sweeping sense, though probably not in an absolute sense. I have at least two students which I would say have the capacity and in some cases the warrant to make value statements about authors. So, in short, I think that it’s very perceptive of you to observe that.

Whether you are interested or not, I’ll explain a bit more about my own thoughts on value statements (for my own benefit as much as anything). I think the difficulty of a word like “master” is that it carries with it an implication of cultural contingency. I mean this: “master” usually implies the context of a guild, that is a group of people who are working toward excellence at the same craft. As such, the rules of the craft and the definitions about what it might mean to be “good at it” are shaped by the discourse of those within the guild. I think that “master” is typically used in this context. The trouble is, as the realism began to be challenged by nominalism (that is a rejection of universals), the idea that a “master” of any sort of craft is really better in a significant sense than others began to be replaced by the idea that a “master” is simply someone doing something new or arresting (interesting). The implication is, that an artist is not good in so far as he does “artistry” better than others, but rather that he is important in his guild for bringing about something fresh. I rebel against that idea (obviously).

The other significant problem is, the reason that universals began to be looked at with suspicion is that there is difficulty making universal statements of value. In other words, it’s easy for me to make a universal statement about color (for instance), but much more difficult for me to make a universal statement about beauty (for instance). The difficulty in knowing a value oriented universal like beauty led to a denial of the reality of such a universal.

Now that said, your wife is probably denying students the right to make these statement for a far more trivial reason: the fact is they are not qualified to make such a universal statement. This is especially true given the (admitted) difficulty of making such value statements. One must be a master to recognize one (or at least well advanced in the craft). I have no right to criticize Auden’s poetry, for example.

That said, I’m a bit ambivalent about my own claim that Tolkien is a “master.” On the one hand, I’m still learning what even makes one a “master.” Perhaps I’m not qualified to judge. On the other hand, there are several considerations. First, I want to affirm that even ordinary persons can make assertions about morality for instance. Morality can be just as indeterminate as aesthetics; yet, we allow and even encourage people to make moral claims which may be uninformed. Perhaps there is a place for a person to make a claim (with some degree of uncertainty), and to come to fuller understanding by having that claim challenged? Second, the central thrust of my article is supporting the claim. What I’m trying to do is to demonstrate his mastery in that he so skillfully uses voice to develop his characterizations. So, if only in the sense that this is the claim I’m trying to support, I’ve chosen to try to make it.

But after all this is said, I actually typed those words with some thought concerning what I’ve written above. It did enter my mind, am I even qualified to claim this?

So, that was overkill, but useful at least for me!

Thanks for your criticism, but more seriously for your friendship.