Tuesday, May 18, 2010


A guest commentary frm our friend Clare. Please leave your comments:

I took my older children to the Detroit Institute of Arts not too long ago, to enjoy the works there and do a little sketching. I had my own three boys in tow, ages 10, 9 and 7, my niece, 8, and two little friends, ages 8 and 6. The kids walked in, confidently ready to try their hand, promptly found pieces they liked and began sketching.

As I stood and waited for the kids to finish, a helpful and friendly docent approached me and offered that I could take them to a different gallery where there were child-sized easels set up, with benches for sitting and materials for drawing. How very thoughtful of the DIA, to include the kids in their "Drawing in the Galleries" programs! Excited and eager to see what would be offered, we naively traipsed off to the far gallery wherein these children's easels would be ready for us.

Again, the kids promptly found pieces they liked and set to work. I unsuspectingly wandered the gallery, watching the kids draw as I stood behind them.

And then I noticed it: one of the paintings depicted a person jumping off a cliff, committing suicide! The child who was sketching this piece didn't seem to notice it was a person because on first glance, the person looked like a bird. Not wanting to alarm the child or point out that to which he was blissfully ignorant, I bit my tongue and waited for the right moment. As I did so, I also looked more carefully at the other works in the gallery. They contained, among other repulsive and disgusting items, dead presidents' heads on sticks, very much larger-than-life reflections of black flies, and a set of fallopian tubes (why not a nice liver, I ask you?). The rest of the works were, at best, tolerable; in no way were they good or beautiful or objectively truthful.

As quickly as I could without arousing suspicion in the children or making a scene, I asked the kids to finish up because we were moving on, and we made our way back to other galleries which contained actual works of art as opposed to trash.

All of which made me wonder: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!? Who chose this particular gallery in which to set up the children's easels? In what way was this art supposed to be suitable for children? In what way was it supposed to be art, in the first place?

Then I really started thinking: What is art, anyway? How objectively can we define it? What is it supposed to do or show? Is beauty "in the eye of the beholder"? What do I believe about art, particularly visual art? If there is a line to be drawn, how to find it and where exactly does it fall?

The Catechism has this to say about art:
"2501 Art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being's inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man's own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing. To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man."
How do you define art?


  1. Being from Southern California I can tell you that the art and performing arts community is best summed up as being composed of the gay, leftists, socialists, communists, libertarians, pro-drug 'let me do my thing' anti-establishment people. They look down upon Christians and their values and they represent all of their values in their art. I cant go to a play without checking if the main characters revolve around 'gay relationships'. I cant go to an art show, ...here in Laguna Beach, the 'tournament of the masters' touristy stuff, where the works of art and the artists
    being displayed are picked because they were prominently gay, communist or anti-establishment and their art represents that. Their bio information telling us about the artist lists these things proudly in their bio. In all, regarding your experience...Nothing new there!


  2. Yuck...I heard of some exhibit of a Mary or Jesus statue that had poop on it...they called it "free speech" when people complained. Just because people have the right to free-speech in this country doesn't mean that our institutions should promote this sort of thing.

  3. So, would Piet Mondrian's work be truly art, in a Catholic sense? What about Joan Miro? Picasso? Renoir? Goya? Norman Rockwell?

    If we agree that some so-called art isn't really art, then where is the line, and how do we find it? As Catholics, Christians and people of good will, how are we to think about "art," and how are we to show our children what is truly beautiful and good?

  4. Rather than try to distinguish what is art, since in today's world, it seems that anything goes. Perhaps we should discuss what we consider "good art".

    "Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man's own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing."

    In a sense I could argue that suicide is a very real issue in our modern world. Of course it does not reflect "the truth" of who we are, created in God's own image. But nonetheless, it is a real issue. Though there is no beauty in it.

    Poop on any exhibit, while it may be "free speech" certainly is not art.

    "the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created."

    Here is where I think we can start making the distinction between "good art" and "terrible art" Good art would 'bear a certain likeness to God's activity' whilst bad art would bear NO likeness to God's activity. We can all argue that suicide, heads on sticks, etc. etc. bear no likeness to God's activity. Reducing God's wonderful creation of woman, to her fallopian tubes, is not good art, possibly not art at all.

    I only have issues figuring out where the flies fit in! God clearly created them....I'm not sure why, but he did! However, thankfully, they are not larger than life.....

  5. I'd like to add my input to this topic. Mind you, I'm a numbers guy so thinking about art puts me on the level of the children mentioned in the initial post in this thread.

    Could we say something like "art is the attempt, some times more successful than others, to make manifest to the senses true beauty"? I would think that my definition doesn't really agree with "Joe and Ren", except that perhaps my definition really only allows "terrible art" in a sense as relative to "good art". Thus, there really isn't objectively "terrible" art, or "bad" art, because what is "bad" wouldn't be considered "art"; this is like to the way that there really isn't objectively "bad beauty". With my definition, what you experienced at the musuem is only nominally "art", which fits with the way the modern world defines things as "your truth" and "my truth".

    I know someone like Atistotle might disagree with me, but I'm really fuzzy concerning his use of "techne". Perhaps what you witnessed at the musuem was simply a person's attempt at making a living, but not "art" that makes manifest beauty.

    Anyway, that's my two cents.


    Matthew Wade

  6. Matthew

    Your point is well taken! Upon more reflection on the definition of the CCC there could be no "bad art".

    I think your definition much more suitable :-)

    Perhaps I was too hasty to comment as I burnt several batches of pancakes this morning.....

  7. Writers write and painters paint. If the painter could sum up in words the image he is applying to the canvas, then the canvas and the paint would be unnecessary. If, however, he is saying something, instituting something or realizing something that can be perceived by our eyes that we could not absorb in another manner, then the paint and the canvas may begin to serve their purpose. The writer can describe what the painter has done, but cannot replicate it.

    What is it, then, that images reveal to us that mere words cannot reveal? The works that Clare describes, we have never seen. Judging from her decriptions, it seems that they are hideous and gratuitous, and that they revel in ugliness. As Joe and Ren indicated, one may be justified in depicting something hideous if it is something true, and something that ought to be said. A true tragedy evokes true sadness, and justly so. An image of the crucifixion is an example. We can also imagine an image that reveals the tragedy of abortion. If such a work serves to horrify the viewer, does the artist thus manifest beauty by inversion? Does he indicate what ought to be by showing what ought not to be?

  8. Many comments make great points but my attention goes to WHY they chose those hideous images for children. There is something sinister at play. The devil wants your children and there are many pawns all too willing to do his bidding.
    This reminds me of a scene in the book That Hideous Strength.

  9. Carol: my thoughts, exactly! Why would someone choose that gallery for children? There were two items in the gallery that I could see would be interesting to children (out of about 15 pieces total): one was a black & white silhouette image of Disneyworld, and the other was a HUGE, gaudily colorful picture of an African-American man on horseback, with the horse rearing up. It kind of reminded me of a piece I've seen of George Washington on horseback. But those were the only two and it seemed that they were not worth the tradeoff of being forced to view all the other c-r-a-p that was in there.

    Br. Paul: St. Paul advises us to think on what is good, true and beautiful. It seems, then, that we should not spend too much time thinking or viewing (or sketching) that which is not true, or which is ugly, or which serves to distort reality. I heard somewhere that when people are trained to spot counterfeit money, they spend most of their training time in studying real money and getting very accustomed to looking at it. Then when a counterfeit shows up, they can spot it because it just looks wrong immediately.

    If we have our children spend their time studying true art, then they will know the counterfeits - those that purposely distort reality - on first sight. Not only would this apply to visual art, but to all arts, and even in to the sciences such as theology.

    A painting of a woman whose nose is painted where her forehead should be, is not art in my view. It is a purposeful distortion of reality. It is, therefore, FALSE. And - I venture to say - therefore not of God, and not art.

    Visual images of real and true tragedies, however, are a more sticky issue. Are they worth portraying and worth seeing? Yes, with careful decisions made beforehand regarding who should see them and when. Are they "art"? I think that is a separate question. I think the crucifixion is art because it shows the greatest act of love ever done, it gives a new and beautiful meaning to suffering, etc. Images of abortion, slavery, concentration camps, while necessary and true, perhaps should not be termed Art since they show us things/ events which are NOT of God. They are true but NOT good or beautiful. That viewing these images may cause us to do good things or avoid bad things, does not make those images Art.

    So, maybe "Art" must to be "true, good AND beautiful." It seems that it must reflect the goodness, truth and beauty of God.