But is it art?

“And the first rude sketch that the world had seen brought joy to his mighty heart, Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, ‘It’s pretty, but is it Art?’”

Kipling’s reflection on Adam’s first drawing goes to the heart of the matter: what are the criteria which distinguish art from other human endeavour? It came to the fore in the Royal Opera House’s recent production of Guillaume Tell, where a gang rape was portrayed so realistically that the audience booed. No doubt the director, Damiano Michieletto, believed that the graphic representation of obscenity contributed to the work; on the contrary, it showed only that he did not understand the nature of art. Let me illustrate.

The National Theatre production of War Horse did not figure an actual horse but a puppet horse played by two actors — as in pantomime. Yet it was deeply moving because it obliged us to step over the footlights and to use our imaginations to conceive the reality of the horse alive in our minds. Contrast that with Spielberg’s high budget film of War Horse where the horse was a mere photographic image. It is the nature of art to pull us through the threshold of the literal and into our internal worlds. Art only happens when the vision of the artist connects with the mind of his audience, and the circuit closes. At night the Mona Lisa is no more than a concoction of poplar board and paint. But when the first morning visitor responds to it, art happens.

For many, the opera, notwithstanding its apparently absurd conventions, is the peak of artistic experience. You only need to hear the tense silence at a moment when 2000 people, holding their breath, come together as one person joined in a shared emotion. Monteverdi, in Orfeo, the earliest extant opera, chose music to tell his story because its beauty would bring his listeners closer to God. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro tells us as much as we need to know about the simmering of its contemporary society; it predated the French Revolution by only three years. Beethoven’s Fidelio captures the political injustices in Europe a generation later. Or, as an alternative, try Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by MacMillan. If you don’t emerge wrung out by emotion you have no soul.

The graphic arts have changed mightily since the 19th century. The role of recording scenes and faces has largely transferred to photography, imposing on the artist a greater obligation to point to inner meanings. So, from Impressionism to the fully abstract, by way of Hirst and Emin, we get to the Turner Prize, and many of us find ourselves stumped.

Visiting a Newbury Street gallery in Boston, a lady asked me to explain the pictures of the abstract artist being exhibited there. As I rose to the challenge one or two others joined us. By the final room my audience had multiplied. I think that my English accent must have given authority to my hastily invented analysis. As I was commenting on the supposed phallic overtones of the last picture I noticed that the artist himself had joined the little crowd. His expression was quizzical. On our way home I asked the gallery owner how he evaluated the artist. “At thirty thousand dollars a picture” he replied.

Literary fiction creates new worlds. For some years I had a long commute to work, and it was a joy. My railway carriage became Barchester or St Petersburg. My travelling companions were Anna Karenina or Heathcliff. The scenery was no longer Clapham Junction but Hardy’s Wessex. I remember an occasion when the late, great, Dr Jack Dominian was speaking to an audience of marriage counsellors. He announced his new discovery which he wished us all to heed: that reading fiction was not a waste of time, it could actually tell us about human nature. We all nodded gravely.

Nowadays he might have spoken of art as a form of play. Science is beginning to understand how the free flow of imaginative exploration in situations which only picture reality, thus constituting play, are a balm to the soul. “The opposite of play is not work, it is depression” says Doctor Stuart Brown of the Californian National Institute of Play. Art is never wasted.

Many of our contemporaries of a secular mind recognise its spiritual nature. Their experience releases them from the mundane and takes them into a higher world of beauty and imagination. It does not necessarily take them to God. But it does take me. There are moments in great art when, with Miranda in The Tempest, I find myself saying “How many goodly creatures are there here! O brave new world that has such people in it.” And I wonder at the greatness of God who created them and, through them, such art.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Philosophy, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to But is it art?

  1. Brian Hamill says:

    It is perhaps worth remembering that the first great flowering of dramatic art in the ancient Greek theatre held rigidly to certain conventions such as the masks and never allowing violent acts of brutality to he shown on stage – thus the word ‘obscene’, meaning ‘not on the scene’, the stage. They portrayed with abandon the actual results of the violence off-stage, such as the self-blinding of Oedipus, by the change of mask but left the act itself to the intelligent imagination. Today our intelligent imagination can become underused since it is all ‘up front’ and so we are not actively engaged in the same way as previously. This means that much appreciation of great art passes us by and perhaps explains Sister Wendy Becket’s popularity as an interpreter of the pictorial arts.

  2. Quentin says:

    Thank you for this, Brian. When my wife was checking my copy she reminded me of the production of the Oresteia at the National Theatre some years ago. All five hours of it! That was played in Greek masks. The effect for me was to ‘universalise’ the themes of the play. It was gripping. As it happened, the Falklands War was in progress, and the play might have been written as a direct commentary on the folly of such a conflict.

  3. Brendan says:

    I must admit I am ” stumped ” also by what passes as visual art .’ Dead sheep ‘ or an ‘ unmade bed ‘ leaves me flat while scratching my head. Probably a course in art appreciation a la Sister Wendy is the answer , to initiate me into a world of aesthetics which has somehow eluded my Philistine existence – as I quickly rush past the likes of Patrick Reyntiens and head for Pastor Juventus or Father Ronald Rolheiser in my Catholic Herald ! But there again I suppose I would not even entertain the ‘ Sun ‘ newspaper , not even for a good horse racing tip . Yes , I can appreciate the greats , Michaelangelo etc. for their breadth , vision and aesthetic appeal – surely that’s the easy part ?
    A few months ago I went to see the film ‘ Turner ‘ starring Timothy Spall , hoping to gain some gnostic insight at least into the mind of one of our great painters . Alas , I remain agnostic while those in the ‘ know ‘ seemingly puzzled at my lack of appreciation , were strangely/ suspiciously silent regarding their ‘ obvious ‘ ability to relieve my ignorance on the subject. Why are some people not as outspoken as myself, I ask ? Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood.
    Frankly, there seems quite a bit of snobbery in the ‘ art ‘ world ; which is rather off-putting for those on the bottom rung of the artistic appreciation ladder. However, art ( beauty ) of all kinds is all around us, appealing in a myriad of different ways to the eye of each beholder….. I just have to feel visibly moved.

    • John L says:

      There are many exponents of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
      I love music, but struggle with what often passes for music nowadays.
      Those “in the know” blame my personal ignorance rather than poor material.
      What arrogance!
      It infuriates me.
      Stick to your own tastes and don’t be ashamed of them.

    • ignatius says:

      I did a Fine Art degree part time a few years ago and spent a bit of time looking at Turner who I regard as a great painter for his philosophical understanding of and his practical use, of light. The film you mention was, though well filmed, very poor in terms of content;nothing much to say about it really other than it went down like a damp squib.

  4. Geordie says:

    It is interesting that photography has become an art form as opposed to just a record of what things look like. However it is very difficult to produce artistic photographs or moving pictures. Take for instance a landscape photograph. It can be rather boring. Yet, when the same scene is presented by an artist in paint, it is transformed. It becomes a work of art.
    One of the moving pictures, that I find beautiful and intense, is the first few minutes of the film “A Man for All Seasons”. The scenery is magnificent. It can be enjoyed over and over again.

    • Brendan says:

      Geordie – Thanks for reminding me of that film. ” Over and over again ”… that’s why spirituality in film art moves me. There is something evocative of ‘ Catholic England ‘ about that film; a certain timeless appeal brought about by cinematography and cultural landscapes that adds pathos to a dramatic story-line which lives on in the memory. I agree the beginning with its deep foreboding captured in the seasonal change of scenery sets the stage..

  5. Brendan says:

    ” Many of our contemporaries of a secular mind recognise its [ arts ] spiritual nature.” Quentin, this I think reflects your … ” change in the scientific mind ..” you posited in the blog ” Tie a yellow ribbon .”
    Thus… ” science is beginning to understand….imaginative … reality…balm to the soul .” Thus art is part of a creative God. However there is evidence society is losing that sense of the spiritual – while paradoxically looking for some sense of itself ( spiritually ) in different directions – as it becomes more secular. The lack of artistic merit in much of our ubiquitous television is evidence for me in that respect. eg. gameshows, reality celebrity shows etc. which seems to be desensitising us from the bigger questions which ‘ art ‘ provokes .
    A few years ago my wife and I viewed ‘ Schindlers List ‘ immediately it was released , in a packed cinema. The film had such an affect on us that we sat there motionless for some minutes after , and then looking at each other , we realised that the place must have emptied almost immediately after the credits came up. Following this I wondered what kind of art if any would have moved that audience ?

  6. John Nolan says:

    The Victorians certainly saw photography as an art form; artists from the 17th century had used the camera obscura although they had no way of fixing the image apart from paint. The problem I have with visual and plastic art is that ownership puts a value on it which is not necessarily related to its artistic worth. Not so (I would hope) poetry – a manuscript might have monetary value but that is unconnected with the work itself. Music is the most abstract of the arts and for those of us who are musical it is the greatest art form – at least as it was developed in Europe over the last millennium. But in other ages and in other cultures it was less developed and ancillary to other art forms.

    Relativism is usually associated with morality but cultural relativism, which would deny the value of objective criticism, is to my mind far more poisonous.

  7. Alan says:

    I considered asking about this last week as I think I know what some of the “trolls” Quentin mentioned might say about the examples offered here and elsewhere. I have seen one or two of them wonder at the overwhelmingly positive nature of the lists given. If someone were going by appearances only, and they didn’t get to select the subjects of those observations, do people still feel that they would spot God’s creativity and/or his love of life … and if you think they would, why don’t such examples ever make the cut?

    • Vincent says:

      Alan, the last accusation you would get on this blog is that of trollery. Your thoughts are challenging and valuable. Here, you seem to be raising the question of how believers continually see the actions of God, but non believers don’t. Similar to that is the claim that God has answered this prayer or that, when the evidence is lacking.
      And I am not sure how to answer this. Perhaps others can do better.

    • Brendan says:

      Alan – For me , God answers the deepest yearnings of the human person. Self-serving as we are ; they is a need deep down in all of us to be needed and of use – thus answering some of the ‘ big questions ‘ as you put it, for oneself. God answers that need , and He will come calling anytime, anywhere in ones life – it is a mystery. As Martha puts it, quoting Aquinus , by using some form of art , lifting one to another level … ” derived from things eternal ”…..
      A fortnight ago my wife and I went to an exhibition of an official exact replica of The Turin Shroud. Over the years I have come to be persuaded that the original is the burial cloth of Christ.
      The stories/ testimonies of inner ‘ conversions ‘ of people after coming in off the street to view it are numerable – these are of believers and non- believers ; it is a mystery that answers the deepest meaning of life itself. In this respect ‘ art ‘ can connect with the deepest recesses of the human soul…. where God is waiting. Paradoxically , opening up oneself to ‘pain ‘ in these deep places where no-one can enter , except the Lord to resolve and renew with healing if necessary.
      ” Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you shall find. knock and the door will be opened to you.. ” Matthew 7:7.

  8. ignatius says:

    “. If someone were going by appearances only, and they didn’t get to select the subjects of those observations, do people still feel that they would spot God’s creativity and/or his love of life … and if you think they would, why don’t such examples ever make the cut?..”

    Cant quite get the drift of this but I did want to jump in because I was interested in what was being discussed last week. I have a strongly artistic temperament and an acute visual sense. This means that when I look at the sky or, as I’ve just spent the morning doing, look over a landscape of hills then I am deeply impacted by what I see. For some reason the beauty of seascapes, skyscapes etc has an impact on me that I would call religious in nature. But this does not mean that the ‘vision’ of what I see has any objective value whatsoever in terms of its basis for an argument concerning the existence of God. I have discussed this subject with many people by now and have come to the conclusion that the mood or feeling we gain from looking at things is partly a simple function of our individual neurology. I do think also though that the capacity to seek order, simplicity and beauty in so many things does say something about human beings, the presence of this capacity leads religious people to imply God from landscape, but it is by no means a neccessary leap.
    The poet TS Elliot had an idea about the ‘objective correlative:

    ” The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in
    other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that
    particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience,”
    are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. (qtd. in J. A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary
    Terms, page 647

    The objective correlatives of religious belief are many and varied, some of them deriving from symbols, you can say we are thus ‘hard wired for God’ but that would only be an opinion.

  9. Martha says:

    I like to think of art as a distillation of a valuable idea or thought, or the illumination of an experience or a feeling, clarifying and expanding something God given, already in the mind and heart.
    We saw an amateur production of a play recently, The Weir by Conor McPherson. It is set in an Irish pub where 5 characters talk, seemingly inconsequentially at first, until a particular theme develops around the issue of bereavement and loss. One particular anecdote of the unexpected kindness of a stranger at a critical moment, impacted like a shaft of sunlight, to my mind a real illustration of dramatic art.
    Music I think is less specific, but even more powerful. There is a quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas in this week’s Catholic Herald. “Music is the exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal, bursting forth in sound.”

    • Brendan says:

      That’s just it Martha . Art coming from the best of human experience should have instant universal appeal. ; expressing ‘ beauty and emotional power ‘. From what I see of more abstract or modern art it is self- indulgent feeding the ego and esoteric rather than universal . It may have merit but it is lost on one in an obscurantist sense. There appears to be a lot of ‘ luker ‘ to be made here.

      • Peter Foster says:

        Apropos of your remarks:

        Tom Wolfe in his brief book, The Painted Word, gives a critique of modern art in which these strange forms are seen as manifestations of some artist’s theory, to which of course we may not have access and therefore have to stare at in puzzlement!


        In the ‘Artworld’, an influential essay in the Journal of Philosophy in 1964, Arthur C. Danto introduced the notion that (modern)artists work not to fulfill a creative urge but to impress the “artworld”, a self-defined community of artists, gallerists, curators and critics.

      • RAHNER says:

        “Art coming from the best of human experience should have instant universal appeal.”
        Only an ignorant philistine would agree with that comment…..

  10. ignatius says:

    “From what I see of more abstract or modern art it is self- indulgent feeding the ego and esoteric rather than universal . It may have merit but it is lost on one in an obscurantist sense. There appears to be a lot of ‘ luker ‘ to be made here…”

    No,look up ,for example Christian Boltanski and the placing of empty clothes along the floor of a church in Santiago de compostela. This artist, one of many, exploring the nature of being, of life and death. Look up some of the arte povera movement, artists such as Janis Kounellis interested in the symbols of life. There is a lot these people have to say to the church in terms of the dividing line between the secular and the sacred. Its a shame to dismiss so freely the heart felt search of Art for meaning because this is also the path of the human heart. Certainly it is true that the art of late modernism/ postmodernism is quite opposed to religion in any formal sense, but that does not mean such art is all self indulgent.

    • Brendan says:

      I cannot comment on such ‘ movements ‘ Ignatius, regarding the finer merits or not of such work ; for me philosophical discussion of art on merit , just does not appeal to me – it is just the immediacy of ‘ beauty ‘ and the emotional ‘ movement ‘ that appeals to my taste within a universality of thought. For me the line between secular and religious is barely worth defining, as to provoke such similarity becomes ‘ political propaganda ‘ ,deteriorating into a soulless and esoteric discussion about its ‘ art ‘. It seems to me there is a danger – as has happened in the past – to use art for selfish and subversive means that can undermine/ hide an innate beauty of a piece of art. I agree with pushing the boundaries in art as to invoke rather than provoke ; though for everyone it boils down to just a question of ‘taste’.

      • ignatius says:


        “For me the line between secular and religious is barely worth defining, as to provoke such similarity becomes ‘ political propaganda ‘ ,deteriorating into a soulless and esoteric discussion about its ‘ art ‘. It seems to me there is a danger – as has happened in the past –…”

        Yes you may be right, for you the line is barely worth defining. But for the unbeliever it may well be of great interest. I did a part time fine Art degree from June 2000-2006 and found that the interest it an Art of the ‘spiritual’ did exist and provoked lively discussion amongst us. I was known as the ‘religious nutter’ on account a piece I once did of a pile of logs with a wood axe on top all resting on a gold dias and called “The story of abraham’ I was found wandering round the grounds with my axe hence my nick name. As you say these things are to some extent a question of taste though the line between ‘taste’ and ‘prejudice’ can be remarkably thin.

  11. St.Joseph says:

    But is it Art.?
    Tracey Emin’s unmade bed which was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 1998. It is not Art for me

    I would think my choice would be the Sistine Chapel in the the Vatican City .It so beautiful.I like especially where God is pointing his forefinger towards Adam whilst He has his left arm around the shoulder of Eve (the woman). as if to say ‘look after her I Am placing her under your wing. You will be responsible for her downfall.

  12. Brendan says:

    Rahner – I don’t know about ‘ ignorant philistine ‘; I can appreciate say , the work of a good draughtsman/ woman and a so called work of ‘ modern ‘ art consisting of geometric shapes – but is it worthy of being called art ? Am I missing something ?

  13. St.Joseph says:

    I am in North Yorkshire in the Dales visiting my late husband’s family,travelling around the town’s and the Dales ,seeing all the beauty that God created for us, even where I live in the Cotswolds.will.have nothing on the wonders yet to come.
    Eyes hath not seen nor ears heard the wonders that God has prepared for those who love Him.

    • Quentin says:

      St J, I am so with you. Some years ago I would take some french leave and go up to Yorkshire on my motorbike. The dales are full of a fresh beauty which makes one feel that life is worth living.

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