Oscar Wilde, introducing The Picture of Dorian Gray gave what seemed a damning critique of art: ‘All art is quite useless’. Perhaps he was right. Art is certainly not useful in any conventional sense. It does not help us catch our prey, cure diseases, or find the ideal spouse. Despite this ‘uselessness’ art is – always has been – pervasive in all great civilisations. The very notion of art, and with it the ability to create and appreciate it, reveals the stark difference between man and beast.
Animals, like us, get to know surrounding phenomena through sense experience; and like humans they have some degree of immanence, albeit at a much lower level. An animal’s senses provide information needed for survival. If a lamb sees a wolf it instinctively sees a threat and acts accordingly. The lamb makes no internal moral judgement on the wolf; rather it simply judges the wolf a threat to its existence.
Again, a goat skilfully traversing a mountain range in which it observes the rushing waters of the river and the sun setting over snow-topped peaks sees only a source of water and perhaps, in the setting sun, the cue to search out a safe sleeping-place for the night. It does not perceive the beauty or sublimity before it. Man sees all that the goat does, and more. The picturesque setting provokes variant reactions and man’s – of wonderment and appreciation – is superior. Man reaches beyond the superficial and sees landscape in its totality.
Herein lies one of the values of art, pointing up a key difference between man and the rest of the animal kingdom. To reject art simply because it is practically useless is to look at the world as though through the eyes of some lesser animal. Man can recognise truth, beauty and goodness, and any opportunity presented to deepen in such experience should be taken, since that road leads to a richer happiness.
By exposure to art man learns to view the world through another lens: one that sees beyond the superficial. Man learns this because he experiences the world in a different light. It is not effort-free and is, in fact, an intellectual exercise because to go beyond the superficial is not always easy. By engaging with art we can learn to do so.
Since creation and appreciation of art is a distinctively human activity it can elevate, by exposing it to beauty, man’s understanding of the world far beyond that of an animal. This is in fact a problem with modern art. The late Sir Roger Scruton pointed out that much modern art has chosen to abandon aesthetic beauty for a beautiful idea or a shocking experience. Some of this is considered conceptual art. It is self-defeating, as beautiful ideas are not the preserve of artists. Putting a man on the moon might be considered a beautiful idea. When conceptual art severs sensible beauty from art it has made art all things – and, therefore, in practice nothing.
Everyone hears a call to happiness through apprehension of truth, beauty and goodness, like Tolkien’s glimpse of ‘Joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’. True art is not escapism because it offers a fleeting taste of the immutable, reminding us of a deeper reality beyond appearances. We were not made for suffering and evil, and nor are we now meant to endure it for eternity.
Art very properly makes a cynosure of truth, beauty and goodness. Such ‘art’ as perverts these traits leads man off his path to happiness, and, in so doing, loses its value and becomes dangerous – which is not to say that art must ever be cheerful. Beauty is of profound importance to art because it acts as a signpost for that which we most desire, guiding us to the paradise we seek. Bad art, like the sirens of the Odyssey, draws us off course and potentially dashed on Anthemusa’s rocks. Scruton puts it this way: ‘If beauty is the way in which truth is presented, the way in which truth comes to your consciousness, then we seem to have something like an account of art’.
Art, then, reveals our ability to abstract; we can transmit more through art than can otherwise be seen or heard. We can through it communicate emotions or ideas, presented as sensitive knowledge but requiring more than senses for appreciation. This desire for truth, beauty and goodness points to man’s capacity for self-transcendence, for surpassing himself, in what he knows and in all that he has. Throughout history he has sought, in one way or another, virtue and the creation of a better self. Art is one representation of such a search. St Augustine’s answer to the meaning of art was God: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you’. For the great orator, theologian and philosopher, watching the slow dismantling of the world’s then-greatest empire, art was an important sign of Heaven and the things to come.