What is art for? For many, the answer is that art is simply for self-expression or for enjoyment. Listening to music is pleasing (who chooses to listen to ambulance sirens?) Anyone who appreciates art can see that a Picasso is not a Rembrandt—the imprint of each artist is distinct.
What is moral virtue for? Moral virtue is a means of human perfection. Moral virtue is doing good; moral virtue requires effort, perhaps sacrificing something short-term for a longer-term material or spiritual benefit.
The idea that art is related to moral virtue will strike many as quite odd. Art, understood as self-expression or enjoyment, is a spontaneous realm apart from the calculating, choosing, and sacrificing of virtue. Art as self-expression or enjoyment must therefore allow for total freedom to explore one’s desires; by contrast, the hard-won perfection of moral virtue requires restraint and discipline.
Modern Romantic notions of art have emphasized the subjectivity of human creativity, purportedly to free human instincts in order to reach their fulfillment. But by separating art from reason, Romanticism opened the way for what we see today: much of the art produced today is kitsch—excessively sentimental—or transgressive (seeking to shock or produce outrage).
But in his book The Shape of the Artistic Mind, Fr. Brad Elliott, O.P., provides a crucial philosophical grounding that will connect art back to moral virtue. Re-thinking the relationship between art and virtue leads to very different answers to the questions: What is art for? What is moral virtue for?
Through a thorough review of Thomistic principles, Elliott moves from considerations about art as an imitation of God’s creation to art as a virtuous participation in God’s governance. For Elliott, both art and moral virtue are ways that humans imitate God; by imitating God, we therefore participate in His governance, as he draws all things back to Himself. To some finite degree, all creation, from small living organisms like molecules to inanimate things like stones, participate in God’s being. But Elliott emphasizes that only the rational human person participates in God’s governance through the activity of acting and making.
By bringing new things into being, humans co-create with God. Apart from virtue, the power to bring new things into being will be disordered. As he writes, “art and morality are merely two aspects of man’s participation in the reason and creativity of God.” Hence, art seen as a practical virtue extends God’s governance over creation. Humans move towards their proper ends, contribute to their own governance, through co-creation with God.
Elliott contrasts this view with Plato, for whom human creativity could only ever represent a shadow of the ultimate reality. For Plato, no human advancement in knowledge or art could ever get us out of the cave—we are forever seeing only shadows of reality.
By contrast, Elliott explains that our rationality is not purely speculative or abstract. Rather, the human person has the unique capacity to take an idea and impress it upon the external world, making what we create something that shares in the spark of God’s reason. As he explains, building on St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson and other Catholic thinkers, “by learning to imitate nature and her laws through skill or craft, the human intellect is also learning to imitate the Divine creator… Simply put; God, nature, human intellect, and art all relate by a mysterious pattern of imitation spanning the whole range of the cosmos.”
By emphasizing the intellect as a commonality between art and moral virtue, Elliott does not dis-regard human enjoyment or self-expression. The problem is that not all things that humans create, think, or do are good. If we are fallen and wounded creatures, why would we magically expect all art to be morally good? And why do so many people seem to think that there is no objectivity in what we enjoy or how we express ourselves?
Elliott’s Christian anthropology—his understanding of who we are as humans—underlies his entire argument. Human beings are a unity of body and soul; we have the capacity to make things and to contemplate. Elliott brilliantly describes how humans imitate God in a finite manner by bringing the outside world into the mind through contemplation and then going back out, perfecting things in art. As he writes:
“This bringing the outside world into the inside world terminating in the perfection of the inside, the intellect’s perfection of knowing, is the intrinsic operation of which St. Thomas speaks. By this action, the created intellect imitates God-as-artist in an unprecedented way, by imitating, in a finite manner, the oneness and unity of its creator…Art or craft is the mode by which the perfection of the inside world (the act of knowledge) impresses its likeness on the outside world; perfective action moving from the inside out.”
If moral virtue is imitating God’s goodness, and artistic creation is imitating God’s creation, then co-creating through art is one of the ways we participate in God’s governance. Art and moral virtue, thus, participating in God’s governance: using human freedom to direct our thinking and action towards their true ends.
Art understood as a practical virtue makes visible the invisible inner world of the human person and the goodness of God. By participating in God’s governance, art understood as a practical virtue contributes to the right ordering of creation.
In spite of our woundedness as experienced in laziness, idle curiosity, and self-centeredness, we can grow in virtue through art. Elliott provocatively states that “it is the virtue of art that emerges as the supreme master coordinator between man’s internal and external worlds.” The very act of writing this short essay is an expression of art as a practical virtue: I’ve fought many distractions as I read and pondered Elliott’s words and crafted my own thoughts into words to share with readers.
Art is not moral as in a command about how to act, but art can “indirectly influence morals by providing an ‘aptness’ to act well.” Like books and articles which encapsulate ideas into form, the music, paintings, nature, we encounter are an invitation to contemplate God’s goodness. Focusing my attention to craft this article forms my inner life to be more apt in moral virtue. By co-creating with God, we imitate His goodness, participate in His governance, and bring more of creation into the divine unity.
Available on Amazon, The Shape of the Artistic Mind by Bradly T. Elliot, OP, was published by Pontifex University Press on September 6, 2023. This post by Margarita Mooney Clayton is the Foreword to the book. Fr Elliot is a priest of the Western Dominican Province of the USA.