The Eschatological Dimensions of Art

By Jeremy Hausotter

Jan. 30, 2022

In my previous article, The Brutalization of Man Through Art,[1] I outlined a sinister process within modern art, a process I labeled as the brutalization of man. This essay was more so concerned with the existential ramifications of those cultural products of the society of the damned. As St. Augustine has so clearly exposited in his City of God, there is a city of the saints and a city of the damned. From these two cities there arises a corresponding culture to both societies; and culture produces cultural products.

The cultural products of the damned have taken hold of today, of American society, and has led to the brutalization of man. Man is brutalized when he is assaulted with these products of the damned. It is an existential war within his soul; for it is his soul that these products attempt to steer him, one way or another, whether he is cognizant or not to its inclinations and impulses.

These products which brutalize man are an unconscious ordering of the self towards an eternity destiny. The process of brutalization is meant to numb us, stifle our capacity to reason, suffocate our ability to experience truly human emotions such as love, and ultimately surrender our liberty in exchange for our own preferred slavemasters. But do cultural products really order us in such a way, ordering ourselves towards a particular eternal destination?

A look at the writings of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche both lend credence to our case. In their times of 19th century Europe, both existentialist thinkers decried and bemoaned the same phenomena: that the Christian man of the day lived as the atheists did. The greatest tragedy according to Nietzsche is that man could run through the streets shouting “God is dead! God is dead!” and no one would even bat an eye. God is dead because of man’s overwhelming insensitivity and indifference. This indifference both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard found shocking.

Man has an innate tendency to merely drift along with the currents of society and culture. He does not assume for himself a personal encounter with the Christian faith, or with truth for that matter. Existentialist thinkers here like to say such people are inauthentic. Authenticity requires moving beyond merely drifting along the currents of the crowd. Whatever beliefs he has are merely cultural accruements that he wears like any t-shirt or company logoed clothing. It does not even bother him when his opinions contradict themselves one day after the next, so as long as he is with the majority.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were both disgusted with these attitudes, though with very different solutions. Nietzsche undertook a radical atheistic approach: nihilism. Kierkegaard decided to write to where man was, and from there induce despair so as to bring to the indifferent man the confrontation with God. Despair was for Kierkegaard a curative aid to break the spell of mass indifference.

The products of the damned assist us on this journey, to sail the high seas of indifference. As Kierkegaard so astutely analyzed in his short volume, The Sickness Unto Death,[2] man can exist in despair and not even realize it. He can suffer under the weight of an unfeeling culture and its pestilence Indifference, and not even have cognition of it. He suffers despair and yet is unconscious of it. The products of the damned help breed within us this disease Indifference. We no longer feel their sting upon our souls, for we are benumbed and robotized.

Dostoevsky wrote that “beauty will conquer the world” in his novel The Idiot. It is not any beauty, but as he has made clear, the beauty of the Christian faith, as is especially made clear in The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. In some real meaning, we can say that this beauty radiates all that is truly beautiful, an irradiation.

Beauty liberates the human spirit and illuminates the human intellect. If as St. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Fides et Ratio that faith and reason are the two wings of Christian life,[3] then beauty and wonder are the uplifting air. Dostoevsky himself attests to this role of beauty, for without beauty one cannot even invent a nail![4]

The experience of beauty opens man to the world of values. It is an experience that ignites wonder and opens up within the human subject a capacity for reverence. Reverence, as Dietrich von Hildebrand has so eloquently defended, is the fundamental moral attitude.[5] Reverence is the first moral attitude that enables man to grasp values.[6] Without reverence man is blind in some capacity towards the realm and hierarchy of values.

Beauty is a lance piercing open the soul to the acknowledgement and appreciation of values. It is a cutting open of the person that can enable reverence to begin healing the irreverence and value blindness that we cling to as our skin. The surgery pierces this dried out skin in order for the spirit to once again taste life anew.

Reverence, beauty, and wonder hence demands an attitude of gratitude. These experiences of value, of beauty and wonder, open up to man the gratitude of this life on earth, of value, of beauty, and of the cognition of these facts. The experiences of these fundamental moral attitudes thrust upon man the opportunity to be in gratitude. To be in gratitude, however, implies being in gratitude towards a Someone, He who is the Gift-Giver. Gratitude is a personal relationship between two persons between a Gift-Giver and the one in gratitude, otherwise gratitude itself cannot exist. The experiences of beauty and wonder naturally leads the soul to the encounter with God, as Dostoevsky so astutely pointed out in his novel Demons.[7]

In his short tale, Leaf by Niggle,[8] Tolkien contrasts the way of the artist with the way of the practically minded man of the world. Niggle is a painter who neglects his practical affairs in order to paint his masterpiece of a tree. His neighbor, Parish, fails to understand any role of art and is quite critical of Niggle’s neglect of his everyday affairs. Eventually both die.

Niggle ended up in purgatory, to perform back-breaking manual labor. At some point, he overhears a conversation about himself between two voices, during which Niggle intercedes on behalf of Parish. The result is that both Niggle and Parish end up in a landscape. This landscape turned out to be nothing other than Niggle’s painting. Both were tasked with finishing painting the picture together. Through these experiences both experienced redemption. Niggle had to learn by doing practical labor, and both had to learn by painting. Parish learned gratitude and the appreciation of beauty. Beauty was purgative, for only after their work together on the landscape was Niggle and Parish ready to venture into the Mountains.

The story ends with the tragic telling of how Niggle was forgotten in his homeland, erased from society’s collective memory, and all of his paintings lost forever. It is also untragic, for Niggle’s art turned out to be a path for others to make their way towards heaven. The text at this point elaborates on a debate that was implicit earlier, making it the theme now, and this debate revolves around the question:  what is the role of art?

Practically speaking, art is useless. It does not feed oneself, clothe oneself, nor provide a roof over one’s head. Niggle’s masterpiece was conscripted to fix the leak in Parish’s roof after he died. The tale nearly ends with a conversation between Councillor Tompkins and Adkins. In that text, Tompkins revealed that artists should be executed because they are worthless.[9] Artists serve no economical or utilitarian purposes. They do not contribute to science or human progress. Therefore, either artists should be given a practical function in society or murdered, euthanatized.

Such an attitude, like Tompkins, is a re-echo of H. G. Wells. In his novel War of the Worlds,[10] Wells claims that art, novels, and beauty are worthless and useless. Those who are useless ought to die, they ought to be willing to die. Suicide or forced euthanasia is expected of the useless for the march of human progress to continue.[11]

Logically speaking, if such is the attitude that is adopted concerning art, then either art must be rejected or perverted. It must either be killed off or tortured into a disgraced disfigurement that can no longer be clearly recognized as art. The abolition of art is the ultimate goal. Its bastardization is the process of abolition. This bastardization is precisely the foment forces that produces those aesthetic products brutalizing man.

The brutalization of man through art requires the bastardization of art itself. Art becomes anti-art, produced to make men agitated, horny, discombobulated, at an unease with oneself, his environment and society. He is to be shocked, awed, emotionally beaten, audibly and visually assaulted through the senses.

What is clear from Tolkien’s short tale is that the true appreciation of beauty existentially opens oneself to one eschatological reality and the failure to do so shuts oneself off from it. For many people, the encounter with beauty through art serves as the best introduction to heaven.[12] This encounter with beauty, of course, was not the only reason for the judgments of Niggle and Parish, but it is certainly one of them.

Parish, through a combination of ingratitude and blindness to aesthetic value, seemed to have been saved only by the intercession of Niggle. It was only through this first act of kindness by Niggle that Parish was able to experience the gift-character of this action, give a sufficient value-response, and thereby learn gratitude; from which followed the capacity to appreciate aesthetic values. Parish’s mind is literally expanded to new horizons as he helps Niggle complete the painting in the after-life.

The appreciation of beauty opens the soul to heavenly Beatitude. True art is eschatologically ordained towards God, for within this gazing upon beauty we catch a glimpse of that Ancient, Eternal Beauty. On the other hand, our failure to appreciate value and approve anti-values within art eschatologically orders us away from man’s final end. It is nothing other than the process of demonizing the human person, to brutalize him and make him feel like a shattered porcelain vase no longer connected with himself and his various faculties.

To this essay many will nevertheless object that the aesthetic products they consume are merely meant for entertainment and do not possess such an eschatological ordering of the person; that qua entertainment, these products do not existentially incline us in any direction. You, author, are over theologizing and philosophizing about inconsequential matters. Such is the lie they have been sold. If St. Paul could condemn his fellow men for making crude sex jokes (Eph. 5:4) and St. Augustine the pagan poets and playwrights for their obscenity, then we too here, today, can stand and pronounce judgment upon the ills within the modern arts.

Art for entertainment is not art, and we should drop all pretense of such.[13] Entertainment for the sake of entertainment alone, in its negative sense, does not seek to actualize aesthetic values, but to impose certain psychological states upon the person. Aesthetic objects for entertainment are created for our own pleasure, and, hence, in general, are value-neutral.

Their value-neutrality is precisely the ontological grounds for the following sleight-of-hand: by claiming value neutrality, these objectors, whether implicitly or explicitly, are seeking either the acceptance of the legitimacy of aesthetic anti-values as true art or the collapse of the hierarchy of values; that is, either an inversion of the value-hierarchy or its flattening altogether. In opposition to these two errors, it must be maintained the aesthetic objects created for entertainment, while these works still possessing a legitimacy in the life of man, cannot be interpreted in manners that elevate anti-values or annihilate true values. Art as entertainment must be realized for what it is, not true art, and of lower valuation in the value-hierarchy.

There hence arises here the possibility of confusing two very different concepts of entertainment. Entertainment itself is a low aesthetic value and necessary component for some works of art, such as the comedic and the realization of comedy as an aesthetic value.[14] This cannot be confused with our negative view of entertainment. The positive notion of entertainment retains the value-hierarchy, whereas the pejorative usage adopted here neglects the value-hierarchy in some manner. At the very least, if entertainment is the highest value realized in an aesthetic object, it can only be with pretension that we dare call it art.

From these errors arises the error that it is acceptable to call false entertainment leisure, to accept the products of man’s brutalization as legitimate objects for aesthetic consumption. With such an attitude comes the loss of being able to rest in aesthetic objects and their values. When one truly listens to beautiful music or gazes upon a beautiful painting or sculpture, he or she rests in the being of the art piece itself. He or she allows the work of art to speak without the self’s interruption. Within this quietening communication is the experience and encounter with beauty and value.

Allowed to speak for itself, beauty will truly conquer hearts. Satan knows this. This is why the 20th and 21st centuries can be described as a great war against art. If Satan can uglify art, trivialize it, and brutalize man, he can close the minds of men from God. Beauty and true works of art are like a roaring lion dispelling the fabrications of Satan. Satan knows he must conquer art in order to claim souls. This is why the arts have suffered so much in modernity. This is why art is either useless or given an earthly mission so as to become “useful”, that is, transformed into an ideological weapon to propagandize the masses, whether it is communism, the sexual revolution, psychedelicism, drugs, etc. The cults of Efficiency and Utility have been warmly embraced by our society, and also of course the cult of Science. The goddess Science has demanded art as a sacrifice to her children Utility and Efficiency. It is up to us to unmask these demons and retrieve aesthetic value.

We must recognize that aesthetic objects order us eschatologically, that their consumption can unconsciously orientate us. They possess a teleological immanentism that naturally draws man in and orders him towards one of the two far flung, next door eschatological realities. Aesthetic values have the ability to rouse man from slumber. Aesthetic disvalues put him into existential sleep such that he fails to recognize the true state of affairs within his life concerning himself and his facticity.

This possibility of art and of its eschatological dynamism to teleologically order us on the unconscious level of our psychological well-being means that art has an indispensable role in education. Man’s education as a whole person must be permeated with aesthetic values and done with the end of learning how to appreciate art and aesthetic values. Man ought to learn how to sing, act in a play, and read Shakespeare. These are goods that nobly enrich us. Through these activities man is elevated.

Beauty as a value, like all values, including other aesthetic values, open up before us the existential possibility of mystery and transcendence, that there exists something ethereal, celestial, above and beyond the various configurations of atoms, subatomic particles, and star dust we see and not see through the Hubble telescope. Even when we do simply sit up and gaze upon the night sky, if we are awake, there is no escaping the feeling of grandeur, majesty, and awe. Beauty and art are hence a kind of proto-evangelization, as an unconscious ordering of the self towards the hierarchy of values. In other words, art can serve as a dark probing and seeking out of the unknown God. If art possesses these capacities, then so does anti-art, and its ability to bring us the taste of death and a living encounter with the hierarchy of anti-values. If art can lead us to life, anti-art can lead us to death.

The self plays a critical role in the reception of art versus anti-art. We decide for one or the other, and when we do, we slowly open or close ourselves in some manner to see or from seeing what these aesthetic objects truly are. The appreciation of art leads us towards a more critical view of art. We perceive gradually, more and more, the hierarchy of values and where aesthetic objects stand in light of reality. We are able to possess that cognition of the value of the particular aesthetic object and admire it, and to perceive the anti-value of another and despise it like any common thief.

The appreciation of anti-art gradually dims the person’s capacity for grasping, at the very least, of aesthetic values, and possibly further, other values and domains within the value-hierarchy. The self is dimmed, worn down, and the further he wanders down this path, the more he blinds himself. This is a mystery of man. It is analogous to the blinding of one’s conscience from moral values as he or she continues a life of vice.

Education can hence assist either man’s road towards transcendence or towards his self-enclosure. The turning towards anti-art is always a turning upon oneself and a closing of the self from some element of reality. It is a preference of one’s own whims over what is objectively true. Man has a duty towards forming himself aesthetically.

There are many good Catholics who love our Lord Jesus Christ and uphold the teachings of the Church; and yet, they fail to recognize and be able to distinguish art from from art, that is, art from anti-art. Why else do we accept ugly Church architecture, ugly statutes, ugly paintings, ugly stations of the cross and poor liturgical music so regularly? For many, it seems, this normal is either tolerated, acceptable, or even to be praised and celebrated. The lesson to observe is that one can be morally formed and yet be aesthetically ignorant. This is similar to how one can be virtuous and yet not possess a great education. One does not even need a high school education to be virtuous. One does not need an art degree to perceive beauty; he needs only a correct disposition of reverence to cognize and appreciate it.

There hence arises an apparent discrepancy between the eschatological dynamism of art and anti-art possesses, and the fact that many can be morally virtuous while failing to understand and judge correctly the matters of aesthetics. One can go to heaven and yet fail to rise above his errors concerning art. Our salvation is dependent upon our acceptance of Christ and our moral life, not on whether we accept or reject Beethoven or Mozart. One’s moral life ultimately determines his eschatological destination.

The eschatological pedagogy of art and anti-art becomes more or less of a factor, dependent upon the person’s cognition and acceptance of the hierarchy of values. The more man lives a life of sin or indifference, the more anti-art has a sway over his life and leads him to ruin. The Christian who appreciates anti-art, need not fall under its impulses because of his intellectual and moral formation; however, he still lives under these influences and that create situations for temptation or indifference. The more one is awakened to the realm of value, the more he recognizes these impulses and repudiates them, and as he develops his aesthetic perception, the works of anti-art themselves. The mistake many make is to believe in the nonexistence of these impulses and of the eschatological role of art in general; for we humans commonly believe that art is entertainment and propaganda for the masses.

 

Endnotes

[1] URL: <https://www.lenouvelesprit.com/culture-articles/brutalization-man-through-art>.

[2]Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, trans. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1983).

[3] “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” John Paul II, “Fides et Ratio (14 September 1998),” accessed December 21, 2021. URL: < https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html>.

[4] “And I proclaim,” Stepan Trofimovich shrieked, in the last extremity of passion, “and I proclaim that Shakespeare and Raphael are higher than the emancipation of the serfs, higher than nationality, higher than socialism, higher than the younger generation, higher than chemistry, higher than almost all mankind, for they are already the fruit, the real fruit of all mankind, and maybe the highest fruit there ever may be! A form of beauty already achieved, without the achievement of which I might not even consent to live… Oh, God!” he clasped his hands, “ten years ago I cried out in the same way from a platform in Petersburg, exactly the same things and in the same words, an in exactly the same way they understood nothing, they laughed and hissed, as now; short people, what more do you need in order to understand? And do you know, do you know that mankind can live without the Englishman, it can live without Germany, it can live only too well without the Russian Man, it can live without science, without bread, and it only cannot live without beauty, for then there would be nothing at all to do in the world! The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here! Science itself would not stand for a minute without beauty — are you aware of that, you who are laughing? — it would turn into boorishness, you couldn’t invent the nail!... I will not yield!” he cried absurdly in conclusion, and banged his fist on the table with all his might.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons (Vintage, 2010), 485-486.

[5] Dietrich von Hildebrand and Alice von Hildebrand, The Art of Living (Hildebrand Press, 2017), 1-8.

[6] “The capacity to grasp values, to affirm them, and to respond to them, is the foundation for realizing the moral values of man. Now, these marks can be found only in the man who possesses reverence. Reverence is the attitude that can be designated as the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world that opens his spiritual eyes and enables him to grasp values.” Ibid, 3.

[7] “The one constant thought that there exists something immeasurably more just and happy than I, fills the whole of me with immeasurable tenderness and—glory—oh, whoever I am, whatever I do! Far more than his own happiness, it is necessary for a man to know and believe every moment that there is somewhere a perfect and peaceful happiness, for everyone and for everything… The whole law of human existence consists in nothing other than a man’s always being able to bow before the immeasurably great. If people are deprived of the immeasurably great, they will not live and will die in despair. The immeasurable and infinite is as necessary for man as the small planet he inhibits…” Dostoevsky, Demons, 664.

[8] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle” in The Tolkien Reader (Del Rey, 1986), 100-120.

[9] “I think he was a silly little man,” said Councillor Tompkins. “Worthless, in fact: No use to Society at all.”

 

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. “I am not sure: it depends on what you mean by use.”

 

“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away. I should have put him away long ago.”

 

“Put him away? You mean you’d have him start on the journey before his time?”

 

“Yes, if you must use that meaningless old expression. Push him into the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap: That’s what I mean.” Ibid, 118.

[10] Herbert George Wells, The War of the Worlds: The Time Machine : And Selected Short Stories (Platt & Munk, 1963).

[11] “Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race. And they can’t be happy. Moreover, dying’s not so dreadful; it’s the funking that makes it bad. And in all those places we shall gather. Our district will be London. And we may even be able to keep a watch, and runabout in the open when the Martians keep away. Play cricket, perhaps. That’s how we shall save the race. Eh? It’s a possible thing” But saving the race is nothing itself. As I say, that’s only being rats. It’s saving our knowledge and adding to it is the thing. There men like you come in. There’s books, there’s models. We must make great safe places down deep, and get all the books we can—not novels and poetry swipes but ideas, science books…” Ibid, 211-212.

[12] “It is proving very useful indeed,” said the Second Voice. “As a holiday, and a refreshment. It is splendid for convalescence; and not only for that, for many it is the best introduction to the Mountains. It works wonders in some cases. I am sending more and more there. They seldom have to come back.” Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader, 120.

[13] Martin Scorsese, “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.,” The New York Times, November 5, 2019, accessed December 21, 2021. URL: <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html>.

[14] “There exists aesthetic values such as elegant, witty, and entertaining which cannot be regarded even as subspecies of beauty in the broader sense. On the other hand, one cannot deny that they are aesthetic values, although they lie on the edge of the aesthetic.” Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, vol. 1 (The Hildebrand Project, 2016), 394.

 

“It is important to see that these peripheral things do not necessarily separate us from the depth in ourselves, and that the presence of this kind of periphery in the human person need not be a thing of disvalue. It is true that the amusing, that which is merely entertaining, the exciting, and the funny contain more dangers for the human person than the obligatory activities which practical life and many professions impose upon us. And yet these too may pose a great danger, as when people are wholly absorbed by the autonomous laws of their profession and are dominated, or even consumed, by them. At any rate, the amusing things which appeal to a kind of enjoyment pose a different risk of slipping into the periphery. They can become a special temptation to flee from depth into what Kierkegaard in Either/Or calls the “aesthetic life.” Ibid, 416.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole
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