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art and beauty

The love of beauty as such is one of the things that can attract men to the God, who is infinitely beautiful. But is it the case that we ought to pursue beauty only to the extent that it is joined to some function?…

from christendom to americanism and beyond thomas storckA previous essay of mine published in this journal made passing reference to certain aesthetic theories of Thomas Storck, which are to be found in his book From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond. Although I doubt that his ideas on this subject will gain widespread currency, I have chosen to respond to them for three reasons: his aesthetics appear to shed light on the trajectory of his social and political theories; his aesthetics constitute an attack on authentic progress within civilization; and his attacks on beauty are too common in contemporary society to go unanswered. 

Mr. Storck initiates his reflections on aesthetic questions by quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas to the effect that a saw which is beautiful but unable to cut is useless, extrapolating from this that beauty “when seen as something abstract or something to be pursued for its own sake should not be what the artist aims at.” [i] “It is only beauty in relation to some end, that is some use, that art properly aims at,” Mr. Storck writes. [ii] He even claims that the pursuit of beauty for its own sake results in the destruction of beauty, as it produce a boredom that artists attempt to alleviate by departing from true beauty in pursuit of something new and different. [iii] It is the further contention of Mr. Storck that art must have what he calls a “social role,” “cut off from a public role… artists increasingly become responsible only to themselves.”[iv] The turn of artists towards individuality of artistic expression results in an artistic subjectivism that rejects objective aesthetic standards. Part of this “social role” of art is accessibility to the whole of society—Mr. Storck opposing the current reality whereby access to some art is limited to “those who have leisure and education to attend to them,”[v] being “segregated” in museums, concert halls, and other such specialized locations.

In the case of literature, Mr. Storck holds up for emulation the form of bardic tradition common to primitive societies, exalting such a form of literature on the grounds that it constitutes a public performance combining improvisation with recitation—a type of performance that bears a relationship to music and to dancing, and that takes place within a “social context.” He criticizes private composition of poetry and insists that the private reading of poetry ought to be exceptional rather than normative, positions which he takes not only due to his belief that literature ought to be part of collective life rather than individual life, but also because the “privatization” of poetry contributes to the divide between high cultural and traditional forms of popular culture. Mr. Storck would obliterate such a divide in favor of assuring that true art is that which can be appreciated (at least in some of its aspects) by all members of society.

I confess that in responding to someone who denies that beauty ought to be pursued for its own sake I am at as much of a loss as I would be if attempting to respond to someone who denies that truth and goodness ought to be pursued for their own sakes. The scholastic philosophers place all three among what they term the “transcendental properties of being,” though some consider beauty a subdivision of one of these properties. It is traditionally held that the love of beauty as such is one of the things that can attract men to the God, who is infinitely beautiful. The belief that we ought to pursue beauty only to the extent that it is joined to some function veers dangerously close to utilitarianism. Fortunately for this writer, the other points made by Mr. Storck allow for more precise responses.

Saint Thomas Aquinas’ reflection in regard to saws is utterly irrelevant to the topic at hand. The fact that something that is meant to have a function becomes useless if it is beautiful but unable to perform its function tells us nothing whatsoever about whether or not it is right to create beautiful things that have no function. The contention that art lacking function has no standard by which to be judged is preposterous. Mr. Storck himself recognizes that some music that lacks a function is more beautiful than some music that has a function, though he argues that the less beautiful music is nevertheless superior art due to the very fact of its being functional. But the fact that we can establish that the non-functional music is more beautiful sufficiently proves that there are standards by which we can judge that which lacks a function.

I find highly questionable the assertion of Mr. Storck that boredom with beauty for its own sake has led to an abandonment of objective aesthetics principles. This may be true of isolated individuals. Perhaps some artists who desire to conform to objective aesthetics have failed to do so in practice when attempting to be original. But aesthetic subjectivism would seem to be merely the artistic version of the broad tendency in contemporary society to reject—and even to actively rebel against—any objective standards that would constrain the individual’s absolute freedom.

In blaming a turn towards individual expression for this embrace of the subjective, Mr. Storck overlooks the all-important distinction between an individual way of embodying objective aesthetic principles and an exaltation of absolute individualism linked to the denial of objective aesthetics. The former cannot be held responsible for the latter any more than authentic patriotism can be held responsible for fascistic nationalism. Great artistic achievement requires both a grounding in true aesthetics and a unique, original appropriation of them, which is of necessity highly individual. The lack of such individuality results in mere copying and unimaginative uniformity. There would seem to be a relationship between this fact and the tendency of “oral literature” in primitive society to contain characters that are no more than archetypes, rather than characters that demonstrate the uniqueness, complexity, and individuality of real individuals; both composer and composition are reduced to more or less uniform “types.” Yet it is just such primitive literature to which Mr. Storck would have us look as a model.

It is a matter of indifference to Mr. Storck that the transition from public improvisation to private composition resulted in works of higher literary merit, with superior literary style, superior characters, and superior plots. Neither would he seem to be interested in the fact that public recitation can actually obscure literary defects, as in the case (noted by Evelyn Waugh) of poems by W.H. Auden, which achieved a reputation higher than their literary merit due to the way in which Auden’s recitation of them excited his listeners. According to Mr. Storck, such questions of literary excellence ought to be disregarded whenever they come into conflict with literature having a “social role”—his position both undermining the artistic quality of literature and negating literature’s role as a refuge from collective existence, as a retreat from social life into our private and individual life. One might even be tempted to wonder why Mr. Storck decided to write his own book, presumably in private, were it not for the fact that it is a philosophical and critical work without artistic pretensions, and with prose amply demonstrative of its author’s commitment to slapdash literary endeavors.

But it is not enough for Mr. Storck that our approach to art be collectivistic and quasi-utilitarian, it must be also egalitarian. He creates needless conflict between art accessible to the whole of society (such as ecclesial architecture and liturgical music) and art accessible to a limited proportion of the populace—as though the existence of the latter excludes the existence of the former. And he would not stop at ensuring that all people are easily able to encounter all art; he would also engage in an artistic levelling that would ensure that all art can be appreciated by all people—thereby reducing art to a least common denominator. Here again, he would have us return to a more primitive state of society in which the distinction between high culture and popular culture does not exist.

Interestingly enough, one of the major reasons that Mr. Storck gives for his opposition to such differentiation—a desire to avoid a cleavage between different groups within society leading to social disintegration—was already addressed over half-a-century ago by T. S. Eliot in his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture. With his usual degree of penetration into such matters, Eliot recognized that differentiation into a variety of cultural groups within the same society can indeed lead to such disintegration, though at the same time he affirmed that certain forms of cultural differentiation within the same society are beneficent.

Eliot based his case on the fact that differentiation of cultural groups within a society is a natural concomitant of the differentiation into various professions, social classes, and so on, which takes place as a given society moves from a tribal existence to primitive civilization to advanced civilization. Eliot identified three basic forms of cultural differentiation within an advanced society: The first is regional differentiation, an advanced society often covering a geographical expanse that will result in different regions developing their own local variations of the more general culture; the second is based upon difference of social class; the third is the differentiation between high culture and what can be only accurately be called that which is not high culture, certain forms of upper class being unable to qualify either as truly high or truly popular.

It is natural that members of particular social classes, localities, professions, leisure associations, and so on will develop their own forms of culture. Different individuals will not only have different levels of cultural formation that enable them to appreciate high culture, but different natural capacities to do so. It is even the case that certain individuals with the strongest capacity for particular forms of high culture may be sorely lacking in their capacity for others. Those most devoted to the greatest literature may be utterly bored by music or vice versa. To insist that all art must contain elements which all can appreciate is to insist that these natural differences be bludgeoned into oblivion for no better reason than a desire for people to superficially “be together.” What is necessary to maintain social unity, according to Eliot, is not the obliteration of such natural differences but, rather that such differences constitute variations within common shared cultural themes and that there be certain cultural forms which are shared by the entire society.

Eliot went further and argued that all members of society have an interest in the preservation of all the legitimate cultural variations that exist within it. High culture together with certain aspects of upper- and of middle-class culture can have what may be aptly, if unattractively, termed a “trickle-down effect.” Aspects of popular culture and of working-class culture can be refined in a “trickle-up effect.” (That much of what passes for popular culture today is mere degradation does not change the truth of the latter point any more than corrupt forms of putatively high art in today’s world constitute an argument against high art as such.) High culture is a necessary aspect of overall culture refinement. The existence of cultures proper to the various social classes is a necessary correlate of the social stratification inherent in an advanced society. Members of all classes can appreciate high culture, but one cannot deny to any one class its proper culture without raising the danger of cultural—then of social and economic—egalitarianism.

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[i] Storck, Thomas. From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond: The Long, Jagged Trail to a Postmodern Void (Ohio: Angelico Press, 2015), p. 86.

[ii] Storck, From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond, 86.

[iii] Storck, From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond, 89.

[iv] Storck, From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond, 87.

[v] Storck, From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond, 87.


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