Art and Aesthetics
Nicholas Wolterstorff shows just how closely art is tied to the human race. Wolsterstorff also explains how only art can truly bring an idea, a feeling, and even history to its true light.
Thanks very much, Jonathan, and thanks very much for having me. Let me express my astonishment that at 8:15, instead of you’re getting ready for bed, you’re… [laughing] So that you’re fresh for your classes tomorrow morning, you’re sitting here and, well, I mean, in the dark. [laughing] I grew up in a tiny farming village in southwest Minnesota called Bigelow. I mean, really tiny. 200 people?
My father was a cabinetmaker. My grandfather was a cabinetmaker. A cabinetmaker in the Netherlands. Utrecht, the Netherlands. I have some of the hand tools that were handed down from my grandfather from the Netherlands to plot planes, cabinetmaker’s planes, handed down from my grandfather, to my father, to me. Now, I gave them to one of my sons. So, I come out of a craftsman’s tradition. I did carpentry, do woodworking, myself. I partly come out of a craft tradition, so I’m not gonna talk about that tonight, but when philosophers of art put down the crafts and talk about mirror crafts, I get my back up.
So, no doubt, in some ways, what I’ll say tonight, and in general, my approach to art has been shaped by the wish to defend the craft tradition and resentment at those who put it down. But it wasn’t only that. My father also did pen and ink drawings on the dining room table. I can see it as if yesterday in this tiny, little farm village, the pen and ink drawings in the evening. He had done art by correspondence. Grew up in the Depression.
So, art was, well, I’ll tell you a story about my aunt. Two of us lived in the village. We did, and an aunt of mine, aunt and uncle, Aunt Trina. Went over to her house. I suppose I was about 12. She had the Metropolitan Opera on, on Saturday afternoon, and I was a young teenager. Sort of, I guess, whippersnapperish, and I said to her, Aunt Trina, why do you have that on? Here’s what she said. Nick, this is my window onto the world.
Sit down and let me explain it to you. That’s a metaphor for what education should be in general, right? This is a window onto the world. Sit down, let me explain it to you. So, it’s from those origins that I’ve come to be a lover of the arts. If I could not have been a philosopher, I would’ve wanted to be an architect. I have no idea whether I’d be any good at it, but so it is. Arthur Danto is an American philosopher of art. In his book, After the End of Art, by which he doesn’t actually mean after the end of art, but after the end of a certain story about art, in his book After the End of Art, Arthur Danto describes an awakening that he experienced in April 1964 in the Stable Gallery in New York City.
What caused the awakening was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box sculptures. How many of you have some idea of what those Brillo Box sculptures are like? Well, you know what Brillo Boxes are? [laughing] These are large, oversized Brillo Boxes. Danto says he awakened to the fact that something very new was going on in the art world. A development that he eventually came to describe then as the end of art.
An awakening that I experienced in the late 1960s was different in both cause and outcome. It happened in my living room in Grand Rapids, Michigan, not in an art gallery. And it awakened me not to developments in the art world, which is what happened to Danto, but to what I’d been taught to think about the arts, and what in fact, I was teaching about the arts. As I say, I was sitting in my living room on a Saturday afternoon, listening to the University of Michigan radio station when the station said that they were going for the next hour to play recordings of work songs. Work songs, okay? Songs whose origin was accompaniment to work.
After 10 minutes or so of fascinated listening, the irony of what was happening to me there in my living room suddenly slapped me in the face. These were songs that had been sung to accompany rhythmic work on docks, on railroads, on cotton fields, and so forth. And here I was sitting in my living room carefully listening to them in the same way, pretty much the same way, that I would listen to a piano sonata.
What’s going on here, I remember saying to myself. I don’t understand this. Now, some background is necessary if you are to understand why my listening to those work songs on that Saturday afternoon was for me such a provocative wake-up experience. Most people would not have found it that, I’m sure. Why did I? Well, one of the philosophy courses that I was teaching at the time was philosophy of art, and the text that I was using was called Aesthetics, written by the philosopher Monroe Beardsley. Beardsley’s book was, and I think it still is, one of the finest products of one version of our modern way of thinking about the arts.
Call it, a little bit ponderous, but call it the aestheticist’s version. All versions of our modern way of thinking about the arts focus on the work of art, and the aestheticist’s version focuses more particularly on the work’s aesthetic qualities. And what it says is that the worth, you know, the worth, the excellence, the worth of the work of art consists in the aesthetic pleasure that it gives the person who carefully looks at, carefully listens to, or carefully reads the work in question, so as to discern what philosophers call its aesthetic qualities.
The aesthetic pleasure gotten from concentrating on its aesthetic qualities. Tonight I’m not even gonna take a stab at explaining what aesthetic qualities are. That’s not gonna make any difference. Therein it said lies the point of art, to give the careful viewer aesthetic pleasure, pleasure upon contemplating the aesthetic qualities of the work.
Now, need I say that such engagement with art requires a considerable amount of leisure time? Not work, but leisure. Takes time to listen carefully to a symphony. Takes time to carefully read a poem. Takes time to go out to watch a play. You need some leisure time. If you’re working from dawn to dusk, well, a little bit beyond dusk, you don’t have time for it. And the aestheticist’s version of the modern tradition, there are a few other versions. I’m not gonna worry about that. The aestheticist’s version of the modern tradition of thinking about art says that this way of treating art, namely, carefully looking at it, carefully reading it, carefully listening to it, says that this way of treating art amounts to art coming into its own. That’s the phrase. Coming into its own. Here’s the contrast.
Rather than being in the service of something, in the service of what some prince wants, or what some bishop wants, or something like that, come into its own, rather than being in the service of something else. And an asset only if a painting, a work of music, a sculpture, a poem serves this purpose well, giving us aesthetic satisfaction or delight, only if it serves it well is it really a work of art. And the better it serves that purpose of giving us aesthetic delight, the better the work is. That’s the idea. For most of you, that’s not so odd and strange, right?
Now, you will find lots of people in this tradition taking one step farther and incorporating that way of thinking of art, art comes into its own when we treat it as an object of careful contemplation, careful attention, and so forth, you’ll find lots of people in that tradition taking one step farther and incorporating that way of thinking about art into a grand, romantic picture of modern society. And that’s the picture, 19th century, German, English romantics, okay?
The 19th century romantics had an analysis of modernity. They were the first secular analysts of modernity. That is, the first people to say that the end of the mid 18th century, there about, something brand-new was happening in the world, in the western world. It wasn’t just changes, but something brand-new. A modern world was coming to birth, and here’s what the romantics said about the modern world.
What characterizes the modern world is that it splits apart old unities. It fragments society, and argues that this fragmentation of society is stimulated by what it calls rationality. That is to say by our constantly asking what are different means to achieving these ends? So-called instrumental thinking.
The poet, the English poet John Keats puts it like this in one passage. The modern world, oh, he’s gonna use the word gnomed. Gnomed, he’s turning little gnomes who live in German forests, in the Black Forest, he’s turning gnomes into a verb here, gnomed. He’s gonna speak about the gnomed mine. A coal mine, whatever, that has a little gnomes living in it, okay? [laughing] He’s also gonna be speaking about philosophy, but take my word for it, he doesn’t really mean philosophy. I mean, he really means philosophy.
It doesn’t mean what we mean by philosophy. He means natural science. Here’s what he says. He’s talking about modernity. It empties the gnomed mine and philosophy unweaves the rainbow. See what’s going on there? Philosophy unweaves the rainbow, pulls it apart. Fragments it. Empties the gnomed mine, removes all the mystery. All the little gnome figures are gone. That’s modernity. Fragmentation. Once upon a time, unity.
Now everywhere, fragmentation. Social fragmentation, psychological fragmentation. That’s the romantic analysis. To this day, it’s the basic sociological tradition. But, so the romantics said, but art is the social other, and the socially transcendent. In art, we have unity, rather than fragmentation, and in art, we have imagination, rather than rationality, and in art, we have the mysterious, instead of the calculable. And then a great many romantics added this. And in virtue of being socially other and socially transcendent, in virtue of that, art has the potential of saving us from what we need saving from. Namely, fragmentation, excessive rationality, lack of imagination, and so forth. That’s the romantic view.
The romantic social analysis, and then this picture of art coming into its own is incorporated into that grand sociological picture. Apart from that… Oh, well, so let me… I was once talking to an English teacher at one of the Christian colleges about these matters, and here’s what she said. I think it’s a near quotation from one of the romantics. Nick, she said, Nick, you know, poetry knits together the tattered fragments of our existence. Poetry knits together the tattered fragments of our existence.
I wanted to say to her, but it would’ve been too cruel, I thought Jesus Christ did that. [laughing] Apart from the religiosity of that last point, what I’ve told you now is more or less what I was teaching my students. I had embraced that grand picture. I may have felt some unease at some points, but that’s basically how I was thinking when I was sitting in my living room that Saturday afternoon. That’s how Beardsley was thinking. That’s how almost all my fellow philosophers of art were thinking, and how most of them still think.
Okay, so that’s how I was thinking. Now, back to those work songs. These songs were meant to accompany work. It was when they accompanied work that they came into their own. Not when I was carefully listening to them at leisure in my living room so as to discern their aesthetic qualities. It’s dismissive of them to say that they represent music not come into its own. I found when I was listening and thinking about what I was hearing that I could not be dismissive of this music. I could not be dismissive of it.
These songs, I felt, when sung in the situation in which they were originally meant to be sung, were doing something very important. Different of course, from what a Beethoven sonata does, but something very important. There’s not much work in the contemporary city that invites singing to accompany it. I do not sing when working at my computer. I bet you don’t, either. Work songs are receding. Then still sitting in my living room, it occurred to me that hymns, hymns, church hymns are very much like work songs in this respect. They’re meant to be sung by an entire congregation and its worship of God.
They’re not meant to be listened to carefully for their aesthetic qualities. And if someone says, ah, yes, Wolterstorff, but hymns are music not come into its own. I replied, what do you mean not come into its own? It was for singing by the congregation that these hymns came into being. That’s what they’re for. This is when they come into their own.
Yeah, you can listen to recordings of hymns on a Saturday afternoon in your living room, I know that, but they come into their own when they’re sung by a congregation, right? And if my dialogue partner then says, well, okay, I concede that point. Maybe so, but it’s an inferior form of music and an inferior way of engaging music. I kind of bristle, and I say, well, I don’t kind of bristle, I bristle and I respond, why is worshiping God with music inferior to listening to a work of music so as to obtain aesthetic satisfaction?
You gotta explain that to me. I don’t understand that. So, that’s how it all began. A youngish philosopher schooled in the modern aesthetic tradition having an epiphany in his living room upon listening to a recording of work songs on a Saturday afternoon. Well, not really an epiphany. More like a puzzlement. I didn’t know what to think. The description that I’ve just now given of my experience and of the questions that came to mind are questions that I vaguely felt at the time, but that I could not then have articulated.
It seems to me all pretty obvious now, but it took me years to fully break the grip of how I had been thinking, and to think along new lines about art. And what eventually emerged from the reflections provoked by the innocent-seeming living room experience was the conviction that instead of placing works of art and their aesthetic qualities in the center of our attention, what we should do is think of art within the context of human action.
We do things with, and upon, and by means of, and so forth. Whatever prepositions you want there. Works of art. And then, once you’ve seen that, that art is just embedded deeply in human action, once you’ve seen that, then it seems to me that you and I as thinkers about art, instead of focusing on just one action, that of aesthetic contemplation, we should take note of the absolutely unbelievable variety of ways in which works of art enter into our lives.
Aesthetic contemplation is important. Don’t get me wrong. I would feel deeply impoverished if I could not engage in it. But to focus only on that action, and to ignore or be dismissive of all the other ways in which art enters into our lives is just to blind ourselves. Most societies have not had public museums, have not had public concert halls, have not had lending libraries and library reading rooms. Our western society did not have them until the 18th century, but all societies have had art [mumbling] some form or other.
And in my view, that tells us something deeply important about what it is to be human. We live and act artistically, so I developed that line of thought in the book that Jonathan held up and mentioned, Art in Action, 1980. Now, a not infrequent reaction that I’ve got to Art in Action is that I was now doing the opposite from the tradition that I was reacting against. I was now putting down aesthetic contemplation and putting down the art that serves that mode of engagement.
I was surprised by this response, and let me admit it, annoyed. But recently, I’ve come to think that, well, maybe the critics were on to something. It was, in a way, a mistake for me to lump perceptual attention to works of art. It’s just one among other valuable ways in which to engage art. The mistake was not that I was putting down that mode of engagement. I wasn’t.
But I did begin to understand why people thought I was. So, I’m going to try to explain that, but first, before I do that, I will do that by introducing mentioning another epiphany experience. I’ll get to that, but first, two preliminary points. We’ll get to the second epiphany soon.
Go back one more time to the work songs. What do those work songs do? Why are there such songs? Why do people sing them? Well, notice that work in question can be done without the songs. You can hoe cotton, lay railroad ties, work on the docks without singing. So, why the songs? What do the songs do?
The best that I’ve been able the come up with is this. The songs ennoble and enhance the work, insofar as it can be ennobled and enhanced. And so, too, for hymns. We in the congregation can praise God without singing hymns. We can do so with spoken prose. But the hymns ennoble the praise. Lift it to another level. And when the people in African villages paint designs on their huts, they ennoble their dwellings. The hut can exist without the designs, but the designs ennoble it. So, I submit this, that a great deal of painting, music, poetry and so forth, ennobles our actions and ennobles the things we make and use.
The modern way of thinking about the arts represented by Monroe Beardsley and that I’d been teaching my students takes absolutely no note of this phenomena that I’ve been calling ennoblement or enhancement, but think about it, how impoverished our lives would be without such ennoblement. And I’m not really gonna talk about it, but I’ll just mention it. In the 19th century, as a result of the crafts being taken over by industry, the so-called good design movement originated. Good industrial design.
And I think basically, what good industrial design is up to is ennobling forks and knives. Ennobling chairs. This humble, object, chairs, and this utterly humble activity of sitting on chairs, I think the greatest chair designer of the 20th century was a Dane, Hans Wegner, and what Wegner’s designs do is they ennoble chairs. One says, my gosh, who would ever have thought that a chair could be, and sitting in a chair could be so, well, best word I could think of is ennobled? That’s one way. Art ennobles all kinds of things.
Now, for another way in which art enters into life in action. Sometime back, I was struck by the prominence in human existence of memorial art. Art meant to keep alive and to honor to memory of some person or event from the past. Some of you know about orthodox icons. There was an enormous controversy among the Byzantines about our icons in the 700s, and they used the term memorial in speaking about their icons. Well, I suppose Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, how many of you have been there? Fair number.
All of you should make it a point of destination. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial is perhaps the most famous artistic creation, I would say artistic creation in general of the past 35 or so years, and it’s work, obviously, of memorial art.
Oh, you descend into a gash in the earth, and this gash is lined with a black polished marble, and honored are incised the names of the people who were killed in the, Americans who were killed in the Vietnam War. Aesthetic satisfaction is not the point of this work. Nobody stands back to admire its aesthetic qualities. As I said, you descend into this gash in the earth, and if you’ve done that, what you see, maybe you’ve done it yourself, people touch the wall. And on a bright day, they see their faces reflected in this polished black marble, and they cry.
Every time I’ve been there, people are crying. They touch the incision, the incised name of someone that they knew or were acquainted with. They cry. Some years back, I published an article that I called, somewhat whimsically, Why Philosophers of Art Cannot Handle Kissing, Touching and Crying. [laughing] My point was that philosophers of art have had absolutely nothing to say about memorial art. Huge as it is, and near in my life.
I think the paintings of Christ’s nativity are memorial art. Meant to keep alive and to honor the nativity, and so forth. So, in the case of memorial art, what we have is, not strictly speaking, art that ennobles some action that it accompanies. What we have instead is art meant to bring something about.
Namely, I would say, to keep memory alive, and to honor the one remembered. There are other ways to bring these things about, to remember and to keep memory alive, and to honor somebody’s memory. Art is not indispensable to it. So, here, too, the question arises, what does the art do that we find so important? Why not keep alive and honor the memory of Washington, and Lincoln, and Jefferson, and Vietnam? I’m mentioning the memorials on the mall in Washington. Why not do that without the art? Well, for one thing, art is often far more effective in keeping alive and honoring the memory of somebody.
I’d say the Lincoln Memorial on the mall, wouldn’t you think? I’d say the Lincoln Memorial on the mall in Washington is far more effective in keeping alive and honoring the memory of Lincoln than is naming a city in Nebraska after Lincoln. As a case of memorial naming, but I submit that, that memorial there on the mall is far more effective in keeping alive and honoring Lincoln.
But I think there’s something else going on than sheer effectiveness. I think we have an intuitive sense that often, only art, here’s the word I’m gonna use, the sense that only art befits the worth of the person or the event remembered. I don’t know how else to put it. Only art befits. Yes, we can compose prose pieces about Vietnam, and we can have school children read these prose pieces about Vietnam.
That will enhance memory. But it falls far short of adequately honoring those who gave their lives. They deserve something more than little pieces by second graders. They deserve what Maya Lin gave them. Lincoln deserves the Lincoln Memorial. I think one of the greatest memorials actually on the mall is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Should I say this? I think the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a horror.
The Vietnam veterans, well, killed, deserve what Maya Lin gave them. That befits the memory, and as I say, so, too, for the Lincoln Memorial. So, what we’ve got in these last two comments is this, art ennobles things that we do and make, and often, we feel that nothing less than art befits the worth of what we want to achieve. Now, for the second epiphany. About four years ago, the prominent American poet, Donald Hall was at the University of Virginia, as Johnathan explained, I’m a fellow of an institute at the University of Virginia.
About four years ago, Donald Hall was at the University of Virginia for a few days. He read his poetry to a large and enthusiastic audience, and big auditorium there, Campbell Hall, and he conducted a workshop for students who were would be poets. Now, I’m neither a student or a would be poet, but I was invited to sit in on the workshop.
And the workshop hall often illustrated points he wanted to make by telling us about differences between the final version of one of his poems, and an earlier draft version. I remember one of his examples. Whereas in an earlier version he had spoken, he said, of a dog wagging its tail, in the final version, he changed it to the dog swinging its tail. A student, a male student, asked why he made the change. I shall never forget Hall’s answer. Because it made it a better poem. [laughing] The student didn’t ask why it made it a better poem. I think we all just felt, but of course. [laughing] Probably, I was the only person in the room sufficiently struck by his answer to remember it. So, once again, why was I struck?
Well, I was struck by what he didn’t way. He did not give the subjective answer because I liked it better. Of course he liked it better, but he liked it better because it was a better poem. It wasn’t a better poem because he liked it more. I think even more remarkable is another thing he didn’t say. He did not say, he did not say, because I thought it would give my readers greater aesthetic pleasure.
Nor, in fact, did he mention any other purpose that he thought the change would serve better. He didn’t say that the change would make it better for this purpose or for that purpose. He didn’t say that it would make a better means to this end or that end. Look, almost all contemporary theories of artistic worth are instrumental theories. The worth of the work lies in some purpose it serves. That’s the aesthetic theory. It lies in giving us aesthetic pleasure, or in the Hegelian version, we become acquainted with truth, and so forth. I confess myself to have offered an aesthetic version, and instrumental version of artistic worth in my works in my Art in Action.
Nothing of that sort crossed Hall’s lips. Because it made it a better poem. Could he have put into words why it made it a better poem? Maybe, maybe not. So, notice what’s going on here. Hall saw himself as creating something of intrinsic worth. Not something who’s worth lies in bringing about something else, but something of intrinsic worth. Something that’s a good thing of its kind, lyric poem. He didn’t say lyric poem, but that’s what he meant. Lyric poem, and that’s what I and my fellow philosophers had been overlooking with all our instrumental theories about artistic worth. I now think that the critics of my art in action were vaguely feeling that.
So, yes, art ennobles what we do. I’m going to continue to defend that thesis with vigor, okay? And yes, sometimes only art befits the worth of what we want to accomplish. I shall continue to defend that thesis with vigor. But here’s what I want to say. What also happens in the arts, I now think, is that, sometimes anyway, is that the artists produce, artist produces a painting, a sculpture, a work of music, a poem, a play, a dance that is of intrinsic worth.
Not just of instrumental worth, of intrinsic worth. Something that increases the world’s stock of what is intrinsically good. And my guess is that every artist in this room has had that experience. Why did you make the change? Because I thought it would make it a better sonata, a better play, a better poem, a better sculpture. Not because you thought it would be more successful at evoking audience pleasure. For one thing, audience pleasure is much too fickle to stake very much on it. And we, the public, you’ve made the work.
We, the public, then take note of this thing you’ve made that’s of intrinsic worth so as to revel in it, be enriched by it, and to do that we have to look at it carefully, read it carefully, listen to it carefully, and so forth. Notice that in this form of engagement with the work, as opposed to the other forms that I talked about, in this case, we’re not doing something with the work of art that we could also do without the art, like hoeing cotton, let’s say. In this case, the art is serving neither as accompaniment, nor as means. What we’re doing is nothing more, nothing less than attending to this object of intrinsic worth so as to note and relish what is of worth in it. And we can’t do that any other way.
We can’t do it without this work of art, and without attending to it. And also, notice that the work of art on this way of thinking does not have worth because it gives us delight upon attending to it. It’s the other way around. The worth of attending to it lies in the fact, that in thus, engaging it, we put ourselves in touch with something of intrinsic worth. So, okay, let’s move to my conclusion. So, the artist brings into existence new things of intrinsic worth. Art is also good for all kinds of things. I want to keep insisting on that.
Been insisting on that for more than 30 years, and I’ll continue to do so. But what I missed in that book Art in Action is that artists also create something of intrinsic worth for us to revel in. How many of you know [mumbling] or know the name of, or know personally, the New York artist Makoto Fujimura? Terrific artist. Makoto Fujimura. He has an ongoing series that he calls Refractions.
In Refractions 31, he refers to a 1983 publication called The Gift by the poet Lewis Hyde, and he quotes Hyde as saying that the assumption of his book, Hyde’s book, is now, I quote, that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. That seems to me exactly right. In creating something of intrinsic worth, the artist offers us something very different from what is on offer in the marketplace for enabling you to sleep better, or eat better, or whatever.
The marketplace offers us all kinds of things to satisfy our needs and desires, but the artist puts in our hands, offers us the gift of something new that is of intrinsic worth for us to dwell on and dwell in. And the appropriate response, what do you think? The appropriate response to this gift is love. Love takes several forms, but one form that it takes is that of being drawn to something on account of its worth. Relishing in it, reveling in it. That’s form of love that Plato called, the Greek word is eros, E-R-O-S.
The artist creates for us a new focus of love, of eros. Well, in conclusion, from there, my thoughts have been going in many different directions, but I’m still in the process of working them out. I mean, it’s getting really late, you know? And be too hazy, so I’m gonna close. In working out these thoughts, I do want to take account of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, but that’s all for another day.
Let me make just two brief concluding comments first. I find it nothing short of astonishing that intrinsically good paintings, intrinsically good sculptures, intrinsically good poems, intrinsically good dances, and so forth, should be so incredibly diverse. Gregorian Chant is wonderful music, but so is Igor Stravinsky’s extremely different Rite of Spring. Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, Vermeer’s paintings, many of you know them, are absolutely wonderful in their hushed and reverential celebration of the ordinary.
But so are the Italian couple centuries earlier, Duccio. So are Duccio’s paintings of Mary, queen of heaven. The astonishing diversity. And secondly, God as creator makes things of intrinsic worth also makes you and me, and tigers, fox, butterflies, and so forth. So, the artist in creating things of intrinsic worth is like unto God. Artistic creation is one aspect of our bearing the image of God. There’s a danger in thinking and saying that, and I recognize the danger.
It’s the danger of idolatry, or quasi, or semi-idolatry. And some writers, I think have succumbed to that danger, especially in the high romantic tradition. But dangerous or not is the conclusion to which I have found myself led by that utterly innocent sounding remark, it made it a better poem. Thanks. [applause]
Is this on? Yeah? Good? Dr. Wolterstorff has agreed to take some questions, so we have a number of people running around with microphones. So, if you have a question for Dr. Wolterstorff, just raise you hand high–
There’s somebody right here. [laughs] [mumbling]
Audience Member: Hi, thanks for your talk. It was wonderful. In my very limited thinking about aesthetics, I just found it so difficult to try and elucidate what particular qualities or properties of art that make it intrinsically valuable or worthwhile. And in that frustration of trying to figure that out, I’ve kind of moved towards a more instrumental view, and I’ll just tell you what it is and have you give your thoughts based on what you said. And that is the worth of art consists in its ability to spur human beings on to their proper end or goal. And as a Christian, we have a certain view of what our goal is, but go ahead.
Yeah, it does that. But I think I’ve come to think that relishing that work of art is also part of our goal. It’s not just a means to the goal, but I think, so it seems to me the best word to capture what the biblical writers have in mind, what they think is our human, a proper human destiny, is the Hebrew word shalom. Occurs all over the place in the Old Testament. Almost always, in the translations that I know of, it gets translated peace.
I think peace is a rotten translation of the Hebrew shalom. It’s much too thin. Shalom, for the Hebrew writers, was flourishing. Flourishing in all dimensions, with respect to your neighbors, with respect to the earth, with respect to God, with respect to yourself, flourishing. And for them, the ground floor of such flourishing was always justice.
So, I’ve come to think that part of such flourishing is that there would be these work, a component of such flourishing, is that there would be these works of intrinsic worth that we could delight in. I think as a temptation for those of us who are Christian social activists, a deep temptation to be reductionist about it. To think, tacitly, think of human beings as food eaters, water drinkers, clothes wearers, house livers in. To think materialistically about it. But I think that a human being who’s got enough to eat, and enough to drink, clothes on his or her back, a house to live in, if they’re living in aesthetic squalor, that’s not shalom.
So, it’s not just instrumental, but the thing itself. So, you opened your question by saying that you found it difficult to say in a given case what it is about this work that makes it a good sonata, or a good lyric poem, or whatever. Yeah, that’s often very difficult. I think of the Donald Hall case. It was wagging his tail is so conventional. Swinging, furthermore, evokes different imagery, and so forth, but it’s very often, I mean, what the artist can often do is sort of point to what’s better about it, but to go beyond pointing to and putting it into words is often difficult, yeah, true.
Keep working, keep struggling at it. [laughs] Don’t give up. And if you feel convinced that this version is better than that version, and somebody says why, have the guts to say, I can’t put it into words, but I know.
Audience Member: Hi. You spoke to the work of art ennobling the tools that leave the houses, the things that we use, as well as ennobling memories. Could you speak to how art ennobles the creator, the person who makes the work? I think of the work of art therapists, and so on and so forth. So, how does art ennoble the creator?
laughs: That’s a really good question. Did you all hear it? How does art ennoble the creator? How does the work of art ennoble the creator of the work of art? And I haven’t thought about it. So, I don’t know what to say. [laughing] I’ll think about it. Good question. [laughing]
Audience Member: If I can take that a step further, I was just making some notes while you were speaking about this very topic, and–
Hold the mic–
Audience Member: Oh, sorry. I was making some notes about this as you were speaking about it, and I am an art therapist. I’m teaching the art therapy class here, and I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and I think that perhaps this ennoblement is the missing ingredient or the mysterious ingredient to art therapy in that we’re ennobled at the very moment of becoming vulnerable, and thus, counteracting feelings of shame and guilt as we’re putting the images onto the page, perhaps.
Well, I guess, about that, my answers are getting kinda short, aren’t they? Amen. [laughing] [applause]
Audience Member: Wolterstorff, thank you. Thank you, again. Thank you for speaking. Kind of a two-prong question. One, I guess, just for my own understanding, it sounded like you were instrumentalist, and then adding intrinsic value. First, it was just instrumental value, and then you cam to also include intrinsic value, but that doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned the instrumentalist. Is it kind of both, or maybe to be more analytical, what would you say about instrumental value and intrinsic value are each necessary and sufficient conditions?
And then the other question is, doesn’t instrumentalism let too many things become art? Like something like the Vietnam Memorial may be obvious because it’s so obvious to so many as having a value, but what about the individual poem by a second grader that is only loved by the mom and the child? I mean, it sounds like everything would become art just about if it had a function.
So, on the first. So, my view now is that in the arts, we have interrelation, interaction, intertwinement of both the intrinsic and instrumental worth. Instrumental isn’t… I’ve been using instrumental, but it’s not really the right word. Okay, so, the orthodox people in their churches have icons, and the way they engage, these are depictions of the saints, and of biblical personages, and of biblical events. Most of them.
The way the orthodox engage these is that they kiss them, they light candles in front of them, they bow in front of them. Sometimes they prostrate themselves on the ground in front of them. And the icon painter paints according to a whole tradition of icon painting, and he paints them for that mode of engagement. Many of them are aesthetically gorgeous. I remember a exhibition of about 10 years ago in the Met in New York of icons that had been gathered from the eastern Mediterranean. Many of them that had never been allowed out of the monasteries and churches in which they had been for millennia.
They were displayed in the Met as objects of aesthetic, as objects of aesthetic excellence, and everybody knew what we were supposed to do. We were supposed to take aesthetic delight, and that was very easy, since they were gorgeous. But they’d been ripped out of their context. So, they’re engaged as objects of religious veneration. That’s not really functionality, quite. So, they’re judged in terms of, and there’re canons, standards in terms of how well they serve that, and so forth. So, I haven’t found the right word for it.
You’re discerning that I don’t like instrumental very well, but I don’t know what other word to use instead. Sometimes, we just plain use works of art to do things, but that, well, the Byzantines are engaging the work of art in order to venerate the saint. So, I’ve come to think that, call it instrumental, and intrinsic, these interact. I want to affirm both of them. But I don’t want just to say that the point of, I don’t much like the Beardsley approach that the point of contemplating intensely something that is of intrinsic worth is that it gives me pleasure. I may well get pleasure out of it, but that seems to me to get things backwards. Its worth does not come from the pleasure I’m getting, but the pleasure I get is from being in contact with this object of intrinsic worth. Now, your other worry.
Doesn’t everything turn into a work of art? Well, so, one of the things that’s been happening in the art world, let me start a bit differently. Before the 18th century, in the languages of western Europe. Beyond that, but certainly in the languages of western Europe, there was nothing quite like our word art. The Greeks had the word techni, and so when you read Plato’s Republic you will find the word art occurring. It will be used as a translation of the Greek techni.
And the Latins had the word ars, from which comes our word art, and you will find that translated as art. But a very well-known article by an intellectual historian, Oskar Kristeller argues that it was first in the 18th century that our notion of fine art emerged. According to which the following are standardly cited as examples of fine art. Poetry, fiction, drama, music, painting, sculpture, he adds architecture, and I can see why he adds architecture, but I think architecture’s always sat a little bit on the border.
So, I call examples of those works of the arts. Now, what’s happening in the art world today, the visual art world, is that it’s expanding widely beyond works of the arts. Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, well, if you want, you can call them sculptures, but the point is not that they’re… There’s a display presently in the Guggenheim in New York City which consists of a retrospective of an Italian sculptor, I suppose, Cattelan. Consists of about 186 of his objects, all linked together and suspended from that big dome in the Guggenheim.
That includes taxidermy, donkeys, and small refrigerators, and the like. Well, this is not a work of the arts. Maybe it’s a work of art. I don’t know about that. So, my real point is the arts, works of the arts. Poetry, sculpture, music, painting and so forth, here’s the point I want to make. Works of those arts, okay? Play an enormous diversity of roles in human existence, and what I want to do is to call some attention to that diversity of roles and to analyze it.
What’s going on when the orthodox venerate their icons? What’s going on with memorial art? How does social protest art work, and so forth? To call attention to the variety of ways in which we engage works of art, they fit into human action and to analyze it. So, what I mean is not any old thing, but works of the arts.
Audience Member: Guess it’s not working.
Oh, that’s right. [laughs]
Audience Member: Thank you for your talk, first of all. In thinking about these objects of intrinsic worth in of themselves, and then listen to comments about their utility, then you actually in mentioning art having the ability to take that which is fragmented and bring it whole again. It makes me think of artistic works which might not be shared with the world, and maybe like a private artist. My question is, is there a point where a community or a person has, I guess, a right to these objects of intrinsic worth?
To do what?
Audience Member: That they have a right to partake in these objects of intrinsic worth. If there’s a time where that’s the case, and if so, is that up to the artist? I don’t know, just your comments on that. I’m just curious.
Here’s the idea. So, you’ve written this poem. Do I have a right now to read it? And it’s really good? [laughing] I guess, I would say if it’s not so very good, no, I don’t have a right. But if it’s really good [laughs], then you don’t have the right to deprive me of this great good. So, you gotta judge whether it’s really good or not. I don’t know, you know?
In fact, that arises over and over in the arts. Composers who say they want some of their early works destroyed. Bruckner says he wants the unedited versions of his symphonies destroyed. Painters who insist that certain of their works be destroyed after their death, and so forth. It becomes a complicated issue, and there’s not an easy answer to it. Do we respect the wish of the artist, or not? By in large, what has happened, I would say, I’d have to review the cases. By in large, we have not respected the wishes of the artist. By in large, I think that’s right. Now, whether that’s correct or not, I’m not exactly sure.
Audience Member: Hello.
How about maybe one more? Is that okay?
Audience Member: I got a mic. [laughing]
How’d you get a mic?
Audience Member: Hello. Actually, I wrote it down. Is there a specific purpose that art fulfills as far as aiding human flourishment that other items of intrinsic value such as observing humans or nature could not fulfill?
No, I think that they’re unique things that art does, and I was sort of hinting at those. Art ennobles actions in a way that it’s very difficult to explain, I think. Art ennobles actions. Music ennobles a congregation’s praise in a way that, well, I mean, it’s better if the words of the praise are in poetry rather than prose. That’s already better.
But if you add the music, I think the music ennobles the praise in a way that nothing else does. There’s no substitute for it. So, ennoblement. Also, there’s nothing… So, we can remember and honor persons from the past. We can remind each other. We can say remember Lincoln, remember FDR, and so forth.
But sometimes, I think one has the strong feeling, well, the public clearly does have the strong feeling. Oh, there’s a hassle now about a proposed memorial designed by Frank Gehry, the architect, for Dwight Eisenhower. And the family is saying it doesn’t honor him sufficiently. It makes a lot, apparently, of his humble origins and very little of his accomplishments. You see what’s going on there? The people are saying, look. Eisenhower was an important president in our nation’s history. We can have just little paragraphs or chapters in history books, and so forth, but something seems lacking that only a memorial can satisfy.
And then it turns out, a certain kind of memorial. Now, the reason why I don’t like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is, well, a couple of things. For one thing, it’s out of the purest, carved out of the purest white stone that you can find anywhere on the face of the earth. So, you say, what’s going on? Purest white stone. And then it towers about 30 feet high, so it overwhelms everybody. We are little pygmies faced by this thing. It’s not crudely carved. That’s not the word for it. I don’t know. I can’t find the right word to describe the carving.
So, is that the right way to honor Martin Luther King? That he just diminishes us? I mean, that’s what the sculpture does. So, memorials can be all wrong. I think it doesn’t befit King. I have no idea what either the sculptor was doing or what the committee was doing in accepting it. Maybe I’m stepping on people’s toes.
Maybe somebody here admires it, but I thought it was gosh awful. [laughing] So, no, there’s nothing quite like an appropriate sculpture. Maybe painting, to pay due honor to great persons and events from our past. We need art. Can’t do with out it. [applause]