The Philosophy of Art

by Thomas Storck

The word art generally suggests to most people some actual artistic creation, a sculpture or painting or the like. Or it might suggest a technique for making such an object. Either of these could be meant by a phrase such as, He is studying art, meaning either that he is studying works of art, art history, or that he is studying how to create works of art himself. The second of these two senses of art is closer to the classic definition of art as given by Aristotle in his Ethics VI, 4 as “the reasoned state of capacity to make” or “a rational faculty exercised in making something.”[1] This definition was repeated and made his own by St. Thomas Aquinas, who expressed it in Latin by the phrase recta ratio factibilium, the right conception or reason or understanding of a thing that is to be made.[2] The twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Maritain explains this definition in these words:

The essential character of art taken in its complete extension is to instruct us how to make something, so that it is constructed, formed, or arranged, as it ought to be, and thus to secure the perfection or goodness, not of the maker, but of the object itself which he makes. Art therefore belongs to the practical order in the sense that it instructs us how to make something….[3]

The important point to take from this is that art concerns something made or to be made, and refers specifically to the learned human capacity or skill in being able to do so.

The human race requires such skills in order to create the necessary external objects and devices to assist and support a truly human life. We build shelters, make clothes, prepare our food, make music, tools, weapons, tame other animals, and the like. Although other animals do some of these things, mankind is unique in that we do these things not primarily by instinct, but rather we discover methods for doing them and can transmit the knowledge of these methods to the next generation. Hence we create various arts: the art of building, cooking, bookbinding, woodworking, etc.

We should note also that art presumes the social nature of humanity. Not only are the arts handed down from one generation to the next, but they exist in the context of human social life. Although Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked on an island, made use of various arts in order to make his existence easier, he did not discover these arts as a lone individual, rather he had learned them as part of his upbringing in society. Even if an isolated individual did discover an art, he could not transmit that art to anyone else, and it would not become part of the patrimony of the human species.

From this we can understand that every art is a means for accomplishing some end appropriate to human life. But in this matter is there an essential difference between the fine arts and those arts called practical or useful? In fact, is it really correct to speak of one class of arts as more practical or useful than the other?

If we visit an art museum we will notice that the objects exhibited there that originated before roughly the middle of the eighteenth century were created not to be housed in a museum, but for some purpose considered practical and as part of human social life. Statues and paintings were used in religious worship, both in pre-Christian and Christian ages, or were made to commemorate historic events or to adorn public buildings or monuments. The same is true of most of the music composed in that time; it was intended as the musical accompaniment of divine worship or dancing or military marching, aspects of everyday life, not for performance at a concert. In other words, what we call the fine arts were not essentially different from the arts usually called practical. Both kinds had specific roles in social life, and moreover, both tried to incorporate beauty as best as the artist and the nature of his artistic purpose could manage. Every architect, every maker of furniture or swords or goblets was as interested as every composer or painter in incorporating beauty into his artistic creations, even if the latter had more scope for doing so because their particular arts admitted of a wider range of possibilities. In fact, the distinction between fine arts and practical arts is largely artificial, in that originally each had not only an obvious practical aim and social purpose, but their creators endeavored to incorporate beauty as far as the respective functions of their arts would allow.[*]

If it is correct that there is no hard and fast distinction between the fine arts and other arts, how does beauty relate to the arts then? Despite what has often been said, originally at least, creators of works of fine art did not aim at beauty directly as an abstract quality. The beauty of music for the sacred liturgy was not the same as the beauty of music for dancing or marching. Each artist aimed at a beauty appropriate to the object to be made. But so did makers of furniture or ceramic jars or carriages. In each case both function and beauty were sought according to the limitations of the art.

Thomas Aquinas remarks that while every artist seeks to make his products in the most beautiful way possible, the purpose or use of the object will override an abstract pursuit of beauty,

as the artist who makes a saw for cutting makes it from iron, so that it is suitable for cutting; he does not care to make it from glass, which is a more beautiful material, because such beauty would be a hindrance to its purpose.[4]

This is a fundamental principle to understand: in any object of art, while beauty generally is sought, it is at the same time subordinate to the purpose of the object being made.

The composer of music for a liturgical text, for example, must remember that he is writing for an actual religious service, and not make his work over long. An ancient Greek sculptor, carving a statue of a Greek god, would have to consider the size of the temple in which it was to be placed. The constraints of making art objects which were to be a part of human social existence exercised a discipline on the artist, so that his creative genius had to be harmonized with the intended use of what he was making, as well as with the expectations of his patrons, who had some definite practical aim in mind when they commissioned the work.

It is true that during the last two or three centuries, numerous very beautiful paintings, sculptures and musical works have been created specifically for the purpose of being exhibited or performed in the special places or events set aside in our day for the fine arts. Painters and composers most often do not work nowadays to fulfill a commission to decorate a public building or set a liturgical text to music. One of the unfortunate results of this placing of fine art creations in these special places and events is that they are separated from ordinary public life. There are many people who never go to a museum or a classical music concert, but whose ancestors worshipped in churches adorned with the most exquisite paintings while hearing the music of a Palestrina or Mozart. This segregation of the best music, together with the near total death of true folk music, has contributed to the rise of an artificial and mass-produced, largely electronic culture, and to the banishment of classical art and music to a special world, which most people take no interest in, and consider alien to their lives. I am not advocating doing away with the artistic works of the past few centuries, certainly, but I do point out that the social circumstances of their creation were not healthy. Produced with little reference to the general life of mankind, they became increasingly a hothouse product, and thus the odd and even ugly artistic and musical productions that have so often disfigured Western culture since around 1900. The pursuit of beauty with no reference to any social purpose paradoxically led to the eclipse of beauty in a striving after novelty or effect by an increasingly alienated class of artists.

Thus part of the explanation for what has happened to the fine arts since around the end of the nineteenth century is that, having become divorced from their social roles, art was widely seen as directly related to beauty as an abstraction, and the pursuit of this abstract beauty was widely seen as the purpose of the fine arts. But this was not a sufficient motivation for artists. Other problems began to occupy them, and to this must be added the general nihilism that affected Western culture with the decline of religious faith, and the collapse of so much of the social order at the conclusion of World War I. Artists now often wished to say something, and what they wanted to say increasingly had nothing to do with beauty. Nor were they constrained any more by those who had commissioned their works, and who intended them to adorn or accompany ordinary public activities. Such patrons had helped to keep artists within the bounds of their social role, for they would not pay for an ugly or shocking piece of work, no matter what statement the artist was trying to make. But painters, sculptors and composers have managed to convince a sufficient number of rich patrons, and governmental entities, to pay for their artistic creations even if they are ugly, for they are seen as significant, and anyone who questions that judgment is immediately classed as a philistine. This has especially been the case with architecture, and buildings that most ordinary people saw as ugly, but which architects and architecture critics saw as interesting or significant, multiplied.[5] Even before that, the pursuit of form or beauty sometimes triumphed over practical use, so that people were willing to pay for furniture which was uncomfortable, so long as it was beautiful or stylish.[6]

It remains to say something about the arts which use the spoken or written word. They differ from the arts of painting or sculpture or music in that, in origin at least, they necessarily presuppose some special event, as the performance of a play or the recital of a poem. Before considering this difference, however, we must note that although today we are apt to look upon such written works as things to be perused in the privacy of one’ study, reading poetry or even a play by oneself, the original character of these arts was social. Homer, for example, did not write his poems in order for them to be read privately and silently; they were originally performed, that is sung or chanted, and with a certain amount of gesture as well.[7] This is obvious of course in the case of dramatic works. In short, they were written for social occasions, although obviously, due to their nature, they were special occasions. But the changed sensibilities of modernity affected even the forms of the arts. “The self became lonely, self-conscious and withdrawn (and in literature the novel is born to mirror a new social class and replace the more public genre of drama).”[8] Prior to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, extended prose works of fiction that were intended for private reading constituted a comparatively small part of literary production, whereas in the nineteenth century they became the norm.

But even with respect to the drama itself, the circumstances of their performance were not exactly like those of the modern theater.  Ancient Greek dramas were performed as parts of religious festivals, and the revival of medieval European drama took place in churches or at festivals connected with liturgical observances, such as the elaborate Corpus Christi plays of medieval England. They were community events, whose significance was seen as going beyond simply entertainment. Although as time went on, their connection with liturgical or religious actions was not as close as that of music or painting directly intended for use in church buildings, nevertheless such a connection remained. Some anthropologists have referred to these events as “cultural performances.” “Anthropologists have defined cultural performances as occasions on which a society dramatizes its collective myths, defines itself, and reflects on its practices and values….”[9] In other words, communal dramatic performances, whether in ancient Athens or medieval Europe, were shared societal experiences, in their own way having a ritual significance, and thus having as practical a purpose as the celebration of the sacred liturgy. There was no “audience” in the modern sense, where each person goes to the theater or a concert on his own and with his own private purpose in mind. Rather, the entire community celebrated its ethos by affirming its fundamental beliefs and narratives. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus John Paul wrote,

At the heart of every culture lies the attitude a person takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. (no. 24)

Traditional societies, including the civilizations of ancient and medieval Europe, held such “cultural performances” in order to affirm their own understanding of “the mystery of God.” Thus the arts of the drama, like the other fine arts, were seen as having a practical, social-oriented purpose.

There is one more kind of art which we must consider, those arts referred to as the seven liberal arts, traditionally grammar, rhetoric, logic, the trivium, and arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, the quadrivium. The medieval English writer and cleric, John of Salisbury, in his Metalogicon, characterized art as a “system that reason has devised in order to expedite, by its own short cut, our ability to do things within our natural capabilities.”[10] Art depends on natural ability, but is more than simply that ability. Speaking then of the liberal arts, John says that they

are said to have become so efficacious among our ancestors …that they enabled them to comprehend everything they read, elevated their understanding to all things, and empowered them to cut through the knots of all problems possible of solution.[11]

At first we might wonder how this relates to Maritain’s statement quoted above, that the “essential character of art…is to instruct us how to make something,…and thus to secure the perfection or goodness, not of the maker, but of the object itself which he makes.”

St. Thomas discusses this point in his commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius. He says

that among other sciences [the liberal arts] are called arts because they involve not only knowledge but also a work that is directly a product of reason itself; for example, producing a composition, syllogism or discourse, numbering, measuring, composing melodies, and reckoning the course of the stars.[12]

We are not accustomed to regard the products of the liberal arts, such as syllogisms or geometrical demonstrations, as things that are made, as we do a painting or a pot. But their products are surely as much examples of artistic creations as poems or musical scores, and are equally works, products that can be separated from their creator.

There are thus three fundamental points about art: first, that every art concerns something to be made; secondly, that every art is practical, i.e., it is aimed at some activity of life that goes beyond itself, and lastly, in ordinary circumstances every artist hopes to achieve or incorporate beauty into his work, but the pursuit of beauty is subordinate and proportioned to the practical aim of the art itself. The beauty of a piece of furniture should not interfere with its usefulness, and the beauty of music composed for liturgical use should be compatible with its actual use in the celebration of the sacred liturgy. The second and third of these points have been widely forgotten or ignored for the past couple centuries, and the results have not been good for either the arts or for our understanding of them. But nonetheless, these are the points with which a philosophical consideration of art should begin.


[1]   The first phrasing is by W. D. Ross (Oxford translation), the second J. A. K. Thomson (Penguin books, 1955).

[2]  Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 57, art. 4. See also art. 3 and the Prologue to the Secunda Secundae and the Summa Contra Gentiles, book I, chap. 93.

[3]   An Introduction to Philosophy, (Sheed & Ward, 1947), pp. 198-99.

[*] [Editor’s note: Some Thomist authors distinguish the fine arts and the servile arts by the different relation that they have to the perfection and imitation of nature. All art is in some way perfective of nature and in some way imitative of nature, but servile arts imitate nature in order to perfect nature, whereas fine arts perfect nature in order to imitate her. The doctor, for example perfects (or completes) nature by helping attain the health that it was trying to attain anyway. In doing this he will imitate things that nature does, but he imitates in order to perfect. Similarly with the farmer who helps the vine grow the grapes. Carpenters and potters etc. also perfect nature in this way, and modify it to make it more useful to human purposes— one can use a fallen tree for a seat, but a chair is better. They too are perfective of nature in some way, but principally they imitate nature, for the sake of the delight that human soul takes in imitation. This delight is the delight that forms part of the definition of beauty (that which delights on being seen). Thus the dramatic artist delights by imitating human action in its relation to happiness and misery; the painter delights by imitating visible form, or the way in which human character is manifested in the human face, and so on. In every case, such imitation seems to clarify what it imitates. That is, part of the pleasure of imitative art is that they help us understand what is imitated. This clarification can be seen as a kind of perfecting of nature. But here the perfection is for the sake of the imitation, rather than vice-versa. – Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.]

[4]  Summa Theologiae, I q. 91, art. 3.

[5]   For a popular account of what happened with architecture, see Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House, (Pocket Books, 1982).

[6]   One art historian notes that many Renaissance chairs “were heavy and formal and architectural in structure; they were not yet designed for comfort and had to be used with cushions.” Erwin O. Christensen, The History of Western Art, (New American Library, 1959), p. 251.

[7]  For a good account of this, see H. T. Kirby-Smith, The Celestial Twins: Poetry and Music Through the Ages, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, c. 1999).

[8]  Michael Paul Gallagher, Clashing Symbols: An Introduction to Faith and Culture, (Paulist Press, 1998), p. 93.

[9]  Kathleen M. Ashley, “Cultural Approaches to Medieval Drama,” in Richard K. Emmerson, ed., Approaches to Teaching Medieval English Drama, (MLA, 1990), p. 57.

[10]  I, 11.

[11]  I, 12.

[12]  Q. 5, art. 1, as translated and edited by Armand Maurer in The Division and Methods of the Sciences, (PIMS, 4th ed., 1986), p. 18.