Devon, PA.  For those FPR readers interested in keeping up with my ongoing series, Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic, the third and fourth parts have appeared on First Principles.  The concluding, fifth part should appear early next month.

Part III begins by setting out the conditions against which the series argues and with a prospectus explaining why attention to the thought of Theodor W. Adorno and Jacques Maritain is invaluable for all persons concerned with the indifferentism, relativism, and ugliness of contemporary culture (including the ugliness of what our children –well, not mine — are taught in school):

To speak, in contemporary society, of art and beauty in the same sentence, much less as realities integrally involved with one another, is to risk being laughed at. Perhaps Hans-Georg Gadamer was the first to theorize systematically how we must understand the aesthetic as a category of being or a mode of analysis independent of any talk of the beautiful, but his argument was founded on, and in redress of, the suspicion popular since the eighteenth century that beauty is a mere matter of subjective feeling or opinion; and so also were the fine arts believed to be, but they belonged to a different class of subjective phenomena. As such, chatter about beauty could be cast off as either manipulative rhetoric for the seduction of women or the expression of vain, vague, nostalgic longings for rustic landscapes, while talk of the aesthetic could remain serious—indeed, humorless—even as it grew impermeable to rational explanation and debate. We could trace a historical graph of the past couple centuries showing that the falling fortunes of the idea of beauty bear an inverse relation to the ever more lofty or “professionalized” reputation of art and aesthetics: a yawning separation so great that the advent of cultural studies has made possible serious formal discussion, subsidized by extensive bureaucratic institutions, of some very unserious “art,” during which any reference to the standards or reality of beauty would be, at best, a cause of embarrassment and, at worst, occasion for an intricately formulated debunking of one more “bourgeois ideology.”

The consequences of this division and dismissal of art and beauty proliferate. We observe, for instance, the strange congruity of our culture’s suspicion of any substantive claims about the beautiful with its increasing, everyday ugliness in architecture, urban planning, worship, speech, and manners. And we note, as well, the still further division of art into such purely modern groupings as “mass culture,” “popular art,” and high or “elite” art. One cannot help but think that we abet the exacerbation of the former consequence in denying to ourselves a public language to describe that with which we cannot possibly be content; in a fashion typical of modern rationality, we resolve our discontent by rendering it mute, and we “mute” it by pretending it is unreal and by denying it a vocabulary with any moral force. Similarly, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that the radical division of the arts into the “entertainment industry,” or “mass culture,” and the stuff still taught in schools, supported by nonprofits and the State, and collecting dust in museums and pretentious wine-sipping stares in the galleries of Soho, amounts to something other than the natural hierarchical division of artworks into lesser and greater, or even simple and difficult. Rather, artworks in the view of our society have lost their ontological integrity in being denied a foundation or reality in beauty, and so have been entirely subordinated to diverse instrumental uses.

Naturally, the works themselves are transformed in this subordination. The great mass of Western persons now live in a poppy dream of consumption and repose; the “entertainment” they imbibe comes brilliantly adapted for digestion, distraction, and a speedy market of evanescence and novelty. Meanwhile, the bohemian and “high” art-consuming elites make use of obscurities to flatter their sense of political enlightenment and as expressions of a very fragile form of cultural power. Supposedly politically “conscious” art serves to confirm the latest feminist or “ethnic” cause—not because anyone looks at it and is changed, but rather, its presence in mostly empty public space gives testimony to the virtue of those corporations or universities who sponsor it. Elsewhere, austere rehashes of an earlier age’s love of abstraction, or pornographic titillations, more truly attract elite audiences, who like to be reminded of their winnowing, ascetic sensibilities while also having their generally unmastered sensuality pandered to and “affirmed.” The rise of homosexual-themed art seems to accomplish all of the above. If artworks in every age have served instrumental ends, the ends in ours are attenuated and debased compared even to the vain adornments that artists provided sovereigns in the early days of the modern absolute state. In those days, artists proclaimed (and so, subtly admonished) their patrons to be better men than they actually were; our age flatters its elites by telling them they are just fine indulging whatever desires they might feel so long as they pepper it with austere gestures and make donations to virtuous third-world causes.

As might be expected from such remarks, I wish to argue for a restored sense of the philosophy and practice of the fine arts as bound up inexorably with the reality of beauty as one of the transcendental properties of being. Rather than forwarding this claim in mere abstract theory, I shall situate it historically and provide brief descriptions of the thought of two thinkers who have best grasped different dimensions of the function of art and beauty, and their mutual necessity in the modern age.

The greatest mind of the Frankfurt School, Theodor W. Adorno spent much of his life in study of art’s truth in the age of ideology and Enlightenment. His account of the function of art is intensively historical and sociological and yet stands in decisive opposition to the historicism and “bourgeois relativism” that obscure or soften the difficult vision of truth art can sometimes open. The vertiginous turning of his dialectical theory of art is interesting in its own right as a byzantine refinement of Marxist historical materialism, but it also merits attention because of its explanatory power regarding the difficulties of modern art and its implications for why postmodern art owes a debt to the modern and yet is an incoherent falling off from it as well. He offers us an account of art that likely reflects the terms in which many modern artists have conceived it in their practice, and yet, crucially, his aesthetic theory refuses to loosen art’s clasp on either truth or, perhaps surprisingly, beauty. Moreover, he locates art as a reality bound to, but distinct from, any society’s ideology and rehabilitates the medieval notion of art as derived from the intelligibility of the cosmos, as a reflection and imitation of the “Book of Nature.”


I shall then turn to an early treatise of the French neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. While Maritain was prolific as a philosopher of art and beauty for much of his life, his Art and Scholasticism (1920) and The Frontiers of Beauty—two essays eventually gathered and published as one volume—offer the single most concise and suggestive account of these matters I know. If much of Adorno’s writing is retrospective, trying to understand the currents of modern art after most of them had run their course, Maritain’s writings are contemporary with the developments they seek to explain. Indeed, the power of this early book is partly lodged in Maritain’s almost polemical campaigning for his contemporaries to understand their work differently than they actually did. It is a work of philosophy that would reinterpret apparent historical contingencies into a more permanent language—without, for all that, losing sight of the historical transformations of art from culture to culture or age to age. Adorno and Maritain alike both saw modern art as having achieved an unprecedented degree of “spiritualization,” a consciousness of its autonomy and its function to open up the flesh of everyday life and discover truth in that mortal wound. Their claims merit our attention not primarily as theoretical expressions of the modernist sensibility, but as accounts of art and beauty that cannot be laid by and that, in fact, are as adequate for our purposes as they were to those of some decades past.

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James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. At this juncture, it is dinner time and La Cave de la Obstrepereppi is filled with cigar smoke to an extent that the dog is beginning to sneeze as she snores and so I can’t wait to read this all later, when the air is cleared and the dog is freed from my pernicious influences. We can see you have been busy Wilson, productively so. The dog though, and dinner pulls me away…..dammit. Seems to me at first graze that some of my longstanding questions for you just might be answered at last. Patience is a damned virtue…or a virtue damned?

    “….to open up the flesh of everyday life and discover truth in that mortal wound”. Clyfford Still painted this phrase once, and I liked it a lot.

  2. Wilson,
    This is a fine series …..not only does it identify the primary culprit of unhinged Enlightenment excesses: a “rebuke of enchantment”, it provides a compelling slant on the art of modernism… and its “primordial shudder”.

    Though I don’t agree with Adorno’s aversion to Jazz as simply a music of non-conformism…it too has that “primordial shudder” as well as no small degree of musical scholarship but the comments upon “Nature Lovers” and landscape painting as a sign of “bad conscience” are extremely illuminating. Yesterday, viewing the Hudson River Paintings @ the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the son and I were marveling at the seeming exaggerations of landscapes,….. particularly Hudson Valley scenes and New England Mountains as grand as the Rockies…. and I could not resolve exactly why this might be the case. The landscapes themselves are wonderful enough not to make them grander than they are. Adorno’s suspicions ably answer the question. What else might compel their embellishment besides a certain guilty overcompensation? After all, they were painting when it was becoming painfully clear that for all industrialism’s glories, it came with a profound dark side. So too with the Man As Cancer brigades.

    A great series, looking forward to Part V.

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