The Nature and Limits of Artistic Autonomy (draft)
By Michael J. Ortiz
Art, by which I mean fine art, literature, music, painting, sculpture, etc., has its own internal standards that are unique for each work. These standards are usually the result of the artist being conversant with a tradition, a practice, that employs certain conventions, styles, and themes. At times, the artist may be reacting against a tradition, and so his anti-tradition becomes, as it were, his tradition, the embodiment of artistic practice (and theory) that he sees as giving form to the particular works he fashions. Thus, no work is produced in total isolation; yet every successful work of art uniquely expresses its totality of meaning and form.
Each work has an organic unity that accounts for its form, that is, its organizing principle that makes sense of the many sometimes disparate details of the work. A Shakespearean sonnet may organize its unity on the level of imagery and diction. Its structure will be held together by this subtle dialogue, so to speak, between and among the various elements that enrich the work in a variety of ways. This unity--on a metaphysical level, a harmony of the good and the true that is the glow of beauty--is mimetic in a multitude of ways, yet for the most part, a poem, say, may be an exquisite poem while at the same time departing from, for instance, the strict historical truth of a person’s life.
So while works of art imitate reality, they also transfigure it into something special--a work of beauty whose worth is something other than its abstract expression of a truth, whether historical, moral, psychological, or religious. We may enjoy a Shakespearean history play even as we know it is not strictly an accurate account of the historical period in general. We can do this also without making Shakespeare into a seer whose vision into the essential elements of kingship is a timeless truth of human nature.
Art brings harmony even amid disparate, warring elements; artistic images of sorrow or calamity delight on a plane higher than mere mimetic precision. Otherwise we become voyeurs of pain, and such activity is always dehumanizing, and therefore against the premise of true art which appeals to the contemplative aspects of the human person. As well, the moral or religious truths in art may enrich a work immensely, but they are not the reason why the work is a work of art in the first place.
So art has a certain autonomy. It must not be subjugated to ideology, theory, or politics. Some of our greatest art, indeed, most of our great art, has been produced with little regard for the political freedoms we largely take for granted, for the mastery of a truly exceptional artist transcends the demands of class, party, or patronage. Nevertheless, an artist who was at the beck and call of a state, and produced works simply to accord with its reigning elites, would not be likely to produce a real piece of art. Though propaganda has been produced with high levels of skill, its essential value is practical, and it thereby often if not always becomes only of historical interest when its practicality fades.
But is artistic autonomy absolute? Can one excuse any immorality simply because it is at the service of art? Of course, art is under no obligation to present people as angelic, perfect, without sin. That would be absurd, especially given the manifest nature of our fallen state. But should art use its methods, its magic, so to speak, to adorn the inhuman? Should the narrator of an otherwise exquisite novel be given the chance to enter into our personal consciousness when that voice serves unspeakable evil? Perhaps this question comes into clearer focus when we examine our moral reticence in the face of art. As long as we our confronted with artistic competence, we seem to become detached from our moral sense. Morality becomes personal choice, isolated from truth, an antiquated concept at best. Perhaps this speaks more to the weakness of our grasp of ethics than it does to the reverence we have for art.
Is the “measure of human beings what they can do and not what they are, not what is good or bad?” (Benedict XVI) If the answer to that question is yes, the measure of our humanity is what we can do, then we have surrendered our destiny to something beautiful, perhaps, but nonetheless impersonal by definition, and therefore we have allowed the person to become the tool of something non-personal. This dis-order is at the root of our confusion. When we try to rest in the fragile but amazing arms of the beautiful--isolated from the good and the true--we accept a destiny less than equal to our dignity as persons with an interiority that will know no end less than the personal, that is, communion with the God who is the personal foundation of all that is. The good of the artist is greater than the art he makes; therefore moral norms can and should influence the production and enjoyment of art.