What is art? A brief explanation from St. Thomas

In grade school, and even in college course catalogs, one is bound to come across a class simply called “art.” Almost everyone in the civilized world has, in fact, taken an art class. Maybe you have a Christmas ornament that your child made in art class from many years ago. Maybe you know something about pointillism because of that one time you listened to your 8th grade art teacher. But maybe you’ve never stopped to consider what “art” actually is.

It is no wonder then that most people think of art in terms of its particulars: painting, drawing, sculpture, and the like. All of these are certainly forms of art, but what is “art” itself?

Of course, we know there are other forms of art beside what we learned in class in elementary school. Writing is an art, music is an art, architecture is an art, and even cooking is an art. What then, is the common denominator here? What is the same between singing an aria from Turandot and building a skyscraper?

Our friend St. Thomas Aquinas can help, and he has a surprising insight: art is not something outside of man, it is something in man himself.

From the Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 56, a. 3: “Art is nothing else than the ‘the right reason about certain things to be made.'”

Everything that requires some thought to be put into its creation deserves to be called a form of art, or rather, a product of art. The art of shipbuilding produces good ships, the art of war produces good outcomes in battle, etc. And certainly, “right reason” would necessarily demand that what is produced by art is “good”:

“And yet the good of these things depends, not on man’s appetitive faculty being affected in this or that way, but on the goodness of the work done. For a craftsman, as such, is commendable, not for the will with which he does a work, but for the quality of the work.”

This is a dagger to the common wisdom that good art is whatever people like… Thomas is here insisting on something objective about the quality of the work itself as the primary measure of its artistic merit. I will argue here that this would naturally extend beyond the artist and into the realm of critical reception: just because others have an appetitive inclination toward a painting does not make it good artwork. Few today have a taste for Beethoven, but that does not make whatever’s on the Top 40 better art than his 5th symphony (but some is probably better than the disco version). The work must be considered “in itself,” apart from what people think or feel about it.

“And so art has the nature of a virtue in the same way as the speculative habits, in so far, to wit, as neither art nor speculative habit makes a good work as regards the use of the habit, which is the property of a virtue that perfects the appetite, but only as regards the aptness to work well.”

Art is a virtue! It is something in the soul that helps us to do good! How refreshing a concept is that? But it is up to the will, through other virtues (like justice and charity) to use art properly, hopefully satisfying higher appetites, such as for truth, beauty, and goodness, rather than for the fulfillment of baser urges, especially sensuality and vanity.

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