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Literary Criticism Quotations

Art as Instruction

C.S. Lewis reminds us that we should not despise art for having a moral purpose: though of course we are free to despise bad art and to despise bad moral purposes.

Letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., 16 April 1940

I do most thoroughly agree with what you say about Art and Literature. To my mind they are only healthy when they are either (a) Definitely the handmaids of religious, or at least moral, truth – or (b) Admittedly aiming at nothing but innocent recreation or entertainment. Dante’s alright, and Pickwick is alright. But the great serious irreligious art – art for art’s sake – is all balderdash; and, incidentally, never exists when art is really flourishing. In fact one can say of Art as an author I recently read says of Love (sensual love, I mean) “It ceases to be a devil when it ceases to be a god”. Isn’t that well put? So many things – nay every real thing – is good if only it will be humble and ordinate.

Letter to I.O. Evans, 28 February 1949

I’m with you on the main issue – that art can teach (and much great art deliberately sets out to do so) without at all ceasing to be art. On the particular case of Wells I wd agree with Burke, because in Wells it seems to me that one had first class pure fantasy (Time Machine, First Men in the Moon) and third class didacticism: i.e. I object to his novels with a purpose not because they have a purpose but because I think them bad. Just as I object to the preaching passages in Thackeray not because I dislike sermons but because I dislike bad sermons. To me, therefore, Wells & Thackeray are instances that obscure the issue. It must be fought on books where the doctrine is as good on its own merits as the art – e.g. Bunyan, Chesterton (as you agree), Tolstoi, Charles Williams, Virgil.

4 replies on “Art as Instruction”

Oh, sure, stump me with a question about Brancusi just as I’m preparing a post on historical ignorance. That’s the way to keep troop morale up.

Seriously, though, I think it is a harder question to answer in the realm of non-verbal art. I once saw a painting of “the sacred heart of Christ”. It was a vivid painting of a lifelike human heart, with a cut out and light coming out of it: if you looked very closely you could see a faint cross in the center of the light flowing out of the heart: that seemed like a clear example of didactic visual art: the artist (it was at some display in a little Mexican gallery off the Alameda: the José Martí gallery, to be precise) made a point about Christ’s view of the cross. The question is, whether that was an appropriate medium to employ. Are vigorously drawn tattoos a good way to witness?

Well I don’t know but did you know that Brancusi’s Bird passed through Romanian customs as kitchenware?

Though I expect there must be a remnant of vigorously tattooed individuals awaiting revival.

Well, customs officials are notoriously of the bourgeoisie. Doug Wilson linked to a man who entered a sculpture with plinth into a contest: unfortunately the plinth and sculpture were separated during shipping, and considered as two separate entries. The sculpture was rejected, but the plinth, I believe, won a prize.

Tattoos must demonstrate commitment: look at Angelina.

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