The three “absolutes,” according to classical thought, are the true, the good, and the beautiful. Postmodernists say “there are no absolutes,” insisting that truth, goodness, and beauty are all relative. Christians and cultural conservatives in general tend to disagree when it comes to the objective, transcendent reality of truth and moral principles, but they often sound just as postmodern when it comes to beauty. They say of aesthetic judgments what postmodernists say of truth claims and moral principles, that they are nothing more than subjective preferences, that they are just personal choices, that one position is just as valid as another, and that they don’t really matter anyway.
The whole category of “beauty” seems to be slipping away, to our great impoverishment. Not that the visual arts are in decline. Neil Postman warns that our culture is becoming more and more visually-oriented at the expense of language itself. Our major cultural artifacts are now movies, videos, online imagery, and product design. Classical educators must remain champions of the book, but teaching about the fine arts can help students navigate the new visual landscape. More importantly, it can help them develop aesthetic standards so that they can tell the difference between what is beautiful and meaningful and what is ugly and trivial. Having an education in the fine arts can also help students grow in their tastes as they learn how to take pleasure in what is objectively worthy.
The fine, the useful, and the liberal arts
Classical education is built around the “liberal arts,” which many people assume incorrectly to be about “artsy” things as opposed to what is “scientific” or “practical.” But the word “art,” in the classical sense, simply means “skill,” referring to the human capacity to make and do things. The liberal arts are the skills necessary for the formation of a free human being (the Latin word for freedom, liber, giving us both liberal and liberty).
Then there are the useful arts, the skills needed for practical living and for contributing to the economy. Thus we have the art of farming and the art of medicine. Today we would consider being able to drive a car or to be proficient on a computer as useful arts.
The fine arts are skills exercised for their own sake, making something sheerly for its meaning and its beauty. “Fine” refers to the purity of its motive. When you scribble a picture in your notebook, you are not trying to do anything useful. You do it for your own pleasure because you can. A good artist can draw a picture to hang on a wall, allowing others to enjoy it. I myself would classify sports as a “fine art,” since running and throwing and playing games are being performed for their own sake—as opposed to performing these activities in a useful art, such as hunting or warfare—but more usually today the term is used to refer to the purely aesthetic creations of the visual arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, and the like).
To be sure, the liberal, the useful, and the fine arts overlap. The visual arts as employed by a graphic designer or a filmmaker can have a commercially useful end. A liberal arts education, in teaching skills such as reading and logic and arithmetic, can be quite useful. Music is an aesthetic creation with all the qualities of the fine arts, though it is also categorized as one of the seven liberal arts. Drawing used to be taught as part of the liberal art of geometry. My thesis here is that the fine arts should be incorporated into a liberal arts education because they too are helpful in the formation of a free human being.
The fine arts in Western civilization—we will focus on the visual arts, but this also applies to literature, music, and other aesthetic creations—have tended to vacillate between two styles and approaches: the classical, which is based on imitation of an objective order, and the romantic, which is based on creation and human subjectivity.
Artists working in the classical style try to capture the appearance of a natural scene, a human face, or a universal truth. Classical artists will arrange colors and shapes into more or less realistic images, arraying them according to time-honored principles of composition and design.
Artists working in the romantic style are trying to create something that has never existed before. They are typically expressing themselves, that is, trying to find an external form for their subjective emotions, internal struggles, or personal preoccupations.
Classical education, one might think, would emphasize the classical approach to art. But it is not so simple. In reality, each work of art in any style will typically contain elements of both. A very realistic painting will still be marked with the artist’s creativity.
A very expressionistic painting will still draw on the objective qualities of color, light, and composition. Some abstract art comes from the artist’s own inner impulses, but other abstract art follows classical aesthetics in its concern with geometric shapes, experiments with color, and aesthetic designs.
Also, classical Christian educators must remember that creation is a distinctly Christian concept. Pagan civilizations, including the ancient Greeks and Romans, had no conception of creation ex nihilo (from nothing). Even in their so-called creation myths, the universe is made out of some kind of pre-existing matter. That pagan art is based on imitating the natural order comes, at least in part, from pagan nature-worship and idolatry. This is why the Ten Commandments warn against the religious use of “graven images,” including “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). The ancient Hebrews, like today’s Muslims, would not make representative art. Instead, they cultivated non-representative art—swirling lines, geometric shapes, intricate colors, and other abstract forms (think of the complex designs on Persian carpets). Not that the Bible absolutely forbids representational art—the Temple was full of it, by God’s command—but later Christians would see all of the arts as a faint shadow of God’s creativity carried out by human beings made in His image. Early Christians rejected the truth of the pagan myths, but preserved them as delightful and instructive stories, thereby inventing the concept of fiction. Medieval story-tellers cultivated the genre of fantasy—known as “romances”—and their visual artists illuminated manuscripts with intricate abstract designs.
So Christians should not be immediately dismissive of non-representational or Romantic art. One could argue, though, that in our highly-subjective, self- oriented culture, it is the classical approach to art that is getting short shrift today and needs to be transmitted lest it disappear. Also, the elements of classical art have served as the foundation even for the best experimental, expressive art.
So classical schools should teach classical art. Just as they teach “the great books,” they can teach “the great paintings.” In doing so, they will study the whole array of artistic styles and how they demonstrate in different combinations both imitation and creativity.
Art and Classical Pedagogy
The way art is typically taught in today’s progressive schools is to give young people the opportunity to make their own art. Kindergartners smear paper with finger paints for their parents to put up on the refrigerator; high schoolers cut out pictures from magazines to make collages to express how they feel. The romantic approach to art with its creativity and focus on the artist’s self- expression is the only kind of art even considered.
A liberal arts approach to art education is not concerned with turning out professional artists—there are specialized vocational schools for that, which can come later for students with that calling—but with the universal human appropriation of beauty. We don’t ask young people to write novels before they learn to read them. Not everyone has artistic talents, but everyone can learn to enjoy and learn from a work of art.
A liberal arts approach will not take art simply as an isolated, highly specialized field. Rather, it will show the connection of the visual arts to other fields—history, literature, philosophy, theology, and to other art forms such as music and architecture—as well as to the human condition that transcends time and place.
John Ruskin, for example, said that the teaching of drawing is the best way to teach morality. The kind of realistic drawing that he had in mind requires students to think outside themselves, to attend to the objective universe, thereby subordinating themselves to the real world. Both art and morality require such a mindset.
Classical pedagogy revolves around the trivium— the three liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric— which applies well to the teaching of the fine arts, not just as a developmental model but as a conceptual guide for teaching.
There is a grammar of the visual arts, the basic facts, information, and concepts that make up the elements of a work of art. Students would learn the color wheel, how all colors are combinations of the four primary colors. They would learn about shapes and forms, materials and techniques, the laws of perspective, and different composition strategies. They would learn about the various genres of art—landscapes, portraits, still lifes, narrative paintings, abstraction, etc. Eventually, they would learn to recognize different artistic styles and how to recognize the work of a particular artist. They would gain a vocabulary with which they can talk about art and reflect on it.
The logic of art would involve learning how to understand a work of art. Why is this work significant? What does it mean? How does it mean?
This is more than simply identifying the world view that lies behind the painting. That can be part of understanding a work of art, but often Christian approaches to art neglect the artfulness of the work. Instead, they use art as a prop to talk about worldview issues. The worldview of the artist and the times may be part of understanding the “logic” of the work of art, but a study of the art itself must involve understanding the artistic issues as well. What does the artist do to express his worldview so powerfully? Why is this painting so treasured after so many worldviews have come and gone? What makes this painting so great?
The logic phase of learning about art would study important works of art and important artists.
It would arrive at aesthetic standards and practice evaluating works of art. In classical pedagogy, logic is taught by “dialectic”—that is, by talking about the works of art, discussing them, with the teacher asking questions that lead students into their own discoveries and insights.
The rhetoric phase involves students creatively applying what they have learned in their own projects and compositions, which can be done with art as well as with language. Here students
do create art of their own—drawing, painting, filmmaking—but instead of the progressive mode of starting and ending with the making of art with little attention to learning about the arts, classical pedagogy will encourage creativity working from the foundation of aesthetic knowledge and understanding.
The result will be art students who know what they are doing. They will not all have artistic talents that will turn them into artists. But they will know enough about an art form, including having tried to do it themselves, that they will appreciate seeing it performed well. They will constitute what artists need and what the arts themselves need in order to thrive, an informed audience. And the students themselves will, as they grow up, become the beneficiaries of beauty, as it is connected to the other absolutes of truth and goodness.