Common Sense 101 by Dale Ahlquist
The Signature of Man.
It is one of the great ironies that the 20th century’s greatest writer - G. K. Chesterton, for those you who haven’t been paying attention – never went to college. He went to art school. And his definition of art school is itself a work of art: “An art school is a place where about three people work with feverish energy and everybody else idles to a degree that I should have conceived unattainable by human nature.”
Chesterton considered himself one of the idlers, but he at least thought that he was in art school because he was training to become an artist. But he accidentally became a writer instead. In 1900, he was asked to review some art books for a magazine, and with that he said he had discovered “the easiest of all professions,” which he pursued the rest of his life.
But his training in art obviously served him well. Art is about being articulate. And G.K. Chesterton, the artist turned writer, writes visually. He illustrates everything he says with verbal images that spring to life. His words become flesh.
Although he went on to write about everything and everything else, art is a theme he returns to again and again. His writings include commentary on just about any major artist you could name: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giotto, Botticelli, Turner, Reynolds, Constable, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso. What sets him apart as an art critic is the stunning way in which he puts artists into their larger contexts, that is, he puts them in their place. But he also puts art into its place.
Because we are created in the image of God, we also are creators. Man is the only one of God’s creatures who is an artist. Art sets man apart. “Art,” says Chesterton, “is the signature of man.” But I suppose we could add that it is a signature that is not always legible. When someone asks “What is art?” it is almost as bad as Pontius Pilate asking, “What is Truth?” when truth is standing right in front of his face. (As Chesterton says, the Roman governor “showed his taste for epigram at a somewhat unlucky moment.”) Yet if we ask Chesterton the question, “What is art?” the answer he gives is almost as challenging as the question. For he does not give just one answer. He says that the definition of art is exaggeration, but he also says that art is diminution, reducing the world to a smaller scale. He says art should be sensational, but he also says art should be subtle. He contends that art should be beautiful, overwhelmingly beautiful, yet he defends gargoyles and the grotesque and the homely peasants painted by Rembrandt. He attacks vulgarity and he also defends it. He attacks originality, and he also vigorously defends it. He attacks high art, and he also defends it. He attacks popular art, and he also defends it. Is there a contradiction here?
Yes and no.
Chesterton is a complete and consistent thinker, but he has to correct errors that lie at opposite extremes and defend a truth that is being attacked from all different angles, and that is why his arguments may seem at times to contradict each other.
All very great classics of art are a rebuke to extravagance not in one direction but in all directions. The figure of a Greek Venus is a rebuke to the fat women of Rubens and also a rebuke to the thin women of Aubrey Beardsley. . . This is perhaps the test of a very great work of classic creation, that it can be attacked on inconsistent grounds, and that it attacks its enemies on inconsistent grounds. Here is a broad and simple test. If you hear a thing being accused of being too tall and too short, too red and too green, too bad in one way and too bad also in the opposite way, then you may be sure that it is very good.
There is another reason for the apparent contradictions in Chesterton’s explanation of art. That is because there is a contradiction at the heart of all truth. Truth is paradoxical. And so art is also paradoxical. What makes a work of art great? What makes it survive through the ages? Chesterton says “The thing that survives is that which has a certain combination of normality with distinction. It has simplicity with a slight touch of strangeness… It is a tale just sufficiently unusual to be worth telling, and yet immediately intelligible when told.”
This is common sense. We want art to strike us and amaze us, but we also want it to comfort us and to embrace us. To be both strange and familiar at the same time. If it is only strange, or only familiar, it fails as art. It succeeds when we can look at it and say, “I have seen that a thousand times and I never saw it before.” Chesterton says that the masterpieces are defined by the fact that even when we have already seen them there is something unexpected about them.
Anyone who has suffered through a gallery of modern art will appreciate Chesterton’s art criticism. He explains exactly why most modern art fails. Though in one sense he really doesn’t have to. Most anyone can see why it fails. However, modern art critics elaborately try to explain to us why modern art succeeds. But the explanations have taken over and have become more important than the art itself. And the poor patrons of the arts have to pretend to enjoy it. Chesterton says it takes moral courage to say of the academy what the child alone had the courage to say about the emperor’s new clothes. There is nothing there.
It is one thing to swallow the new art and another thing merely to swallow the new art criticism.
Many critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece.
Suppose a man says: “Why am I not free to produce a sublime architectural effect with thirty-seven butter-tubs, three gas-pipes, and a packing case? Why should I not make beauty out of these?” There seems to be no answer except to say, “Why not, indeed?” If he will produce sublime architecture out of them, I shall not complain of the sublimity. If he will make beauty from them, I shall not condemn them for contriving to be beautiful. . . My attitude toward the experiment may be described as one of patient expectancy - of hope not unmingled with doubt. I am waiting for the moment when the pagoda of tubs shall strike my soul like a thunderbolt out of the sky; when I shall stagger with admiration at some perfect poise and balance of pipes and packing-cases which I had never foreseen even in my dreams. I say nothing of that inspiring moment of my life, except that it has not yet come.
The problem is this. We worship the new instead of the eternal. And when we worship the new, we are always changing our allegiances, because there will always be something newer. Look at the schools of art in the last hundred years. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Futurism, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Post-Post-Modernism. The very titles given to the new schools refer only to the sequence of time and what Chesterton calls “a monomania of rivalry.” He says it is “just as if one controversialist were called a Thursdayite, and the other completely eclipsed him by being a Fridayite… The notion that every generation proves the last generation worthless, and is in its turn proved worthless by the next generation, is an everlasting vision of worthlessness.”
The tragedy of humanity has been the separation of art from the people. Indeed, it is a queer fact that the same progressives who insist that government shall be democratic often insist that art must be [elitist], and “the public,” which is a god when they are talking about votes, becomes a brute when they are talking about books and pictures…
According to Chesterton there was a time in history when art was more connected to the people, when the abyss between the sense of beauty and the sentiment of humanity was nearly bridged. And that was in the Middle Ages. Medieval artists knew that the normal person took great pleasure in seeing a cloud of scarlet and gold, and so they made sure there was plenty of scarlet and gold in their illuminated manuscripts or their church windows. They also knew that the normal man also likes monsters, and grotesque and fantastic forms, and so they carved gargoyles on the great cathedrals. Both the artists and the public were united in a spirit of wonder, “from the most cunning craftsman who wondered at the thing being carved beautifully, to the most ignorant rustic who wondered at it being carved at all.” And Chesterton says this is the right philosophy because it really is a miracle that it should be carved at all. A monkey cannot do it; and when a man does it, he is doing something divine. He is creating. And that is a wonder.
The real weakness of the best of the new [artists] is that their quaintness does not arise out of a universal world of wonder, but rather out of a world without wonder; it comes not from simplicity, but from satiety.
The shepherds who watched the first sketches of Giotto were surprised that he could draw a face, and therefore still more surprised that he could draw a beautiful face. But the modern Giotto is tired of beautiful faces, and feels that there might yet be a surprise of ugly faces. . . [But] there is no permanent progress that way; we cannot really be rejuvenated by becoming more and more jaded…
How do we revive a popular interest in art? We cannot assume that everyone can be an artistic genius or that all artists are geniuses or that the most lunatic among them are geniuses. The solution, says Chesterton,
does not lie in increasing the number of artists who can startle us with complex things, but by increasing the number of people who can be startled by common things. It lies in restoring relish and receptivity to human society; and that is another question and a more important one…
What the modern world wants is religion or something that will create a certain ultimate spirit of humility, of enthusiasm, and of thanks. It is not even to be done merely by educating the people in the artistic virtues of insight and selection. It is to be done much more by educating the artists in the popular virtues of astonishment and enjoyment…
It not only means making more Giottos, but also making more shepherds…
There is a famous saying that there is no disputing about taste. And it is true. But that refers to our relatively minor likes and dislikes that are simply personal preferences and cannot be changed by any argument. But in matters of art, the problem is that there are people who “prefer to dispute about taste, because they do not want their disputes settled.” They are avoiding the things that can be argued about and the things that really are worth arguing about because they do not want to face the consequences of losing those arguments. What they are avoiding is the absolute. And their art reflects it.
Chesterton does not find modern artists particularly revolutionary. Revolting, yes, but revolutionary, no. The only thing “original” about their art is that it pertains to original sin. “The decay of society,” he says, is “praised by artists as the decay of a corpse is praised by worms.
Savages and modern artists are alike strangely driven to create something uglier than themselves. But the artists find it harder.
Chesterton attacks the navel-gazing school of art, the self-obsessed artists who are concerned only with expressing themselves and not with actually communicating something worthwhile. He predicts quite accurately that in the future, “artists who refuse to be anything but artists will go down in history as the embodiment of all the vulgarities and banalities of their time.”
The true artist, the artist who transcends time is driven by an ache to find some sense and some story in the beautiful things he sees; he looks at everything with a careful eye and has a hunger for its secrets; he will not let any tower or tree escape him with its tale untold… Every true artist feels that he is touching truths which transcend the here and now; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. He knows that there is something there; “something behind the clouds or within the trees; and he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.” But that is not enough. The drive to produce great art is really a manifestation of something else.
A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.
You never work so well for art's sake as when you are working for something else.
There is no such thing as art for art’s sake. Chesterton says, “Philosophy is always present in a work of art.” And the artistic philosophy that he subscribes is Romanticism, as opposed to Realism. Now, ‘isms’ are irritating, and usually difficult to keep track of, so we should know that when Chesterton uses the term Realism it is not in reference to highly-finished representational renderings, which he admires, but to an artistic philosophy which emphasizes the dark and dirty - and detachment from the eternal. Realism claims to be: Life, warts and all. But what Realism really is, is: Warts as Life. The realists claim to be holding up the mirror to nature, but then they start believing only the mirror, even after they have broken it.
Realism, when entirely emptied of romance, becomes utterly unreal.
Realism is simply Romanticism that has lost its reason …It has lost its reason for existing. The old Greeks summoned godlike things to worship their god. The medieval Christians summoned all things to worship theirs, dwarfs and pelicans, monkeys and madmen. The modern realists summon all these million creatures to worship their god; and then have no god for them to worship…Romance means a holy donkey going to the temple. Realism means a lost donkey going nowhere.
Chesterton is a romantic. And so is most any normal person because it is common sense to be a romantic. It has to do with basic loyalties, with deep and universal emotions, and with high ideals that are worth striving for and worth fighting for.
All romances consist of three characters… For the sake of argument they may be called St. George and the Dragon and the Princess. In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and fighting. In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights. There have been many symptoms of cynicism and decay in our modern civilization. But… none [have been] quite so silly or so dangerous as this: that the philosophers of today have started to divide loving from fighting and to put them into opposite camps. [But] the two things imply each other; they implied each other in the old romance and in the old religion, which were the two permanent things of humanity. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. It may be an airy, philosophical, and disinterested lust… but it is lust, because it is wholly self-indulgent… On the other hand, fighting for a thing without loving it is not even fighting; it can only be called a kind of horse-play that is occasionally fatal. Wherever human nature is human…there exists this natural kinship between war and wooing, and that natural kinship is called romance...and every man who has ever been young at all has felt, if only for a moment, this ultimate and poetic paradox. He knows that loving the world is the same thing as fighting the world.
Inside the word “romantic” is another word. And we have forgotten that the word romantic comes from that word. That word is Rome. The City of Fountains has been the greatest fountain of art the world has ever known. There is a direct connection between religion and art. And the modern world has forgotten that connection, just as it has forgotten the connection between Rome and romantic. Chesterton says that all art is religious art. “The Arts exist. . .to show forth the glory of God; and to awaken and keep alive the sense of wonder in man.” Certainly all western art has been directly or indirectly inspired by the Catholic Faith, even when it is only a dim reflection of it or a direct reaction against it, a frank denial of it, or a blatant blasphemy on it.
All art is born when the temporary touches the eternal.
Now all of our focus to this point has been on the visual arts, but the same ideas can be applied to the literary arts and the performance arts. And it is particularly true of our most vivid art form, the one which essentially combines all the arts: the motion picture. It is the saddest state of artistic affairs that movies today are such a wasted medium, that so much energy and money is poured into producing them, and they are generally empty. Unfortunately, because they are controlled by commercial interests, they are largely commercials. They may be of the highest production qualities, with stunning photography and dazzling special effects and beautiful music, but the problem, as Chesterton says, “is that they are much too good for the meaningless work they serve.”
Art has to serve a higher purpose than itself, and certainly a higher purpose than merely making money. It has to serve an eternal purpose. And it has to reflect eternal values, not the world’s fugitive values.
Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.
It is time we start making some good religious movies. But until then, it is important that we put each movie – like any work of art – to the test: Does it give honor and glory to God? Does it teach us anything eternal? Does it move us to want to change our lives? Does it make us thankful? Does it help us love God better? Does it help us love our neighbor more? Does it make us want to help our neighbor? If it doesn’t do any of things, it has wasted our time. And that’s what hell is: wasted time.
Describing hell and misery and depression is something that too many artists have spent too much time doing, and we’ve been given quite enough of it, thank you. As Chesterton says, “There are twenty minor poets who can describe fairly impressively an eternity of agony; there are very few even of the eternal poets who can describe ten minutes of satisfaction.” Heaven’s work is a little harder than hell’s work. We have to decide who we are going to work for, whose purpose our art is going to serve. Chesterton does not leave us much wiggle room. He says that when art is not in the service of heaven it is almost always in the service of hell.
Autobiography, CW 16, 94.
See ILN, November 23, 1929.
The Everlasting Man, 166.
ILN, March 16, 1922.
“The Macbeths,” The Spice of Life (Beaconsfield: Darwen Finlayson, 1964), 43.
ILN, November 20, 1920. (Emphasis mine.)
The Thing, CW 3, 173.
ILN, February 11, 1922.
ILN, August 19, 1922.
ILN, February 11, 1922.
“Are the Artists Going Mad?” Century Magazine, December, 1922
Ibid. (Emphasis mine.)
ILN, December 17, 1927.
George Bernard Shaw, 401.
ILN, November 25, 1905.
William Blake, 18-19.
The Everlasting Man, 237.
Daily News, June 25, 1904.
ILN, June 15, 1929.
See The Crimes of England. CW 5, 337-8.
ILN, April 2, 1931.
Alarms and Discursions, 13-14.
Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, CW 15, 255.
ILN, June 15, 1929.
The Thing, CW 3, 173.
ILN, July 15, 1922.
ILN, July 3, 1909.
ILN, May 5, 1928.
I wrote this more than two years before the release of The Passion of the Christ. Obviously Mel Gibson took my advice.
ILN, March 11, 1911.