Have you ever wondered what art actually is? Our instinctive answer might be something like “self-expression;” and according to our venerable OED, we’d be on the right track: Art, it says, is the “expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form …, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” If this is all art is—only manifested self-expression made to be appreciated—then a child’s creation has just as much claim to the title as any famous painter’s. Yet there is a difference between my five-year-old student’s latest “art” gift and Cy Twombly’s “Untitled” from 1954, yes? Mere self-expression, then, is not art’s soul.
How about this: the essence of art must be imitation of the world we encounter. Ah, now this begins to sound more roundly theological and comfortable. But if imitation were the primary criterion, surely the more distorted pieces of Picasso and Stravinsky would fail to register.
Perhaps art’s essence has something to do with nature and our search for wholeness and true beauty. After all, we often conceive of purity and perfection as qualities found in nature, in places undisturbed by human frailty and mistakes. Nature suggests cleanness and cohesion, and man, in his attraction to the pristine, often imitates nature through art. Yet in his Metamorphoses, Ovid challenges this conception too, suggesting that “Nature’s craft can imitate the ways of art.”
Nature imitates art?
This curious idea appears in the story of Actaeon, when Ovid describes Artemis’s secret grotto:
… within the deepest shade,
the innermost recess, there lay a cave
most perfect. Though no mortal art had shaped
that grotto, Nature’s craft can imitate
the ways of art; here she had shaped an arch
of what was native there …
While Ovid’s statement of nature’s insufficiency is initially puzzling, his emphasis on mortal art, specifically, is even more intriguing. It suggests man is capable of creating something better than pure nature can afford. What Ovid intimates here seems to revolve around the idea of what constitutes wholeness or completeness—perfection, in the traditional sense of the word. He hints that perfection cannot be found in nature because it requires an intelligence, an artist. Indeed, Actaeon’s story suggests that for Ovid, true perfection is found not in the chance-bound natural, but in the created.
A few pages later, “Jove and Europa” takes a similar vein. Here Jove, having transformed himself into a bull, sports horns “… so well wrought, one would have thought a craftsman / had made them; they were more translucent than / pure gems.” Again, the natural is surreptitiously scorned as imperfect; a thing “well-wrought” is found only in an artist’s handiwork. Of course, if Jove fashioned his own horns, then a craftsman (Jove, not nature) did create them, but only the reader knows this. To Europa, and to any observers in her story, the horns appear to be perfection found in nature—so perfect, Ovid implies, that they cannot in fact be natural. Perfection, we find again, means intentional creation, not blind chance.
But are the intentionality and intelligence of the artist sufficient for whole perfection? Ovid’s “Pygmalion” suggests not. Dissatisfied with real women, Pygmalion carves “in snow-white ivory, with wondrous art, / a female figure more exquisite than / a woman who was born could ever match …” Pygmalion’s sculpture is, like Diana’s grotto and Jove’s horns, perfect in form. Moreover, her beauty exceeds that of any woman born. Something about natural generation is again insufficient. Yet though the artist, through his intellect and intention, is capable of engendering perfection in form, he remains dissatisfied. Why? Ovid notes that the statue’s glory lies in her reflection of the living real: “The image seems, in truth, to be a girl; / one could have thought she was alive and keen / to stir …” But seeming is not being, and the object of Pygmalion’s affections, “in truth,” lacks life—without which even formal perfection is incomplete. So Pygmalion prays for divine intervention, and Venus obliges. Life, it would seem, comes only when the artist’s perfect form is touched by the divine, and life gives wholeness to formal perfection. By this rendering, whole perfection is found when man touches the divine through creation.
This, it seems, is the essential element in Ovid’s understanding. Through art, man imitates not nature, but the divine. When man imitates the divine and the divine graces the effort, art becomes not just perfect in form, but perfect in life—nature, perfected.
So where does this leave Picasso and Stravinsky? The fear, discord, and pain that they frequently represent cannot be imitations of God’s goodness and beauty. But there are strands of art that incline more toward speech (even self-expressive speech) than imitation of goodness, and I tend to think this is the path taken by the ‘pain and discord’ artists. Their distortions seem to judge the reality of ugliness and suffering, and we hope, might remind us that our ultimate good is not of this world, and that life, even perverted by sin, is still reachable by the divine. And speech, in fact, is its own imitation—an imitation of the Word in whom we live and move and have our being.
Thus, self-expression and imitation are part of art’s soul, but they are part of a larger picture. Human art, in Ovid’s conception, wrestles with nature, thereby lending a kind of perfection or wholeness to it, but perfection itself is found in creation—art alive by divine inspiration. And through this mimetic creation, man not only reflects the divine, but, as Pygmalion’s story suggests, communes with the divine. This is art’s essence and its true end.
Ingrid De Groot graduated from Hillsdale in 2020 with a degree in economics. She currently works as a book editor, musician, and ministry director, and hopes to pursue graduate school in theology and political theory.