Art on Its Own Terms

By Kerr, Walter | Commonweal, November 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Art on Its Own Terms


Kerr, Walter, Commonweal


Walter Kerr, who died last month at the age of eighty-three, was Commonweal's drama critic from 1950-52. This article is condensed from his "Where the Author Meets the Critics," Commonweal, April 7, 1950.

The Catholic who would deal with the arts at the present time may think it necessary to turn himself into a schizophrenic. On the one hand his most respected mentors among Thomist philosophers assure him that art is a thing made, not a thing done, and hence not subject to moral evaluation. The artifact cannot commit a sin. On the other hand, this is just how much of what is called Catholic criticism does speak of books and plays. When I made a lecture tour among Catholic organizations recently, not a single question was asked me regarding the artistic merits of anything. The only questions were moral questions, morally phrased. I think it is fair enough to say that, among rank-and-file Catholics, the moral evaluation of art is the only evaluation now being made.

Fear is the keynote of all this. Those who are responsible for the moral guidance of men have an honest fear that if art were ever given its autonomy, were ever allowed to be judged by its own appropriate standards, it would somehow run off with the whole kit and caboodle of the Christian body.

The sad feature of these conflicts is that they are unnecessary. Saint Thomas resolved the issue when he stated his requirements for beauty. Of these three - integrity, proportion, and clarity - the first sheds a great deal of light on our present problem. Integrity means wholeness. It means that nothing is present which ought not to be there, and that nothing essential is absent.

Now the moralist's fear of art arises from this very requirement for beauty. If beauty demands that the wholeness of nature be imitated, and if, for instance, sin is to be found in nature, then sin must be found in art. To eliminate sin studiously would be to destroy the integrity of the work. It would be to alter the universe as God made or permitted it, as though to improve on it. When the pietist counsels us to draw men not as they are but as they ought to be - to play down sin and play up virtue - he is asking us to alter the proportions, to omit something, to falsify the universe as it actually exists under the permitting hand of God. He simplifies the universe, makes it over into something easier and more obvious. But however good his intentions, what he produces is not true, not beautiful, and certainly not good.

To do all this he must ignore or abandon aesthetic norms. …

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