Joe Giallombardo, Contributing Writer
Everyone at the University of Dallas fancies himself a critic. All the intellectual introspection and retrospection that the student is put through at this school fosters this in him. By “everyone,” I am not speaking literally – I am referring to the UD student who lingers about the Cap Bar with the pretense of studying, but who actually spends his time engaging the vast world of ideas and pummeling his friends and random passersby with his queries. He also lolls about the Mall, in front of the PDK and in the corners of Old Mill parties. He lives, it seems, to give his two cents about the inherent worth (or lack thereof) of things, and one of his favorite things to criticize is art on this campus.
Everyone who criticizes the art says the same thing: that it doesn’t look like anything and it doesn’t please the viewer. “Who cares if it engages the intellect if it isn’t beautiful?” I have said these things too – you’ve most likely heard me say them – but repeating these platitudes is getting old. It is time to say something new about the artist and what he does.
“You’re asking too much!” someone shouted at me in exasperation last week. “Just because the art here isn’t as good as Michelangelo, you think it is worthless!”
True, it would be wrong to criticize art for not being the work of a High Renaissance master. We should not be asking UD to produce a Raphael from its art department, nor should we be disappointed in the administration for not hanging Caravaggio paintings on the walls and lining the Mall with Bernini statues. Such greatness is rare. It is not fair to chastise art at UD because it isn’t Michelangelo; it is fair to chide art here for not trying very hard. When I criticize art at UD, I do not criticize the lack of great art but rather the “little artist” for not doing his job.
This begs the question: What is the difference between the great artist and the little artist? What is the relationship between the two?
When I was traveling in Italy, my fellow Americans were thrilled by the great art – art that is acutely, almost painfully beautiful, at once moving and terrifying – created by masters like Michelangelo and Bernini. But, I believe, they were equally charmed, if not as inspired, by the smaller, quainter rustic and urban prettiness that permeates all man-made things in Italy. Every doorknob, every sidewalk, every windowsill molding was made beautifully, with great care. This is the work of the little artist, the craftsman.
For centuries, in fact, Rome and Italy have held a peculiarly evocative place in the collective mind of the Anglosphere. The same, more or less, can be said for Paris and a number of other famous European places. It has been postulated that this is because the beauty found in the little things in such places gives meaning to the mundane tasks of everyday life. This is partially true. There is already meaning in the seemingly insignificant actions of each day. But the craftsman – the little artist – points this out by lingering lovingly over each doorpost or cobblestone.
This observation helps us understand the artist’s job in the first place. The job of the artist is to open man’s eyes to the natural sacramentality of the created world. Great or small, art must be in accordance with natural law if it is to achieve this end. That is why to claim that there is an objective standard of art, that some art is inherently better than other art, is not hubris but humility. The artist should view himself as sub-creator, not creator; as a servant rather than a master. T.S. Eliot said that if a writer wants to be the greatest master of a language, “he must first be its greatest servant.” This same humility is necessary for all art, great or small. To be the master of beauty, the artist must first be the servant of beauty. His work, therefore, must be in harmony with nature and nature’s order. This is opposed to “art” that seeks to manipulate and dominate nature, exemplified by such men as Pablo Picasso, who, when describing his work, said “I rape nature.” Naturally, beauty in art must be based in beauty in God’s creation. The pinnacle of creation is man, and it is important to remember that the human figure is the greatest casualty of modern art. Since the modern artist does not care about nature, he does not care about the human figure.
But to return to the relationship of the great and little artist: We might imagine that these craftsmen begin to permeate society when they are inspired by the masters who sprinkle down inspiration from their eyries in the empyrean heights. It is the other way around. The great artist depends upon a society of little artists. In this context, the great artist learns to respect nature, to serve beauty, and to contemplate the deeper meaning in the smallest things. It is living in the society of the little artist that gives the great artist his most important training. Surrounding him with that omnipresent prettiness would teach him to contemplate the metaphysical truths behind things, to turn the physical prose of each day into a spiritual poetry. And out of this sacramental intersection of the material and what lies beyond, his work would begin to emerge.
The problem with art at UD is not a lack of great artists, I repeat, but that the little artists are not doing their job. The buildings are bland and monolithic, the paintings are unintelligible; there is no attention to the small things, and no established iconography of anything. True, there may be some merit in the abstract art at UD. But that is not my main concern. What concerns me is this: As an institution dedicated to the task of propagating a Catholic identity and handing on the inherited tradition of the West, is focusing on this abstract art really the best use of our finite energies? Why not foster the community of the little artist? We would, as a culture, come to pay more attention to the details of life, and perhaps be encouraged to be more contemplative and thoughtful people. And one day, UD might even bequeath a great artist or two unto this nation.