Take a look at the old painting above. Titian’s canvas from the mid-16th century has something massively important to say to us today about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. The artist has painted another artist, a musician in the creative process, writing a song on his lute. The young musician peers over his right shoulder to behold a reclining woman, wearing jewelry and nearly nothing else.
Was Titian trying to paint a literal event? Today art students look at live nudes when painting. Was there some strange 16th century custom of musicians gazing at women au naturale? Not that we know of. What we do know is that through the Renaissance many artists revived Greek and Roman gods and goddesses from the pages of antiquity to serve as visual symbols for whatever invisible values they wanted to capture with paint. Think of how, in our day, a blindfolded woman holding scales stands for justice, a large woman in a spiky hat holding a torch symbolizes liberty, or a naked baby with a bow and arrow represents romantic love. You can’t easily paint love or beauty. It’s much easier to paint a reclining nude deity named Venus who symbolized love and beauty. That is exactly what Titian has done in this work, appropriately titled, Venus and the Lute Player. As the great Dutch art critic Hans Rookmaaker recognized:
[Titian’s] was a world in which it was possible to speak of the reality of such concepts as beauty or love. They were realities outside man, and man in his life and work had to reflect them, to realize them by working according to them. Love and beauty were not just man’s feelings and man’s subjective taste; they were really there: if he did not follow them, hate and ugliness would be the result (Modern Art and the Death of Culture, 27).
So what does this painting have to say to us, in our search for meaning in the past and in the present? It says a lot. In our last post (read here) we saw how the Enlightenment thinking of David Hume essentially does to Venus what unbiblical religion did to heretics in earlier centuries: it incinerates her. Since she represents neither mathematical nor scientific truth, she is consumed in Hume’s flames. The lute player can now only look over his shoulder to a heap of ashes on a couch.
Once Hume’s arsons have done their work, where can the artist look for inspiration? He has three basic options:
Option 1: He can change jobs, sell his lute, and buy a microscope. After all, if beauty reduces to “sophistry and illusion” (Hume) then why waste your time with beauty-pursuing endeavors like art? As J.H. Randall observed, “It was no accident that the scientific age of the Enlightenment produced little that can rank with the world’s greatest art and poetry.”
Option 2: Second, our artist can stick to his profession, and look to the ash heap for inspiration. This was the option taken by many artists in the Modern Art movement. Many tried to capture the shocking absurdity and gaping emptiness of life in a universe where beauty and love no longer hold living value. ‘Venus is Dead (and here’s what the world looks like without her)’ would be an accurate title for a gallery show hanging Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Picasso’s Demoiselles’ de Avignon, Francis Bacon’s Head VI, and vast warehouses of other modern artworks.
But there is a third option our artist could take, an option that is much closer to how the cultural mainstream reacted to the death of objective values.
Option 3: Rather than look outside himself, where there are only ashes, he can turn within himself for inspiration. He can abandon his mission of finding and expressing bigger-and-beyond-himself beauty, and spend his time, instead, gazing inward and expressing whatever he finds within the confines of his own consciousness. The artist’s own subjective feelings now become the primary subject matter. Once we kill Venus it is only a matter of time until we resurrect Narcissus to take her place.
From Pinocchio to Small Potatoes
There are abundant examples that reveal this cultural turn from the objective to the subjective, from Venus to Narcissus, or what we could call the shift from Pinocchio to Small Potatoes. I was raised watching a small Italian puppet named Pinocchio strive to be a real boy in the famous Disney movie. Pinocchio’s world was like Titian’s world insofar as “love and beauty were really there: if he did not follow them, hate and ugliness would be the result.” When Pinocchio ignores his conscience (symbolized by a cricket in a top hat), he abandons his family for the fame and fortune of Stromboli’s stage. The result is lonesome imprisonment. When he lies the result is an ugly tree branch nose. When he shuns all moral responsibility for the reckless fun of Pleasure Island, Pinocchio becomes even less human, sprouting a tail, and ears, braying like a donkey. However, when the wooden boy synchs his actions up with the moral realities of love and courage, sacrificing his life to save his family from the vicious sea monster, Monstro, he is “resurrected” as a real boy. The message, even to my five-year-old self, was clear: Doing whatever you want is not the way to real boy-ness. We must live out realities like love and courage to really live. There were real goods that led to more authentic humanness and real evils that led to dehumanization. It is a tale that only makes sense if Venus is alive, if transcendent values are real.
Contrast the rich moral world in which Pinocchio’s quest occurs with a more recent Disney production, Small Potatoes. This animated Disney Jr. show originated in the UK and features tunes like “I just want to be me,” a potato sung punk anthem about self-expression and not letting anyone tell you who or how to be. Another episode teaches kids that, “art is something like freedom, you can do whatever you want with it.” The episode, “We’re All Potatoes at Heart” concludes with a talking potato telling a vast audience of impressionable minds, “I think it’s great to be different and unique because then everyone has their own different way of doing things and there’s no wrong or right answer for doing something.”
Over a hundred years before talking potatoes, Fred Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil. This philosophical tome argues that the idea of real right and wrong is an outmoded superstition of the religious “herd.” The secular “superman” quits looking beyond himself for such nonexistent values and instead does whatever he wants. For Nietzsche, “The human being who has become free spits on the contemptible type of well-being dreamed of by shopkeepers, Christians, cows, females, Englishmen, and other Democrats.” “Egoism,” says Nietzsche, “is the essence of the noble soul.” In the 1960s Jean Paul Sartre argued that “if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct… everything is permissible.” Carrying on their legacy, Richard Rorty, postmodern philosopher extraordinaire, celebrates America as “the first nation-state with nobody but itself to please — not even God… There is no standard, not even a divine one, against which the decisions of a free people can be measured.”
Cute potatoes now serenade our kids about freedom as the power to “do whatever they want” and that “There’s no right or wrong answer for doing something.” The death of Venus has reached children’s ears. Her ashes have flowed from the ivory towers into the cultural mainstreams where kids fill their cups. And as Augustine quotes Horace in The City of God (1.3), “new vessels will for long retain the taste of what is first poured into them.”
To be continued...