The Matter of Works of Fine Arts



God is our heavenly Father. He made all things by his creative power, and now he rules over the world he has made so as to guide its development until it is a perfect and finished work of art.

To us men, whom he made in his own image, he has given a share in this fatherhood. He said to Adam and Eve, "Increase and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28).

Thus, along with other living things, man has the power from God to multiply, to increase and perpetuate his kind in the world. Yet this share in creative power is more than the mere physical reproduction which plants have. Even among animals the parents not only beget their young, but they feed, shelter, and even train them. Human young need to be carefully raised and guided for many years. A human father begets his children, and then he must provide for them. Not only must he gather food from nature, but he must cultivate food, and he must invent means of clothing and shelter. Hence men develop the useful arts by which to take the things provided by nature and develop and modify them so that they better serve human needs.

When man applies art to nature, lie is only bringing nature to the perfection which God has intended it should have. Man by his art co-operates with God in perfecting nature. If, on the other band, man misuses his art to destroy nature or to turn it to evil uses, then he is taking side with the devil, who above all desires to destroy God's work and to bring it to naught.


When a father has provided his family with its material needs by his skill in the useful arts, his task as father has only begun. Children need food, clothing, shelter, and many material things, but they have far greater need of education. The father educates them so that the image of God which is in them may develop, and they may become not only like their earthly father, but like their heavenly Father. "Be you therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

A father helps his children develop to perfect maturity in two ways. First he helps them develop right habits of living, which we call moral virtues, so that they are temperate, and brave, and just. Without these virtues they would be weak and enslaved by every temptation; with them a man grows up self-controlled, strong, honest, and truly free. Without his father's guidance, without his encouragement, and sometimes his punishments, a child would find it very difficult ever to develop such virtues, But his father knows how to guide the child, because be himself has the virtue of prudence. Prudence is like art, in that both help a father carry out his work, Art, however, perfects material things, while prudence perfects human beings in their actions. Thus prudence is the "art of life" and greater than any useful art.

Secondly, a father teaches his children not only to live rightly, but to know how to live. It is the intellectual virtues which are the developed powers by which we know things (see diagram, pp. 448 f.). Under his father's guidance the child learns the useful arts himself, and he also learns prudence to govern himself and others. These are the practical intellectual virtues, and without them a child could riot become a father and help others. But the father also teaches his child to know, not only the things which man can make and control, but also the greater things which God has made, the universe and man himself. Above all be teaches the child to know God, their heavenly Father. The virtues by which we know these things are the theoretical intellectual virtues of understanding, science, and wisdom.


Our own earthly father, however, is not able to do for us everything that he would wish. As a child grows he needs guidance that his family alone cannot provide. Hence part of our moral development comes not only from our natural father, but also from our civic fathers, the officials of the government. By their laws and regulations the President, the Congress, the Governor, the State Legislator, and all the officials of the government help us to become good citizens. Even when we are adults and have ourselves a share in government, we need also the help of our fellow citizens and of their representatives to guide our lives and help us become perfect in virtue.

Similarly, we need not only to be taught by our fathers, but we need also wise and learned men who have a profounder knowledge to teach us in order that we might develop perfectly in wisdom. Our universities, our scientists and writers, and our teachers in the lower schools, all devote their lives to study of the truth and to teaching it to others. Even when we ourselves become expert in some field of knowledge, we will not be able to know everything for ourselves. We will need to seek the help of those expert in some other field, and we will need light from those great minds who see deeper into truth than we.

These governors and teachers did not give us physical life as did our own father, and yet they are truly our fathers, since they give us the perfection of our moral and intellectual life. But this is still not enough. For our heavenly Father has willed that we should be prepared, not only for this life, but for life with him in heaven. There we will come to know him face to face, and we will see that he is three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our education would never be complete unless we were prepared also for this.

For this reason our heavenly Father sent us his Son to redeem us from sin and to begin on earth his heavenly kingdom, the Church. Our Lord is both a King to govern us in developing the supernatural moral virtues Which culminate in the theological virtues of hope and charity, and a Teacher to help us develop the supernatural intellectual virtue of faith which should grow into wisdom. In order to carry out this mission in his Church as it grows here on earth, he has given us the Pope as our spiritual ruler and teacher, and under him the bishops and all whom they commission to guide and teach us. Thus the bishop and priest is most truly our father, for in baptism he gives us spiritual birth, and by his teaching and guidance and through the other sacraments he educates us supernaturally for life with God.


Our heavenly Father and our earthly fathers beget and provide for us and educate us because they love us. Because they love us they wish us to be happy. True happiness is not something that can be merely given to us; it is something which we must earn and possess for ourselves. Even our heavenly Father does not give us the joy of heaven until we are prepared for it by a life of merit. Happiness is a reward and it completely pays for all the effort we have undergone to earn it, The way to happiness, however, is only by effort and by striving, and hence by suffering.

Our heavenly Father and our earthly fathers, therefore, do not pamper us, or keep us from work and effort and suffering just because they love us. To keep us from these hardships would also keep us from earning true happiness. Nevertheless, because they love us, they try to make the way of effort as easy as possible for us, although it can never be without pain. When God made Adam and Eve he intended that the road to heaven should be very easy for them, and still he gave them a test, the test of obedience and of sacrifice. Because they failed that test, be had to subject them to a harder way.

The way in which God makes our way as easy as possible is by giving us pleasures as the reward of efforts, just as an earthly father gives his children little treats when they do well. Pleasure is not happiness, because it is a passing thing, while happiness endures; but pleasure is like happiness. It is the foretaste of happiness that should lead us on to the real thing.

If we review the various things a father does for his children, we will see that each has its reward of pleasure. Thus the physical activities of eating, drinking, of begetting children, of sleep, of comfort, even of physical exercise, all are pleasant, and this pleasure makes it easier for us to perform them. How tedious having to eat three times a day would be, if there were no pleasure attached to it! When these activities are carried out reasonably and moderately they can make life very pleasant and healthful, but when they are indulged in to excess they make us sick, or they so enslave us that we are unable to seek true happiness. The man, for example, who has become a slave to food, or drink, or sexual pleasure may tell us that he is happy, but truly be is miserable; and happiness can never be his, neither in this world nor the next.

The useful arts, therefore, not only make useful things for us, but they also try to make these things pleasant. The cook not only makes food to nourish us, but also to be attractive both to our eyes and our taste. The furniture maker not only makes a bed in which we can sleep, but strives to make it one in which we can sleep with comfort and which is attractive to see. All this is good and a part of civilization. If God has made the physical world not only useful but very very pleasant, then we also should strive to make our works of useful art not only useful but pleasant. Yet it is important for us not to become soft and luxurious. The nation that spends too much effort in making life easy and pleasant soon is enslaved to physical needs and cannot gain true freedom and happiness.


A wise father not only makes a home a pleasant place to live but he also uses pleasure in a child's education. He teaches the child moral virtue by obedience and discipline, but be also permits a child to play. The freedom of play is very pleasant. This pleasure is not merely physical like that of food and drink which even a tiny infant enjoys. The pleasure of play comes also from our imagination, skill, and intelligence. A child only gradually learns how to play, and when he plays he is very much awake and using his imagination and mind. More complicated games are possible only for youths and grown men.

Why do we need play? Because it gives us pleasure and rests us from serious work and effort, and yet it is not mere rest and idleness, for it, too, contributes to our power to make a greater effort. When a soldier is being trained to fight, from time to time he is allowed to play some game. This is both because it is relaxation after his intense training, and because even while playing he is hardening his muscles for further effort. Thus recreation is a pleasant form of activity which rests and restores us for renewed effort. Children play hard. The young athlete plays hard. Yet for both this is a preparation for something more serious, or it is not true recreation.

Recreation is of two kinds, corresponding to the two kinds of education and the two kinds of serious human activity. Moral activity with its constant effort at carrying out one's duty and responsibilities has its counterpart in the kind of recreation we ordinarily call games whether physical sports, or intellectual games like cards or chess.

In all such games we find the element of a contest, either against an opponent, or against one's own score. In this way our emergency or fighting emotions, which are so constantly required in carrying out our moral duty, find rest in a game in which we have the pleasure

of winning, without threat of losing anything really serious. Thus games are character-building for the youth, teaching him courage, responsibility, and fairness, and for the mature man they provide a suitable recreation from his duties in which he can still maintain his health.

There are also mental games which have the element of a contest: chess and checkers, cards, puzzles, etc. These do not have the same advantages for physical health, but when played with moderation they are good for the health of the mind.

The second kind of activity is the enjoyment of truth or contemplation. Many people are hardly aware that such an activity exists. To them it might seem a mere waste of time. Yet it is the highest of all activities and the source of every other activity which is fruitful. God himself rests forever in contemplation, and yet he has created the entire universe and governs it every minute. The author of Genesis, knowing how quick man is to ignore this activity of contemplation, teaches us about it by showing that at the end of the six days in which he created the world, "God rested." It is to keep this alive in our life that we are commanded to abstain from servile work on Sundays and holidays, so that we may give some time to rest in the vision of God's truth.

All recreation, whether physical, mental, or contemplative, is a preparation for further activity. It rests and renews our strength. But contemplative recreation is more than just recreation; it is a foretaste of contemplation, and contemplation is not a preparation for activity, but the highest activity of all, the goal and end of every other activity.


The fine arts produce works which are not only useful but beautiful. Something is beautiful when it delights us merely to look at it. Hence works of fine art have their value, not in being used, but in being contemplated. When a piece of music is played, or a movie shown, or a novel read, we do not do anything with it, but simply listen and look and enjoy.

Thus the fine arts provide us with recreation, but it is a special kind of recreation. It is not primarily physical, like sports, nor is it a mental contest, like chess or cards. It is a contemplative recreation through which we begin to learn what contemplation is, and why it is so delightful. The pleasure we get from the fine arts helps us to understand what God's happiness and the happiness of heaven are like, where eternity passes in the vision of God's perfect beauty. The man or woman who does not appreciate beauty can never conceive how heaven is a place of perfect happiness, because they have never experienced any pleasures except those of the body or of competitive activity.

Making a work of fine art is a combination of all these forms of recreation. It takes physical skill like a sport. It also is a kind of puzzle in which the artist struggles with his material to arrive it the form he has conceived for it. Finally, it is a kind of contemplation, because the artist has always before him the beauty which he wishes

to produce. Hence, of all recreations, the making of something beautiful by singing, dancing, painting, writing, or acting poetry is the most inclusive.


The contemplation which we first taste in the fine arts is not, however, the end of contemplation. It is only the opening of a road. Works of art represent reality, but they are not the greatest realities. Once art has opened tip to us the beauty of the world about us, we want to know that world better. It is no accident that the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, all of whom were great artists, also became great students of natural science, nor that the advance of science in the Middle Ages also brought an advance in the fine arts. In natural science we come to contemplate the order of God's world, as Adam did when he first looked on it.

Art also opens up to us an understanding of human life. Through plays and novels, music and painting, our experience is broadened and we begin to appreciate the sufferings, struggles, and joys of other human beings, the drama of the rise and fall of nations and empires. Hence the fine arts lead us on to the social or moral sciences.

Finally, from the fine arts we wish to come to know Beauty himself, God the Holy Spirit. It is God's beauty which is reflected in the beauty of our world, It is his love and mercy which are reflected in the story of human life. It is when we come to meditate about God in the light of faith and with the love of charity that we come to know him, and that we arrive at true contemplation. The saints like St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi were so fascinated with the beauty and drama of the world that they thought of God every moment of their lives. So absorbed were they in thinking of him that they spent many hours in prayer, sometimes whole nights and days. When we see a movie, we are absorbed in the story for an hour or two and then we grow tired. What a marvelous vision St. Dominic and St. Francis had that held them enthralled for days at a time!


The saints enjoyed this contemplation as the fruit of many years of effort to achieve it. In order that all of us might learn to pray to God in this way, the Church with the most wonderful art has perfected the liturgy, which is a sacred drama wherein all the fine arts are employed to assist us in prayer. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the great prayer of Christ in which, through the priest, he offers himself for all of us. In it is the great prayer of the Catholic Church which publicly unites itself with Christ in this Sacrifice. Hence it is carried out with all the beauty of a drama, in a noble setting, with rich vestments and solemn music.

Unfortunately, in the crowded life of today where men are so often starved for contemplation, or filled with the cheap and monotonous "contemplation" provided by television, the liturgy is often not celebrated with full solemnity. We become accustomed to a low Mass crowded into a half-hour, and people often avoid the High or Solemn High Mass where the liturgy is celebrated with its full rites. One of the most important things in education is to learn to appreciate the Solemn High Mass, to be able to sing it, and to learn to cooperate with its celebration by the making of vestments and the serving of the altar.

The diagram on the next pages shows how all the arts are combined in the liturgy and how historically they grew out of it,



In Part One, Chapter I, on the Art of Storytelling (pages 25-58), we have seen that the matter used by the storyteller is words. In the diagram on the next pages we see that the other arts use sounds and sights for their material. Words we can find in the dictionary. Is there a dictionary of sounds and of sights?

As a matter of fact, there are color-charts and color-dictionaries which give us an orderly arrangement of all the colors, and there are phonograph records and tapes which give us samples of all the kinds of sounds that can be produced by the human voice or by a full symphony orchestra. We will here consider only in a very elementary way some of the characteristics of sounds and sights which are the matter of the fine arts other than poetry.



The artist begins his work by wishing to form something out of matter. He wishes to carry out the command of God which gave Adam power over material creation. when man molds and forms and arranges material things according to some idea in his mind, he is using this God-given power. When he does this for a good purpose, to produce something which is useful or beautiful, then he is imitating God himself, who made the world in its original state and gave it to man that man might help him bring the world to its final perfection. Thus the wise artist is God-like, but he remains God-like only when he respects the matter with which he works and uses it as God wishes him to use it.


These various materials, however, are not chosen by the artist because of all their qualities, but only for certain ones needed in the work of art itself. Hence they are only the media or bearers of the qualities which the artist actually uses as the matter of his art. What are these proper qualities? They may be any of those qualities which we can directly sense: color, sound, texture, hardness or softness, temperature, smell, taste -- all of which we call the proper sensibles. Actually, however, only color and sound have an important place in art, because only hearing and seeing give us a distinct impression, and without such clarity beauty is not possible.

It will be readily granted that taste, smell, heat, and cold play little part in works of fine art, although they may have some importance in poetic works. However, the sense of touch as it makes us aware of textures, figures, tensions, and motions, does seem to be a real factor in both the musical and the visual arts. We feel the impact of the beat of a drum, and we would like to touch the smooth curves and volumes of a statue. Even in painting, the roughness or smoothness of the paint has a definite effect upon us. Again, in watching a dancer we seem to feel in ourselves the motions of the dancer's limbs. This "in-feeling" is called empathy, and we experience it even when looking at buildings which appear to us very massive and heavy, or light and soaring. Everyone knows how the designers of automobiles try to make the lines of their cars suggest a feeling of speed.

The reason that touch plays this role seems to be because it is the most certain of the senses and the one which makes us aware of the actual presence of things. (Did not St. Thomas the Apostle want to touch our Lord after the resurrection to make sure he was really there?) Thus sensations of touch reinforce and confirm what we know more clearly, but less certainly, by our sight and hearing. Hence a play on the stage is somehow more exciting than a movie or television play, because the actual presence of the actors affects us. Nevertheless, although touch reinforces sight and hearing, the information it gives us by itself is too vague to constitute the principal material of a work of art.


Color has three aspects: (1) hue; (2) purity; (3) brightness. In hue colors range through the spectrum or rainbow, in which we see clearly four primary colors (red, yellow, green, blue) and two secondary colors (purple and orange), and colors which are transitions between these.*

*This is a simplification of color theory which is quite complex. Green is regarded by some as secondary color blended from yellow and blue. Neither pure purple nor pure red are actually found in the spectrum and can be obtained only by a mixture of lights.
Of these latter red-green, yellow-blue, purple-orange seem to form contrary pairs called complementaries. In purity, the colors of the rainbow are (approximately) pure. By adding white to them, a tint (pastel color) is produced, by adding black a shade. White, black, and their mixture, grey, are neutral colors, that is, white is a blend of all colors, black a negation of all colors, grey a mixture of white and black. In brightness, colors may range from very dim to very bright, but dim colors appear as shades, and very bright colors tend to look whitish. Pure yellow is very bright, pure purple very dark; the other lines are intermediate.

Similarly sound has three aspects: (1) pitch; (2) quality or timbre; (3) volume or loudness. In pitch, tones range evenly from very low to very high, but in such a way that any tone sounds very similar to those tones which have 2, 4, 8, etc., times as many vibrations per second as itself. Some similarity is felt between a tone and any higher tone (overtone) which is related to it by a simple ratio between the number of vibrations of each (1:3, 1:5, etc.; see pp. 349 ff.). In timbre, tones have different qualities owing to a mixture of the lowest tone with various of its overtones. Thus the quality of a violin is similar to the human voice, but very unlike the sound of an oboe or French horn. When a tone has no distinct pitch but is an unrelated cluster of sounds it is called a noise. When it has a definite and sustained fundamental tone it is called a musical tone. In loudness, tones range from very faint whispers to very loud crashes.

The human power to distinguish the fine differences of colors and tones is very great, but we must train ourselves by constant observation to make these discriminations. Look at your hand and see how many different tones of color there are in flesh. Note the color of its shadows. Place it in different positions and in different lights to notice how these colors shift and change. Listen carefully to the voices of others. Can you tell just why you recognize the voice of a friend? What is peculiar about its pitch, its timbre? It is by learning to discriminate colors and tones that we make ourselves sensitive to what the artist is doing, and by studying the work of the artist we come also to be more sensitive to color and tone.


Besides color and tone (and other proper qualities), our senses also perceive aspects of things that are common to more than one sense (technically called the common sensibles). These are quantity, position, figure, and motion. Quantity and position, we know, are distinct categories. Figure is a species of quality, closely related to quantity, since a figure is simply the boundary of a quantity. Position results from the relation of one part of quantity to another next to it. Motion is found in every category. To these we might also add time, which is the measure of a motion and which is known by sensing motion of some sort. Thus we can see the size (quantity) and figure of a colored square, but we can also know these aspects of the square by touching them, although we cannot tell its color except by sight. We can see the motion of a fan, and we can also feel and hear it.

These common sensibles are all quantitative and measurable, while the proper sensibles are qualities. From one point of view, it is this quantitative aspect which is most important for art, since it makes design possible (as explained in Part III, Chapter II, pages 344 ff.). But we must also remember that unless such designs were presented vividly in color or tone they would lack something of beauty, since they would not be so clear to our power of knowing which is rooted in external sensation.


If we consider the words out of which poetry is made as sounds, then they are the same tones we have already discussed. But words are also conventional signs which bring to our mind something other than themselves (see page 5). What comes to our mind when we hear a word? First of all, the essence or nature for which it stands (some words, however, stand only for grammatical relations) which is known by our intellect; for example, the nature of a dog, the moon, or a flower. Hence the matter of poetry is, first of all, objective concepts (things known, see page 59), just as the matter of logic, dialectics, or rhetoric. But along with this concept there also come to mind the images or phantasms connected with it, as well as other concepts and images similar to or contrasted to it, which follow it by the law of association (recall and memory). Hence a single word, like the word "rose," may bring to our mind a flood of ideas, all of which are matter for the poet.

Poetry is different from all the other arts in that

1) It lacks a direct appeal to the external senses. That is why can appeal to all our senses, exterior and interior, even directly to memory, while the other arts are all limited. Hence in a way it can include the matter of all the arts.
2) It has the power explicitly to present to us intellectual concepts, while the other arts can only imply these.

Thus poetry by reason of its matter is the most perfect of all the arts and in a way includes them. On the other band, it has certain defects which prevent it from replacing the other arts:

1) It lacks a direct appeal to the external senses. That is why we try to make up for this by combining poetry with music (the sound of poetry spoken or sung, or even of prose) or acting, as in the theater.
2) It represents its imagery in a vague way so that it cannot form a true design with mathematical beauty. The poet may talk of the beauty of the moonlit landscape, or of music, but be cannot convey to us their actual beauty of pattern.