Like an Irish stew, modern art is made up of many ingredients, some good, some bad, some indifferent. It displays various styles, trends, influences. At times there is breath-taking originality and imagination, inspiration or vision. But one also finds less admirable qualities: shallowness, banality, slovenliness, inexcusable distortions, even a cult of the ugly. Thus modern art is highly variable. Consequently it would be unwise to give an unqualified yes or no to our question.
The dictionary meaning of dehumanise is to ‘divest of human characteristics.’ In our context we must go further and understand the word as meaning: to disregard essential human values; to ride rough shod over those things that man as man ought to respect or hold dear. Let me remark paradoxically that the subject of a work of art may be a human being; the treatment may be lush with human sentiment; yet the work may be largely dehumanised. On the other hand, a work may lack all intimate human touches and even a human subject; yet if may be not at all dehumanised. For the whole handling may issue from the deepest wells the artist as a man possesses. Take the typical, nineteenth-century academy portrait of a young lady. Very sweet and human, but quite superficial and even largely dehumanised. For the only ‘humanised’ element about it is that it represents a girl instead of a giraffe. The more the work of art expresses the significantly human, the more humanised it is; the less it stresses this, the more dehumanised it is. Hence, the portraitist that skips over a man’s physique in order to accentuate his character and mind, his cherished ideals and aspirations, produces a more ‘humanised’ work than the mere photographer. Likewise with religious art. One contrasts the Renaissance treatment of the Madonna-and-Child theme with the handling of it by the Byzantine artists. From the point of view of anatomy, naturalism, maternal tenderness, the Renaissance treatment is far superior. The Byzantine artists give us few human touches. Often far from yearning towards one another, Mother and Child look straight out of the picture at the viewer; there is little or no portraiture; the figures are starched and angular. Yet which school is the more dehumanised? Surely, the Renaissance. The Byzantine artists rise far better to the challenge of the theme, to its sublimity. They convey a sense of majesty and mystery. Luminously they make us aware that here is a peerless woman, a unique child — God’s Mother and himself in the flesh. Thus in the Byzantine rather than in the Renaissance school, creative inspiration reaches its zenith. One has a humanisation in the sense of loftiest expression of the human spirit. Nothing can be more humanised than that.
Modern art pursues symbolism and abstraction. Often it is highly intellectual; often it loves to slough off inessentials and address us through a stark simplicity of form. Such tendencies, wisely handled, are humanising; they are quite compatible with the highest flights of inspiration. Modern art, therefore, when it turns its back on realism and strives after symbolism, is to be commended rather than condemned. The pursuit of symbolism can give triumphantly humanised art. Nevertheless, some modern art is distinctly dehumanised, and it is on this that we now focus our attention.
When modern art is exclusively self-expression, it is dehumanised; it shirks its social obligations. This assertion must not be misunderstood. Of course every artist needs scope for self-expression. If he is forbidden that, his art is stifled. In the course of history, many genuine artists have remained mute and inglorious because some unimaginative patron refused to let them have their head sufficiently. It is blatant, unalloyed self-expression that dehumanises art. In the sacred name of self expression, some modern artists would foist upon us all sorts of horrors and extravagances. The artist who aims at nothing but to express himself degrades and dehumanises his art. Consider an example from outside the field of art. A man runs amuck, smashes shop-windows, punches law-abiding citizens on the nose. He is arrested. With passionate sincerity he protests: ‘But all I was doing was to assert my ego, to express myself.’ He is rightly clapped into prison. The artist who indulges in orgies of self-expression does nobody any physical injury; so he may not be imprisoned. But his behaviour is as dehumanised. By cribbing and confining himself within the airless hole of his own egoism, he makes his art dehumanised because he makes it anti-social.
Again (and this point is allied to the previous one) modern art is dehumanised when it is purely subjective, when it is stripped of all objective content and scornfully refuses to give intelligible symbols and clues. Too often modern art ‘with strained and artificial capers tries to elude the drama of reality.’ A basic characteristic of man as man is his power of conceptual speech. That endowment is essentially outward-tending, social. Hence, if one catches a man persistently jabbering to himself in a comer (even though the jabberings be metaphysical), one summons the warders from the mental home. One acts so, because such an abuse of conceptual speech shows that its owner has become irresponsible; has, in fact, become sub-normal, dehumanised in his conduct. Like the gift of conceptual speech, the artist’s capacity to shape beauty is, by very nature, outward-tending, social. By definition, the work of art is a communication between man and man. (This is perhaps the only definition of art that philosophers of all schools support). As a channel of communication, art is more stable and more precious than speech. Consequently, when modern art is purely subjective, it is dehumanised and necessarily stricken with sterility.
Thirdly, modern art is dehumanised when it manifests no respect for human personality and dignity but, on the contrary, consistently betrays a disdain for these. One detects this sort of thing, for example, in the fierce and unbridled caricature of womanly beauty that Picasso and others indulge in. Where distortion is functional, where it springs from the artist’s discharging his role of selecting and stressing, it is beyond criticism. Not only is such distortion justifiable; it is also inalienable from true art in every sphere. But some of the distortions that disfigure modern art are rank and offensive; there is no question of significant selection.
Lastly, modern art becomes more or less dehumanised whenever it is (to borrow Shakespeare’s fine phrase) ‘an expense of spirit in a waste of shame’; that is to say, when the artist of genius prostitutes his talents to futilities and trivialities, instead of grappling with problems of real value. When the gifted artist can give us nothing more than a sort of wall-paper in canvas and paint, nothing but a tension of reds and yellows, an unmeaningful weaving of colours, we have a squandering of spirit in what is comparatively frivolous.
Is not a certain portion of modern art dehumanised because the artist lacks a sufficiently grand concept of his status as an artist, of his vocation? He is endowed with a rare, God-given talent; he is appointed to be the minister of truth and beauty, of truth in beauty. I am not advocating that the artist ought to be formally and wittingly didactic; nor do I want to enter into the vexed question of art and didacticism (though I think History is most illuminating on it). But whether or not the artist sets out expressly to teach, he is, by his very creative gifts, the supreme and most universal of individual teachers. He makes his impact on the soul through the eyes; and no mightier impact can be made than so. That is why big business, in order to sell its soaps and motor-cars and headache-tablets, must employ the artist.
The history of the Church is instructive. Nearly two thousand years ago she realised that she could never effectively carry out the mandate laid on her by her divine Founder of teaching all men of all races till the end of time unless she too employed the artist. That is why in the second Council of Nicaea (787) — to cite only one instance — she solemnly defended the visual and plastic arts and banned the Iconoclasts from her communion. The Church vividly realised that only when truth is arrayed in the garment of beauty can it be effectively universal in its appeal. Incidentally, from this realisation sprang a feature that is inevitably associated with Christian art: to wit, it has always moved with the times. And as in the past, so today, the Church is eager to use all that is best in contemporary art, is eager to have her mighty message conveyed in the symbols and the idiom of the twentieth century.
In dehumanised modern art, the aspect that I find most tragic is precisely the refusal of many a modern artist to recognise his grandeur. He panders to his own whim or caprice. Yet, all the time, by virtue of his very gifts, he has assigned to him a magnificent and most humanised role: that of being the priest and dispenser of beauty for his fellow-men.
Rev JP Kenny was Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Canisius College, Pymble, New South Wales, and a committee member (and twice a member of the judging-panel) of the Blake Prize for Religious Art.