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Virtue Theory of Art

Here are a couple of rough notes towards the virtue theory of art

1. That Aristotle mentions this, sort of. Perfection. Further, that when he distinguishes the arts from the virtues, he does it on this basis: the virtues operate habitually, whereas the skills do not. So if a situation calls for bravery, and I am brave, I will respond bravely. If I can choose not to respond bravely in the moment on caprice, I don’t really have the virtue of bravery, just some skill or skill set that resembles it.

But: if I have an aesthetic virtue then I think as little about exercising it as I do about exercising one of the virtues when I am in the realm where it comes into play. Which is to say, to have the aesthetic virtue is to practice it in the realm of aesthetics, or art-making. I’m not always in that realm, but … when the artist is engaged in art-practice, the virtue will come into play.

Can the virtue be distinguished from a skill?

For the greeks, a virtue was an excellence, and in a sense there would be overlap between a virtue and a skill. But for a robust virtue theory, a distinction will have to be made. So while, for example, modeling and perspective could be skills (or groups of skills) in painting or drawing, they are probably not virtues.

But: perfection might be the over-arching aesthetic virtue. That a work needs to be perfected would also distinguish art to some extent from other pursuits. The senselessness of the perfection, or it’s non-functional nature, makes an artwork and art work. This also coheres with a metaphoric sense of “art” and “artist:” if we say of someone that he is an artist of plumbing, we assume that his plumbing attains a high degree of perfection. So already built into our concept of art is an idea about perfection.

I’ll spell perfection out in more detail; it can be a virtue in many modes of life (Murdoch has it as the overaching virtue of the form of life itself; that we try to perfect ourselves.) But I think it has a distinct sense in the arts.

Perfection in the arts is perhaps best expressed in a few anecdotes. An artist, working on a pencil sketch, told me that she began crying because she couldn’t get her pencil sharp enough. Sharp enough for what? For the most perfect line that she wanted. Had she simply been working, say, blueprints for a shed, the sharpness of the pencil would have been unlikely to produce tears (I assume.) The shed drawing has it’s limits in perfection: since its function is not to be a work in itself, but to guide other work, it only needs to be good enough to perform that role. But the pencil drawing considered in itself has no upper limit to its perfectibility, in a sense. So it’s perfection can become an end in itself.

It’s said of a painting or artwork by Aristotle that it is complete when nothing can be added to it, nor taken away from it, without diminishing it. That’s a pretty good definition of perfection in the arts. The sense that the work is as finished as can be, and any further stroke upon it would make it worse.

Another anecdote. An artist I know said he used to overwork his paintings. A canvas would get better and better as he added paint, and then start to get worse, and he would keep working it. Another artist noted that he had had this problem, and then found that if he worked it more, he could get it back to its previous level of quality. In other words, he was guided by a kind of perfection (both artists were). They recognized when they had gone beyond it; the latter artist worked to retrieve it.

Perfection, in this case, is an example of a mean. A painting is perfect when it has just the right amount of some X: strokes of the brush, detail, paint, etc. The specific isn’t important yet, but the fact that it can be recognized by the artist is. It is wanting when it has not enough X, and it is overworked when, obviously, too much X is there.

2. Motives
In order to be virtue theoretical, it’s important to look at motives. So: What is the artist’s motive? Let’s take Aristotle’s suggestion that the perfect work of art cannot be added to or taken away from (Nichomachean Ethics, book II, section VI); in other words, any addition or subtraction would make it less good than what it is. Let’s call this state “perfection,” in the sense of completeness, but with an aesthetic ring to it. As artists, we want to make the perfect thing of this kind.

But with Hegel, let’s agree that art works are embodied concepts; that is, that the piece isn’t simply an example of a type, but is the one unique instantiation of its complete idea. So, while a work can be considered as one example of a form (painting, sculpture) or of a genre (portrait, landscape, fantasy) it is nonetheless not interchangeable for any other work of that form or genre, at least if it’s a particularly good piece. So it is, in a sense, the unique instantiation of the particular, probably complex idea that it seeks to present. For example: We could write another book about a man who lusts after young girls, and we could write it in poetic prose, and it could address the particular pains and passions and humanity of a person who is morally repugnant, but it would still not be interchangeable with Lolita, unless it was a nearly word-for-word copy (I say “nearly” because it’s hard to imagine that every and any small change would actually alter the work; but I’ll accept Aristotle up to a reasonable point.) The work, following Hegel, is the “sensuous embodiment” of its idea, and the extent to which it attains this idea is, in part, the extent to which it is perfect. I think a series of examples would help spell this out, but I think it might help to think of Danto’s notion of “aboutness.” Whatever the work is about would be its area of perfection: Serra’s large sculptures are about their size, their balance, their rusted surface, the feeling of being overwhelmed, etc. If he made one that had plastic props supporting it, it would seem less perfect (I think!)

So the goal, or motivation of the artist might be “perfection,” in this sense. Clearly, this needs more spelling out, but for our immediate purposes let’s say that “perfection” would be a presentation about which the artist and the astute observer would say that nothing could be added or removed from the piece without making it worse, and that its perfection relates to how well it does the specific thing that it does, expresses the idea that it alone expresses, etc. I’ll also note that perhaps nothing attains perfection; it’s merely the motive! The artist seeks to make it as perfect as possible. No doubt every piece falls short somewhat, but the virtue in question is still functioning if the aim is true and the methods are at least reasonably successful.

I’ll also accept that this is merely one possible goal. I don’t think “art” is univocal, and I’d follow a Wittgensteinian reading of the term; I don’t think this prevents us from producing at least sufficient conditions for an artwork. In fact, I think we can do just that, produce something like a sufficient definition for an artwork, in an agent-based manner, looking at the particular virtues or intended virtues of the artist. This might also give us the two-fold benefit of defining “art” (at least for one of its family of meanings) as well as “good art” (again, for at least one of its family of meanings.) If art involves, in part, attempts at perfection, then good art would be marked by the degree of success. This would probably be very hard to define, since the perfection in question is not generic perfection. The definition would have to vary on a case-by-case basis, and this casuistry would be a mark of art. If it’s not casuistic, then it’s not art, it’s an example of something more generic.
This suggestions leave a lot of work, but the idea is that we’ll attempt to find the virtues of the artist, and the virtues of the artwork, and develop a virtue-based aesthetics, which will move away from reception theories (without rejecting them) and towards creation theories.