Art, to be sure, has its roots in the lives of human beings: the weakness, the strength, the absurdity. I doubt that it is limited to our comrades; since we have discovered that art does not belong to what was once the aristocracy, it does not therefore follow that it has become the exclusive property of the common man—which abstraction, by the way, I have yet to meet. Rather, since it is involved with all of us, it belongs to all of us, and this includes our foes, who are as desperate and as vicious and as blind as we are and who can only be as evil as we are ourselves.
James Baldwin in a 1947 review of Gorky’s novel Mother.
If all great art is symbolic of a kind of moral plenitude, of conflicting attitudes and impulses explored and worked through toward some ideal clarity, the act of reading is itself a model of ideal human relations, aspiring toward a perfect attentiveness in which emotional possession and intellectual comprehension–what experience conditions us to see and what the text insists we see–inform and alter one another. Reading well, in other words, is symbolic loving.
A friend quoted the poet Alan Shapiro as writing this. From his essay “The Dead, Alive, and Busy” (1984) published within In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination: Essays, 1980-1991.
Learning to love “the things we already have” is always the fount and foundation of contentment, happiness, and wonder:
The whole object of real art, of real romance—and, above all, of real religion—is to prevent people from losing the humility and gratitude which are thankful for daylight and daily bread; to prevent them from regarding daily life as dull or domestic life as narrow; to teach them to feel in the sunlight the song of Apollo and in the bread the epic of the plough. What is now needed most is intensive imagination. I mean the power to turn our imaginations inwards, on the things we already have, and to make those things live. It is not merely seeking new experiences, which rapidly become old experiences. It is really learning how to experience our experiences. It is learning how to enjoy our enjoyments.
From G.K. Chesterton in the Illustrated London News, October 20, 1924. [Quoted in Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist (28-29).]
Indeed, it is a [tragic] fact that the same progressives who insist that government shall be democratic often insist that art must be [elitist], and “the public”, which is a god when they are talking about votes, becomes a brute when they are talking about books and pictures.
[The solution] does not lie in increasing the number of artists who can startle us with complex things, but by increasing the number of people who can be started by common things. It lies in restoring relish and receptivity to human society; and that is another question and a more important one.
…What the modern world wants is religion or something that will create a certain ultimate spirit of humility, of enthusiasm, and of thanks. It is not even to be done merely by educating the people in the artistic virtues of insight and selection. It is to be done much more by educating the artists in the popular virtues of astonishment and enjoyment.
From “Are the Artists Gone Mad?” by G.K. Chesterton in Century Magazine, December 1922. [Quoted in Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist (58-59).]
Each new power won by man is a power over man as well…. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger…. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man.
From The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis (69). Quoted in C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness and Beauty by Baggett, Habermas and Walls (92).
This next passage makes a related point about the essential quality of human limitations (which we seek the power to eliminate through technology):
As tools are necessary for art—brushes, pigments, canvas—so technology is simply a tool for the art of living. Technology is in its essence incomplete, waiting to be fulfilled by its use as part of art. Today the technology of living, which focuses on youth, longevity, and pleasure subverts the art of living which focuses on maturity, sustainability, and truth. The art of living has been replaced with the technology of living. I do not know how we can return to the art of living.
From “The Art of Living” by Stewart K. Lundy at Front Porch Republic.
“This reduction of the highest aim of art from prophecy to amusement strikes at the root of any possible revival of true art.”
…What was to take him [Coomaraswamy] much deeper than his forebears was his steady, persistent concentration on, and scholarly documentation of, the principles of the normal, or traditional philosophy of art. Coomaraswamy had no personal philosophy to espouse.
From God and Work: Aspects of Art and Tradition by Brian Keeble in chapter one, “A.K. Coomaraswamy and the True Art of Living” (page 3).