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Friday, June 24, 2011

Impressive, Charming--But Is It Art?

Australian Aelita Andre is one of the most talked-about young painters on the world art scene right now.

Her abstract, surrealist paintings have invited comparisons to Picasso, Pollock, Dali, and Kandinsky.

She’s just wrapped up a solo exhibition at the Agora Gallery in New York—and a year ago her work was the subject of another solo exhibition in Hong Kong, where she painted live in front of 60 Chinese and International media crews.

Her website features a comment by Australian art critic Robert Nelson, who observes that “Aelita’s art is an antidote to the oppressive qualities of expectation in western painting.”

Her canvases have sold for as much as $24,000.

Aelita Andre is four years old.

Her paintings first appeared in a group exhibition when she was two.

Is Aelita Andre making art? Check out her website. The pictures of her paintings shown there certainly reveal a burgeoning artistic talent. But is the work of a child three years shy of the conventional age of reason capable of making a genuine work of art? 

To help consider the question of what counts as a work of art, and to launch our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies, let’s turn to a distinction that Jacques Maritain makes in Chapter II of Art and Scholasticism, a chapter entitled “The Speculative Order and the Practical Order.”

The two phrases in this title will sound strange to those not used to reading the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. What do they mean?

The “speculative order” and the “practical order” refer to two modes of activity of the human intellect or mind.

In the speculative order, the mind is active purely for the sake of knowing something. The word “speculative” is derived from the Latin verb speculare, which means “to look at,” or “to gaze upon” (speculum, the noun, means mirror).

When we go to a gallery to enjoy the paintings, watch a movie or read a novel, or when we engage in a scientific inquiry, our minds are active in the speculative mode. The sole end of the activity is to know—“to look at” some bit of reality, not for what we can do with it, but for its own sake.

Maritain speaks of speculative activity as immanent to the mind. Which is to say, speculative activity remains “within” the mind. It does not of itself flow into the world in order to transform it.

The opposite is the case with the human mind in its practical mode. When we cook, or clean, build a birdhouse or a computer network, our minds are not engaged with reality simply so that we can look at it, but so that we can do something with it.
Of course, it’s possible that something that we speculate upon can later be used for some practical purpose. The study of physics, for example, is in and of itself a speculative activity, but when an engineer puts physical principles to use in the building of a bridge, truths arrived at in the mind’s speculative mode are pressed into service for a practical goal.

Nonetheless, there is a clear distinction between the human intellect in its speculative mode, and in its practical mode.

What does this have to do with art?

In Chapter II of Art and Scholasticism, Maritain follows St. Thomas in saying that “Art belongs to the practical order. It is turned towards action [the mind in its practical mode], not towards the pure interiority of knowledge [the mind in its speculative mode]” (p. 6*).

So think of the simplest work of art—without yet making any distinction between a piece of useful art, or “skill,” or a work of “fine” art. Take, for example, a birthday cake. A birthday cake is a work of art—some birthday cakes more so than others. It is a product of the human mind exercised upon suitable matter: eggs, flour, butter, more butter, sugar, etc. Art belongs to the practical order, says Maritain. It is something made by mind in its practical mode.

A Shakespearean tragedy, or a Mozart symphony, is in essentials no different. Hamlet is a product of the human mind exercised upon the matter of human language, gesture, voice, costume, etc. Hamlet thus belongs to the practical order.

Now that we’ve defined art as an activity of the mind’s practical mode, let’s return to Aelita Andre. Is this no doubt very talented little girl making art?

The distinction between the mind’s speculative and practical modes does not itself settle the question. But it does help us clarify the question by enabling us to ask: is Aelita Andre capable of exercising her mind in its practical mode, such that her paintings can be called works of art?

I believe the commonsense answer is that Aelita Andre, while capable of exercising her practical mind to a certain, in many ways impressive, degree, is still not yet capable of exercising her mind to the degree of maturity that characterizes a person who really owns his or her actions.

Try this analogy. When Aelita Andre disobeys her parents’ commands, or when she obeys them, I am sure she is either reprimanded or praised. Even though she has not yet reached the “age of reason,” she is treated, insofar as she is capable, as an apprentice moral agent. Small children are what we might call proto-moral agents. They are moral agents “under construction.” No one would think of bringing a four year-old to trial for stealing (that is for fully mature moral agents). But nonetheless we reprimand the child who steals, or praise the child who does good, because his or her reason is capable to a certain degree of being formed by our negative or positive responses.

In a similar way, just as a small child is capable of proto-morality, Aelita Andre’s practical mind is capable of proto-art. I wouldn’t call her paintings art properly speaking, just as I wouldn’t call her obedience to her parents virtue properly speaking.

This is not to take anything away from Aelita Andre’s remarkable gifts. But it is to reserve the term “art” for mind in its fully mature, practical mode.

Why is such reservation desirable? Why should we care how old our artists are? We should care because we should see art as a human, that is rational, activity--and rationality is a power made to grow into a mature state. Art is more than the making of marks—even very colorful, expressive, charming marks—on a canvas.

If we fail to see art as human in this way, then we shall start thinking that art can be made by monkeys or pigs or dogs. I wouldn’t call the paintings made by monkeys, pigs and dogs, art at all, except in a purely equivocal sense. A non-rational creature—and yes, Fido is a non-rational creature—is simply not capable of art.
That the artworld takes Aelita Andre’s paintings as art without qualification is a measure of how far our high culture has fallen from the commonsense approach to art—a human approach to art which grounds it in reason—that we find in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and in Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism.

Or do you disagree?

* Page numbers refer to Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974).


  1. just because it's interesting: there is a semi-recent documentary called My Kid Could Paint That, which is about a similar child prodigy painter from new york. there are some neat twists.

  2. I don't disagree. No, Andre is not doing art. Ergo, neither was Pollock et al. Where Andre is incapable of the mature intellect requisite to the endeavor, Pollock et al apparently chose not to engage his/their mature intellects and achieved what a 3 year old could.

    Mozart, however, had some nice compositions by the age of 6 or 7. Is the operation of reason in music significantly different than its operation in the visual arts?

  3. As Maritain says in Ch 3, "[Art's] formal element, what constitutes it in its species and makes it what it is, is its being ruled by the intellect.[4] If this formal element diminishes ever so little, to the same extent the reality of art vanishes."

  4. suddenly, i'm thinking about how classical musicians once scoffed at the thought of jazz and improvisation as an art form, though both types of music required technique, intent, etc. [or more recently: rap and hip hop]. i would probably not consider andre as seriously as older, more refined artists, but personally, i don't even hold most "serious" "artists" in high esteem. i find it hard to distinguish genre fiction from literary fiction in these postpostpostmodern times lately, for instance. and many great filmmakers don't seem all that great to me... i suppose: lately, i see a lot of great art technique, but barely ever enough high concept to constitute "art".

  5. I'm not sure what I think about this. I do know that most "modern" conceptions of art focus on emotion and feeling rather than imitation (or mimesis if you'd rather). Art is seen more as an expression of emotion rather than as a rational activity. Art is about "expressing oneself." I know, as an amateur musician, that unless I'm playing classical music, I put much more emphasis on feeling (and even to some degree in classical music) than I do to the intellectual process of making music. So, rather than reaching a conclusion, I am left with more questions. What about the role of emotion or expression in art? Are not emotions components of human nature as well as reason? How do we balance the role of emotion and reason in art?

  6. Well said, Benjamin, especially your second comment--and I'm also grateful to brownsonianreview for the nice points. As for you, Jeff, I'll make a point in this series to get to the relationship between intellect and emotion in the art. For the nonce, it's important to note that, for Aquinas and Maritain, art is essentially an intellectual activity, however much emotion--and imagination, and the senses-- are involved. That pits the Thomistic tradition against modernity (at very least when it comes to painting).