The Fine and the Liberal Arts

A Vision for the Future

by Robert E. Proctor

We need a contemporary dialogue with classical sources, if we are going to improve higher education in America. The careful study of the liberal arts tradition can heighten the ability of painters and sculptors to create not just good art, but truly beautiful and lasting art; contemplation of beauty can also renew the liberal arts tradition itself. We need a national model for a new form of education America has not yet achieved, but which Renaissance Italy did: a sustained dialogue between the liberal arts and the fine arts. Research and writing should be meaningful not just to scholars, but also to all citizens. We can improve not only our schools, but our own lives, by rediscovering the core values of the liberal arts tradition, and the best way to rediscover these values is to study them at their point of origin in classical antiquity.

The liberal arts tradition began as the artes liberales in Republican Rome, when writers such as the statesman Cicero, the architect Vitruvius and the philosopher Seneca organized the Greek intellectual disciplines into an educational and cultural tradition capable of being passed on to future generations. The liberal arts tradition sees reality as an ordered whole, and the individual as part of the whole, both of the cosmos and of the city state. It understands the individual disciplines as complementary ways of grasping the whole, and envisions human happiness as a balance between contemplation and action, between leisure devoted to study and public service. The liberal arts ideal is nicely summarized in the words John Adams used, during the debate over the new Constitution of the United States of America, to describe his own personal model and one of the thinkers most quoted during the creation of our new republic, the Roman orator and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero: “[A]s all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united in the same character his authority should have great weight.”1 As the lives of Cicero and John Adams show, the liberal arts are not just a school curriculum; they are a way of life in which each of us strives in a manner most suitable to our temperament and individual talents to be both a thinker and a good citizen. My dream is to initiate, in our schools and in the nation as a whole, a contemporary dialogue with the past in order to renew our acquaintance with this liberal arts tradition, out of which our country was founded.

In one of his most famous poems, “la man che ubbidisce all’intelletto,” Michelangelo wrote: “The best artist has no conception / that a block of marble does not already circumscribe / with its excess, and to that arrives only / the hand that obeys the intellect..”2 He writes elsewhere: “One paints with the head, and not with the hands.” If Michelangelo is correct that a sculptor’s or a painter’s technical ability, while crucial in the actual execution of an idea, must be subservient to the intellect, then the artist has much to gain from a liberal arts, as opposed to a purely technical, education, because the liberal arts are concerned with the cultivation of intellect. In fact, another name for the liberal arts would be the “intellectual arts.” The Latin word liberalis refers to the condition of a freeman as opposed to a slave; for the Romans, the artes liberales were those disciplines befitting men who were free from slave labor and who thus had the free time to cultivate their intellects. According to Cicero, these liberal or “free” disciplines include geometry, music, grammar and poetry, the natural sciences, the humanities and politics. Seneca explicitly excludes painting and sculpture from the liberal arts because, from a Roman point of view, they belonged to the “mechanical arts,” disciplines that involved the use of one’s hands rather than one’s mind.3 It wasn’t until the late Renaissance that the Italian painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari invented the phrase “le arti del disegno,” the “arts of design,” later to be called the “fine arts,” to denote what Michelangelo believed: that painting and sculpture are in large measure intellectual activities, even if they involve physical movement and exertion.

In its concern for the cultivation of the intellect, the liberal arts tradition offers an important perspective on the human condition. The intellect is that part of our mind concerned with the creation or discovery of meaning, that is, with finding the significance of a person or a thing, or an event or even of a whole life. It is that part of our mind that strives to make sense of things. Making sense of things means finding a rational form, a unified order, an inner coherence in a phenomenon or an event. When human beings can not find meaning, they become disoriented and depressed. During and after September 11, watching the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fall down and implode into themselves, we were watching order dissolve into chaos. People looked for consolation in the midst of fear and deep confusion. And what is consolation if not the discovery of meaning in pain and suffering?

Meaning and beauty are closely related because the intellect’s perception of beauty in nature and in human art, and the creation of beauty by the artist, always take place through the discovery of order, harmony and symmetry in a specific form, such as the evening sky or a Mozart symphony or a play by Shakespeare or Michelangelo’s Pietà. Aristotle said that beauty exists only in a form that can be perceived as a completed and unified whole by the eye, as in the case of a statue or painting, or by the memory, as in the case of a play. A beautiful form, as opposed to a merely pleasing one, expresses or manifests in miniature the order, harmony, proportion and mystery of the universe, that is, the depth of reality itself.

Beauty has two fundamental characteristics: it commands our assent, and it is inexhaustible.4We say, “She was so beautiful I couldn’t take my eyes off her” or “He was so handsome I couldn’t stop looking at him.” The experience of being momentarily and unexpectedly enraptured by the sight of a tree aflame in the glory of autumn fills us with a feeling of wonder and awe at Nature’s beauty. In such moments, we are lifted by a power greater than ourselves, out of our worries and cares and self-awareness into another dimension of existence. The great twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar argued that the experience of beauty is the experience of infinity. The ancient philosopher Dionysus the Areopagite expressed the experience in this way: “And the divine Eros also brings rapture, not allowing them that are touched by it to belong to themselves, but only to the objects of their love.”5 The other characteristic of a beautiful form is that it is inexhaustible. We return to it again and again throughout life and see something more in it. Beauty never cloys, never satiates, because the infinite depths and unfathomable mystery that radiate through the splendor of a beautiful form come from the depth of reality itself. Two of my favorite paintings are Giovanni Bellini’s Sacred Conversation (San Zaccaria, Venice) and Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome), which continue over the decades to speak to me in new and deeper ways.

An artist cannot create beauty without being a deep thinker, and you cannot become a deep thinker without a dialogue with other thinkers across time. The experiences of one’s own life, and even of one’s own times, are too narrow for the creation of meaning. To create meaning, one’s intellect needs to expand by taking in the perspectives and wisdom of thinkers and artists through intergenerational dialogues. Every artist who has created poems, plays, musical compositions, paintings or statues that have remained fresh and inexhaustibly meaningful across the centuries has created them out of a dialogue with other artists and thinkers across time, a dialogue made possible by the artist’s own individual study and reflection and by the culture in which the artist lived. Within Western civilization, the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions have been the primary sources for cultivation of the intellect. Think of how the discussions of classical mythology, on the one hand, and of the Bible, on the other, and the reflections of theologians and philosophers enriched and expanded the life-experience of artists in the Renaissance.

It is arguable, in fact, that Michelangelo’s extraordinary natural artistic talents reached their heights not only because he was able to perfect his technical skills by emulating Greek, Roman and early Renaissance forms, but also because, as a young boy, he was brought by Lorenzo Medici to live in the Medici palace in Florence, where he listened to the learned discussions of Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Cristoforo Landino, and the other philosophers and poets who made up or visited Lorenzo’s famous Platonic Academy. We know also that Michelangelo read the poetry of Dante and Petrarch throughout his life, and learned from them to write poetry himself. Michelangelo was a very well-educated thinker who could express his thoughts in words as well as in paint and marble. A liberal arts education should provide intellectual enrichment and stimulation comparable to what Michelangelo experienced in Florence, or at the papal court in Rome.

Our Founding Fathers were broadly educated in the liberal arts, but Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most broadly educated of all. In addition to sharing with people like John Adams and James Madison a knowledge of history, literature, philosophy and mathematics, not to mention Greek and Latin, Jefferson was also an architect who was enraptured by the beauty of art. He gazed for hours at the Roman temple in Nîmes, France, the famous Maison Carrée, as, he said, a lover gazes at his mistress. Thomas Jefferson exemplifies a fundamental aspect of the liberal arts tradition that has been largely forgotten in the modern world but which has a central place in the writings of Cicero, Vitruvius and Seneca: the innate human need for beauty, and for the only condition under which beauty can be perceived and experienced, which is leisure. This is leisure understood in the deepest sense, as contemplation, what the Greeks called theoria, a gazing at or beholding of the order, harmony, proportion, elegance and unity of a form, whether it is the night sky or a beautiful face or a mathematical equation. Cicero says that, in contemplating the order and harmony of the heavens, “the mind knows its own self and feels itself united with the divine mind, from which it is filled with a joy [gaudium] that can never be satiated.”6 We see the same idea in words attributed, centuries later, to Jonathan Edwards: “The sight of the deep-blue sky, and the clustering stars above, seem to impart a quiet to the mind.” We could easily use Cicero’s words to describe listening to a Mozart symphony or gazing at Michelangelo’s Pietà or pondering Einstein’s equation E = mc2. As the Greeks and the Romans recognized thousands of years ago, there is a profound unity among theology, science and art: they all confirm the famous line at the end of John Keats’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “‘Beauty is truth, truth, beauty.’” The Nobel laureate in physics Richard Feynman said: “You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.”7

The experience of beauty could help people change their priorities and their lives today, and rediscover the liberal arts tradition as a resource for better living. People have intellectual and spiritual needs that are not being met because of the frenetic, overly active character of our lifestyle. Eighty percent of Americans say their lives are more stressful now than they were five years ago. As our affluence has increased over the past five years so, too, has mental illness, especially stress-related problems such as the inability to sleep. Something is wrong. We have lost touch with our nature as human beings with intellects striving to find meaning, with souls thirsting for the infinite.

Beauty can literally save lives. In his book Darkness Visible, the novelist William Styron, author of Lie Down in Darkness and Sophie’s Choice, describes the downward spiral of a depression that unexpectedly took over his mind shortly after he turned sixty. Month after month, the depression deepened until it brought Stryon to utter despair. He then decided to take his own life. Listen to what happened to him on the night he chose to die:

Late one bitterly cold night, when I knew I could not possibly get myself through the following day, I sat in the living room of the house bundled against the chill; something had happened to the furnace. My wife had gone to bed, and I had forced myself to watch the tape of a movie in which a young actress, who had been in a play of mine, was cast in a small part. At one point in the film, which was set in late nineteenth-century Boston, the character moved down the hallway of a music conservatory, beyond the walls of which, from unseen musicians, came a contralto voice, a sudden soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody. This sound, which like all music—indeed, like all pleasure—I had been numbly unresponsive to, pierced my heart like a dagger, and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of all the joys the house had known….I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself…. I woke up my wife and soon telephone calls were made. The next day I was admitted to the hospital.8

 Through my own reading and studies, I have come to believe that the Renaissance itself emerged in part out of the attempt to use the beauty of Greek and Roman art and literature as an antidote to the depression caused by the great bubonic plague, the horrible Black Death, that began in Italy in 1348 and swept across Europe, leaving about one third of the population dead. In his letters, the Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch, universally regarded by his followers as the founder of the new classical studies that initiated the rebirth or “Renaissance” of classical antiquity in fourteenth-century Italy, describes the depression caused by the death of so many friends and by his inability to make sense of his terrible times. He explains how he would read aloud, sometimes from his own poetry. In words strikingly reminiscent of Styron’s, Petrarch writes: “the words caressed my ears, and moving me to read them over and over again by a certain innate power of sweetness, gradually sank down inside of me, and pierced me there with their hidden points.”9 We need beauty more than ever now, as we struggle to make sense of our changed world.

Teaching the history and traditions of the fine and liberal arts will give students the psychic community across time they need to deepen their intellects to the point where at least some of them can create art that is not just pleasing and technically accomplished, but beautiful and radiant with inexhaustible meaning. We need intellectual communities that can become for America what the Medici palace was for the Renaissance in Florence: a meeting place for artists, writers, composers, philosophers and especially educators to experience and reflect upon beauty.

One way to identify explicitly with classical antiquity and the Renaissance is to study nature and the human figure. The tradition of representational art is embedded in the liberal arts tradition itself. A fine arts college devoted primarily to modern and contemporary art has only modernity and the contemporary world to dialogue with. It’s trapped in what one author has called “the windowless room of the present.” The task of art and culture in our age is to affect a reunion of the past and the future. Some ages, such as the Enlightenment, created the future by using the present to break the shackles of the past. Other ages, such as the Renaissance, created the future by using the past to break the shackles of the present. We need a new Renaissance. By adopting a liberal arts curriculum that breaks the shackles of the present and reveals the living bonds between the fine arts, especially representational art, and the liberal arts, we can make a splendid contribution to the renewal of both.

This essay is based on a talk given at the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, October 2001.

1. Cited in M.N.S. Sellers, American Republicanism: Roman Ideology in the United States Constitution (New York: NYU Press, 1994), p. 90.
2. Poem 151, my translation. See also Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Michelangelo, trans., Creighton Gilbert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980). 
3. Epistolae Morales (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 88. 18.
4. See Edward T. Oakes, Pattern of Redepemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (New York, 1997), pp. 143–150.5
5. The Divine Names 4.13, quoted in Oakes, p. 143.
6. Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes (Munich and Leipzig: K.G. Saur Verlag, 2002), 5. 70.
7. Quoted in Thomas Dubay, S.M., The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), p. 13.
8. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (New York: Vintage, 1992), pp. 66–67.
9. Familiar Letters, 1. 9. 12.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2008, Volume 25, Number 2