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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“So, as in delirium a man talks in a long-forgotten tongue, now—when her heart is rent—the Catholic Church drops twenty centuries without an effort, and speaks as she spoke underground in Rome, and in Paul’s hired house, and in Crete and Alexandria and Jerusalem.”
— A non-Catholic describing the “Hagios O Theos” of Good Friday in 1906

The Purpose of Art
published 26 February 2017 by Fr. David Friel

ESTHETICS, the so-called “science of art,” is a subject that interests me greatly. This branch of philosophy explores art and beauty and the manner in which they relate to sense perception. The field has a long history, having received consideration from several of the ancient philosophers, most notably Aristotle, and it is an area that continues to attract attention from philosophers, art historians, and others.

A recent inquiry brought me to the aesthetics section of the stacks in the library at CUA. There I picked up Leo Tolstoy’s short work, What Is Art? Inside, I found a series of terrific reflections on the meaning, value, and purpose of art.

This passage, from section IV, 1 particularly caught my attention:

Beauty, or that which pleases us, can in no way serve as the basis for defining art, and a series of objects that gives us pleasure can in no way be an example of what art should be.

To see the aim and purpose of art in the pleasure we derive from it is the same as to ascribe the aim and significance of food to the pleasure we derive from eating it, as is done by people who stand at the lowest level of moral development (savages, for instance).

Just as people who think that the aim and purpose of food is pleasure cannot perceive the true meaning of eating, so people who think that the aim of art is pleasure cannot know its meaning and purpose, because they ascribe to an activity which has meaning in connection with other phenomena of life the false and exclusive aim of pleasure. People understand that the meaning of eating is the nourishment of the body only when they cease to consider pleasure the aim of this activity.

So it is with art. People will understand the meaning of art only when they cease to regard beauty—that is, pleasure—as the aim of this activity.

The wonderfully concise definition given by St. Thomas Aquinas for beauty is id quod visum placet (“that which, on being seen, gives pleasure”). 2 If we read Aquinas and Tolstoy together, then we can conclude that pleasure is intimately bound up with beauty—indeed, part of its very definition—but not its aim.

The purpose of art, whether sacred or otherwise, is not to incite pleasure. The artfulness of choral harmony, therefore, does not consist simply in the fact that it charms the listener. The artistry of a Rembrandt consists in more than just the fact that it catches the eye.

What, then, shall we say is the authentic purpose of art? Tolstoy reaches the rather unfulfilling conclusion that the purpose of art is to elicit feeling, which he defines quite broadly. Unsatisfied with this notion, I gave the question further consideration, and I have a suggestion of my own. Perhaps it is best to understand art as a means of reflecting Godliness. As the Creator of the universe and “the original source of beauty” (Wisdom 13:3), God is, Himself, an Artist. By making art, therefore, the human artist advances along the way of imitating the divine.

Do you find this to be a satisfactory explanation of the purpose of art? Would you suggest a different understanding?


1   Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 35.

2   See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia, q. 5, art. 4, ad 1. The text actually renders the definition in this way: “Pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent.”