URPRISING AS IT MAY SEEM, St. Thomas Aquinas defends the thesis that there is not an intrinsic or necessary connection between good art and good morals. And yet, as we will see, he also proves that there will be a connection, albeit in a roundabout way, in the larger picture of human life.
In holding this position, he differs from some contemporary conservative critics, like E. Michael Jones, who maintain that bad morals necessitate or result in bad art, or, vice versa, that bad art indicates bad morals. The history of the fine arts clearly disproves that position, which is founded upon a simplistic psychology of the human faculties and the habits that perfect them. In the Renaissance, for example, one can find truly outstanding artists who led morally disordered lives—e.g., the painter Caravaggio, who produced some of the most spectacular and subtle paintings, with true spiritual depth; the composer Carlo Gesualdo, who wrote sublime music, although he had murdered his wife and her adulterous lover in a fit of rage. Similarly, while Wagner was an adulterer and an notorious anti-Semite, his giftedness as a composer is past all doubt: just listen to the Siegfried Idyll, the Meistersinger overture, or the Ring cycle (if you can stifle your distaste at the vapid libretto). The same holds for Schubert and Brahms, whether they regularly visited prostitutes, as their biographers say, or not.
For someone who understands precisely what kind of perfection of practical intellect the habit of art is, and how it works, this lack of an immediate connection between art and morality is not bothersome. Art is a habit of applying reason to artistic materials in an orderly way to produce a definite effect, and an artist who is talented to begin with, and well trained on top of that, can develop a very high level of perfection in the exercise of this habit, in spite of habitual personal failings.
That being said, there are many connections between the practice of art and the quality of morals in real life. An artist who lets his daily life become very disordered cannot be expected to retain the discipline, self-mastery, and concentration required to produce masterpieces—or, in the worst case scenario, to acquire the technical skills in the first place. Picasso is a brilliant example of a talented artist who fell so much under the sway of his lechery that he could no longer produce great art. He sacrificed his intellect to his libido, and that is why his works are so lacking in intelligibility and beauty. They seem to be efforts, increasingly childish and embarrassing, to represent appetite or feeling divorced from reason, which is the very principle of form, order, communication.
The openness to “inspiration” that characterizes genius runs the danger of being more or less closed off by licentiousness, by immersion in dissipating and distracting pleasures. To be open to inspiration requires a certain peace of soul and delicacy of sentiment—an ability to listen and receive, to await ideas and cultivate them patiently and with self-denying labor. Prudence is the “eye of love,” as Josef Pieper says, and since the moral virtues are connected through prudence, the artist who lacks self-control lacks, or will eventually lack, that capacity to see and listen which is indispensable to conceiving and executing great works.
It seems to me that the subterranean link, so to speak, between morals and art is nowhere clearer than in pop music and modern art in general. Modern art has often been art of unrestrained sensuality or bleak despair, and this is strikingly captured in the two extremes into which it has fallen: pornography and sexual excess on the one side, atonality and abstraction on the other. Men whose minds are in the gutter will simply transfer that gutter to the canvas, the photograph, the lyrics, or the rhythm, while men whose minds are cut off from nature and its beauty will simply represent their cold and empty soul-world in a chill abstraction from form or shape, from tonality or controlled and orderly rhythm. We will see a womanizing Picasso painting prostitutes or a suicidal Pollock splattering paint at random; we will hear Ravel’s stupefying Bolero or Schoenberg’s chilly Pierrot Lunaire.
So, it is important to see on the one hand that art, as a virtue of applying reason to materials, is distinct from the moral life, and on the other hand that a man’s life, which dictates goals for art, necessarily impinges on his products, since he cannot but identify himself with a certain way of life and the pleasures associated with it. In this way we will understand how it is that artists fortunate to be born into a Catholic or Christian culture can produce marvelous works of art in spite of their personal failings, because they received a sound training and adhered, to some extent, to the larger Christian goals of their society, whereas the artists whom modernity has permitted or encouraged to be truly perverse end up producing the most perverse art.