Aesthetics: St. Augustine's coffee cup

St. Augustine’s views of art will take some time to tackle. He was certainly one of the most powerful and influential minds for the shaping of Western thought. In general, he tends to borrow much of his language and starting points from the neo-Platonists and Plotinus in particular. The big change is that his thought is theological and not strictly philosophical. For Plato, thought centered around what was the best art for the State. With Augustine, we move to thinking about how art stands in relation to God. It should also be noted that Augustine’s final arbiter on these questions are the Scriptures as he understands them.

One of the perennial issues in aesthetic philosophy is articulated clearly by Augustine in De Ordine Chapter 11. He says that “delight of the sense is one thing; delight through the sense is something else.” In one of his examples of this distinction, he quotes Virgil. “Why do the suns in the winter rapidly sink in the ocean? What is the hindrance that holds back late-coming nights in the summer?” Then he states, “our praise of the meter is one thing, but our praise of the meaning is something else.” So our delight in the meter is “delight of the sense,” and our praise of the meaning is “delight through the sense.” As my friend Lane Harder likes to say, there is a difference between idea and execution.

I think it is safe to say that we have all had an experience like this when encountering art objects. That is, there have been occasions when I really liked the ideas communicated by a novel or a movie, but I felt that the supporting architectural structure couldn’t bear up under the profundity of the concepts that where trying to be conveyed. Alternatively, I have encountered music, for example, that I found to be sonically stunning but emotionally unconvincing. This is a pregnant idea that will take some time to unpack.

Augustine gives us what I like to call a coffee cup theory of art. That is, we are to conceive of art objects as a coffee mug. There is an idea – the coffee – that is being carried inside of the object. The idea and the object are separable. Thus, we have a whole school of thought that emerges justifying ugliness by saying, “The main thing is the idea. If the coffee is good, it doesn’t matter if it is served in a Styrofoam cup.” I encounter this idea most often in religious institutions that justify presenting the worst that our culture has to offer artistically by saying that the coffee is good. On the other hand, we also see examples of people pointing out how innovative their mugs are hoping to slip us some Folgers instant coffee that we won’t notice in our distraction.

The underlying assumption in all of this is that art is supposed to do something. Whether or not that is the case will take some more blog posts.

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