The Rule of Art


by Mark Anthony Signorelli (December 2010)

Let me begin with an uncontroversial assertion: we produce no art. What I mean is that for two or three generations western peoples have not, by their collective or individual endeavor, produced any artifacts which can be identified, on any intelligible principles, as the same kind of thing which had been referred to as music, poetry, drama, sculpture, or painting by all preceding generations of Western man, and which were the varied accomplishments of such figures as Virgil and the anonymous poets of the Border Ballads, Scarlatti and Shubert, and the craftsmen of the Duomo of Siena. What we have become accustomed to referring to as “our arts” no more merit that title than a sow deserves to be called a thoroughbred. The Missa Papae Marcelli and the Academic Overture, as disparate creations as they are, are recognizably one type of thing; a modern pop song is not that type of thing. The Divine Comedy and The Fleur du Mal, as distinct from one another as it is possible for two poetic works to be, nonetheless both exemplify certain common characteristics, which are not exemplified at all by the work of Ginsburg, or Ashberry, or Walcott. I must emphasize that I am not making the claim that our age produces really bad art. Often times, severe criticism gets expressed hyperbolically by the claim that this or that is not really art. For instance, when the 18th century critic, Joseph Warton, meant to deprecate the didactic bent of Alexander Pope’s poetry, denied to Pope the title of a poet, when what he meant was that the kind of poetry which Pope composed was not of the highest order. But this is not what I mean. If only our cultural plight consisted of the lamentable case that we could merely produce a Pope, and no Milton! I am asserting a proposition far more categorical than this: not simply that contemporary Western peoples produce artwork which belongs low on the scale of judgment, but that nothing they produce belongs on that scale at all, that they inhabit the only Western societies, since the days of the Vandals and Visigoths, marked by a complete deficiency of art.

This appears to me to be one of the most self-evident facts about our present epoch. Equally self-evident to me is the cause of this decrepitude: we have no rules of art. We have no acknowledged precepts to direct us in the construction of artwork, or in estimating the relative excellence of that construction when it is completed. We have no body of knowledge, pertinent to the various arts, which answers to Richard Hooker’s definition of a law, as “that which doth assign unto each thing the kind, that which doth moderate the force and power, that which doth appoint the form and measure of working,” which renders all actions “regular, that is to say, made suitable fit and correspondent to their end.” We have no generally accepted principles which enable us to define art-making as “this type of activity” and not “these other types of activity.” Consequently, we have no viable traditions of artistic craftsmanship, for craftsmanship is nothing other than a knowledge of the relevant precepts of an art and a skill in their appropriate application, and an artistic tradition is nothing other than the collective maintenance and improvement of that knowledge and that skill.
Nothing could be more unfashionable than such ideas. Nothing could be more foreign to the modern mind than the notion of a rule of art. Nothing could be more at odds with our cherished attitudes of creative autonomy and spontaneity than the conception of a body of regulatory principles which ought to guide the creative act. And this is precisely why we ought to give serious consideration to these ideas, because something is obviously very wrong with the modern way of thinking about the arts, and the beliefs rejected most strenuously by the moderns are very likely to be those beliefs that have the greater part of truth in them. The distinctive feature of what is called art in our times is its lawlessness, its recklessness, the way it manifests the attitude that “anything goes.” Similarly, the distinctive feature of criticism in our time is its complete impotence in the face of this anarchism, its absolute incapacity to delineate any essential quality about the work of art, to cogently defend any assertion to the effect that a painting, or a poem, or a public building is “this kind of thing, and not these other kinds of things.” So there is great cause to suspect that an absence of any artistic rules is fundamentally implicated in the present disordered condition of the arts and their criticism. And I think I can demonstrate that this is so.
Students of literary history have long been aware of the enormous influence which Aristotle’s Poetics wielded over the work of Renaissance and neoclassical authors. They have also long been aware of how arbitrarily Aristotle’s argument was sometimes distorted by the critics and poets of that era. The general structure of the argument in the Poetics reflects the pervasively teleological nature of Aristotle’s thought, according with his injunction to “regard the ends of all things.” If you would achieve this particular goal, Aristotle advises the poet, you ought to exercise these particular techniques. The end of the tragedian is the catharsis, the purgation of the emotions through fear and pity. No doubt, this concept has been subjected to more scrutiny than any other in the history of literary criticism, and there is an unquestionable ambiguity about Aristotle’s meaning in this passage. The simple point I wish to make for the purpose of my argument here is that this emotional response of the audience (for whatever it is, the catharsis is certainly this) serves as the end of the tragedian’s art, the thing he is trying to achieve when he composes tragedy. The directives concerning the right type of plot, and character, and so on, which follow in the remainder of the essay, are propounded with this end in mind. Aristotle wants to say something like, “if you intend to elicit the kind of emotional response which I have delineated as the proper end of the tragedy, then these are the correct precepts to follow in order to achieve that end.” So for instance, when he advises the poet not to depict the sufferings of a thoroughly virtuous man, his reason is that such depictions “merely shock us;” which is to say, the emotions of revulsion will overwhelm any pity or fear felt by the audience, and this will inhibit the accomplishment of the catharsis. And so for all of the precepts which Aristotle puts forth in the course of his essay. We might say that his form of reasoning is the hypothetical proposition: “if you would achieve this kind of result, employ these techniques; if you would generate a catharsis in your audience, keep in mind these rules regarding the invention of plot and character.”
Such is the structure of the formal argument; his evidence for the veracity of this argument he draws from the tradition of Greek tragic writing, especially the work of Sophocles, and even more especially that poet’s masterpiece, the Oedipus Rex. Aristotle argues that a catharsis is best achieved when “the events come on us by surprise,” but in such a way as not to violate verisimilitude. A fine way to affect such a surprise is a reversal of the situation, “by which the action veers round to its opposite.” This is his line of reasoning regarding the peripeteia. His evidence that it is a valid line of reasoning is “thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect.” The masterpiece (namely, Sophocles’ play) does not constitute part of Aristotle’s formal argument, the validity of which we can comprehend even apart from any consideration of actual plays. But the testimony of an acknowledged masterpiece – a work that by the common experience of all attentive theater-goers does affect a catharsis, the proper end of tragedy – confirms that validity. For Aristotle, the works of the masters are not prescriptive, but illustrative, serving to verify the same conclusions which we can deduce by the application of our practical rationality.
One of the earliest, and easily the most influential, of Aristotle’s interpreters during the Renaissance was the sixteenth century Italian scholar, Lodovico Castelvetro. It was in his commentary that the idea of the three dramatic unities – the unity of place, time, and plot – made its first appearance. As a matter of fact, there is no clear basis in Aristotle’s text for the first two rules, a fact for which Castelvetro has repeatedly and deservedly been criticized. But what is most germane to my argument here is the way that Castelvetro conceives of the one unity which is unquestionably found there, the unity of plot. For Aristotle, this precept, like all of his precepts, derives from the purposes which the tragedian has in mind, of creating a cathartic experience in his audience; a unified plot is a plot in which these effects are more concentrated. Yet Castelvetro regards Aristotle’s recommendation as rather arbitrary, having no other basis for this conclusion than the precedent set by earlier authors: “Aristotle stubbornly demands that the action which comprises the plot should be one and concern one character only…He adduces no reason or proof for this except the example of the tragic poets and Homer who have adhered to the single action of a single character in composing the fable.” When he tries to supply a rationale himself, to supply Aristotle’s alleged lacuna, Castelvetro offers only the unconvincing assertion that the spurious unity of time restricts the playwright from representing a “multitude of actions.” Nowhere does he seem to recognize that Aristotle’s preference for a unified plot stems from his understanding of the proper ends of the tragedy. This is confirmed in an earlier passage in which he wrestles with the meaning of the term catharsis; he comments at length, and with considerable insight, into the psychology of the phenomenon, but no where in this passage does he demonstrate an understanding that according to Aristotle, it is the elicitation of this phenomenon that constitutes the great purpose of tragic composition, and that invests all of his rules with their “reason or proof.” Castelvetro simply fails to grasp the general framework of Aristotle’s reasoning, and as a consequence, the rules he finds there strike him – and his many readers – as something more arbitrary than they truly are in the Poetics.
Notice the great change that has occurred here in the conception of an artistic rule. Castelvetro has transformed such rules from deductions of practical reasoning to mere stipulations. He has exchanged the hypothetical proposition for a categorical assertion, from an argument of the form: “if you would achieve this kind of result, employ these techniques,” to a declaration of the form: “employ these techniques.” Notice especially the great transformation which this occasions in Castelvetro’s conception of the relationship between an artist’s practice and the virtuosity of his predecessors. For Aristotle, as we saw, masterpieces illustrate the propriety of rules which can be defended on purely rational grounds. According to Castelvetro’s reading of Aristotle, however, the examples of great authors are themselves the primary justification for the propriety of rules exhibited there. In other words, the best defense of artistic rules is not on grounds of reason, but on grounds of authority. Artistic heritage has become prescriptive, rather than illustrative. Castelvetro’s misreading of Aristotle constitutes a radically constricted notion of what it means to think of art as a rule-governed activity, and it was this conception of an artistic rule which, with ever greater frequency, informs critical thinking in the neoclassical period which ensued.
To be sure, there were exceptions, authors who retained the Aristotelian conception of artistic rules, with their intrinsic teleology. One of the best examples is Alexander Pope, a very considerable portion of whose Essay on Criticism is devoted to treating the rules of good writing, and the right way of conceiving them. Pope recognizes that such rules are accessible by reason reflecting upon nature: “Those rules of old discovered, not devised / Are Nature still, but Nature methodized.” The poet ought to verse himself in the classics, and learn from their model: “Be Homer’s works your study and delight / Read them by day, and meditate by night; / Thence form your judgment, thence your maxims bring.” But in studying the models of ancient authors, the poet is really just acquainting himself with the same maxims which his own reason could theoretically deduce alone, for “Nature and Homer were…the same.” The canon of masterpieces occupies the same role for Pope that it did for Aristotle: not the sole source for the authority of the rules, but rather a rich and estimable verification of the efficacy of rules, which derive their ultimate authority from right reason itself. And there is no mistaking the fact that Pope understood the rules of good writing to be the product of practical reasoning: “Since rules were made but to promote their end.” It is this fact which legitimizes the poet’s defiance of established rules upon occasion; so long as he writes with a clear purpose in mind, he is writing in a rational fashion – in effect, he is discovering new rules: “If, where the rules not far enough extend…/ Some lucky license answer to the full / The intent proposed, that license is a rule.” Again, he admonishes the poet, “if you must offend / Against the precept, ne’er transgress the end.” To keep in mind the ends of the poem is everything for Pope, as it was for Aristotle. And because he conceives composition in this way, he has sure grounds for conceiving the critical task. Criticism of a particular work is nothing other than an appraisal of whether or not the poet has pursued the proper ends for the type of poetry he is writing, and whether or not he has employed the proper means for achieving those ends. General standards emerge over time from such a task. There is nothing arbitrary about such standards; they follow as an evident corollary from a proper conception of what the poet is trying to do.
Nonetheless, the more common notion of artistic rules to be discovered in neoclassical thought was that of Castelvestro. Consider, for instance, the Art Poetique of Nicholas Boileau, published in 1674. This versified essay on the proper method of composition begins with a lament for the allegedly barbaric era of French poetry, in the Middle Ages, when “caprice was the only lawmaker.” But then the poet Malherbe arrived, who “brought the Muse under the rules.” ”All acknowledged his laws,” writes Boileau, and the prudent author will continue to “follow in his footsteps.” Having begun his essay by admonishing poets to bear a decent reverence towards the rules of composition, Boileau proceeds to delineate those rules as he understands them. His work is filled with categorical assertions, of the variety: “do not offer a subject too full of incident,” or “never offer the spectator anything incredible,” or “let the place where the events occur be fixed, as well as clearly designated.” There is little attempt to demonstrate how these rules are derived from any conceived purposes which the poet might have in mind, and little indication that Boileau believes such a demonstration to be necessary. He merely dogmatizes from beginning to end, declaring that “I like” such and such, and “I prefer” this and that, and that is why the poet should adhere to this or that stricture, so that the overall effect of his essay is distinctly dictatorial. A reader, and especially a reader who is a young and aspiring poet, can be forgiven for concluding that a rule of art, as expounded by Boileau, is quite an arbitrary thing, with no real claim on an intelligent person’s attention.
One of the earliest reactions against this kind of imperious artistic law-making can be found in Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition, first published in 1759. Young explicitly and repeatedly draws the sharpest distinction between those poets who compose according to rules, and those who write under the inspiration of what he labels “genius:”

For unprescribed beauties, and unexampled excellence, which are characteristics of genius, lie without the pale of learning’s authorities and laws…For rules, like crutches, are a needful aid to the lame, though an impediment to the strong…There is something in poetry beyond prose-reason; there are mysteries in it not to be explained, but admired…
What defines genius is precisely the capacity to create in the absence of those rules which seem necessary to lesser talents: “for what, for the most part, mean we by genius, but the power of accomplishing great things without the means generally reputed necessary to that end?” Therefore, “genius can set us right in composition, without the rules of the learned.” It is unsurprising, then, that Young’s chief objective in his essay is to urge poets to rely on their own native “genius,” rather than looking to masterworks of ages past for models. Such models are as likely to stifle genius as guide it: 

Illustrious examples engross, prejudice, and intimidate. They engross our attention, and so prevent a due inspection of ourselves; they prejudice our judgment in favor of their abilities, and so lessen the sense of our own, and they intimidate us with the splendor of their renown, and thus under diffidence bury our strength.
What Young’s essay serves to demonstrate is how Castelvetro’s conception of artistic rules – justified by authority, rather than reason – had become so prevalent by this late stage of the neoclassical era that a critic who advises poets not to rely on the example of the classics assumes that he is thereby also making an argument against the necessity of rule-following. That the rules might be justified on grounds quite distinct from the example of earlier authors – the grounds of practical reasoning – is an insight largely forgotten by this point in literary history.
I am certainly not doing justice to the complete arguments of these authors, which are far more substantial than I have indicated here, nor most certainly am I fairly summarizing the content of neoclassical criticism, which is one of the richest sources of artistic and literary insight available to us. I have dwelt on these select passages simply to demonstrate the fact that over time, the conception of an artistic rule as a deduction of practical reasoning has been lost, and replaced by a conception of an artistic rule as an authoritative decree: no more than an order to imitate the work of one’s predecessors. And it is this conception of an artistic rule that the modern mind rejects so vigorously, and rejects with great justice too. That scorn for the notion of a rule of art which I alluded to earlier in this essay is a scorn for the belief that any artist should be limited in his or her creation merely by the practice of earlier artists, no matter how magnificent that practice was. And that is a perfectly righteous scorn. But it is directed towards a misconception about what a rule of art should be, and has no validity as directed towards an artistic rule understood as a deduction of practical reasoning. 
Here is some light shed, also, on the extraordinary hostility towards our artistic heritage which has been displayed by artists since the inception of the modern era, and which was never seen before in the entire history of the west. Once the work of their predecessors had been invested by Castelvetro’s error with this new authority; once it had been transformed from a demonstration of the efficacy of the rules to the only legitimate source of the rules, it was perfectly natural for modern artists to look on that heritage with resentment, and to perceive in every masterpiece an obstacle against the free exercise of their talent.
The modern era abounds in appeals to artistic freedom. And we should give serious consideration to this phenomenon, because the fact is that such appeals are largely meaningless, and were almost unheard of prior to the advent of modernism. In the absence of any tyrannical form of government, the artist generally enjoys a physical freedom to construct how he likes. The question is, how ought he to create in order to produce the most lovely and impressive artifact, and the moment that question is asked, we have begun to consider the kind of general precepts which guide the artist in his fashioning, those precepts which “doth appoint the form and measure of working” – the rules of art. Such rules will have the same rational status as any other deduction of practical reasoning, as being the means best suited to achieve the desired end. The rule which states that a tragedian should avoid subplots is akin to the rule which states that a gardener should plant tulips in the fall; both pronounce the sort of action that will be undertaken in order to bring about an end which is recognized as desirable. To ask whether the tragedian has freedom in this matter is equivalent to asking whether the gardener has freedom to plant tulips in the spring; neither is a question asked by one who aims at flourishing. 
The rules of art, then, are not decrees which forbid the artist from doing this and that; rather, they are the accumulated insights which counsel him as to the best means for achieving the purpose he has at hand. As Jacques Maritain observed in his Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, “the rules are not ready-made recipes, taught by professors in schools and museums, but vital ways of operating discovered by the creative eyes of the intellect in its very labor of invention.” Insofar as the rules impose limits on the work of art, they are the same limits which nature imposes on all determinate things. The chemical laws which determine a molecule as a salt molecule simultaneously limit it from being a water molecule. The biological laws which determine an organism as a frog simultaneously limit it from being a giraffe. And the artistic laws which determine a poem as an ode simultaneously limit it from being a satire, or an elegy, or – most importantly – nonsense. The same principles which allow us to define an object as “this kind of thing” are the same principles which allow us to define it also as “not these other kinds of things.” In the absence of such principles, we have no way to make the one distinction or the other, which is just to say, we have no way to say what art is, and what it is not. So as paradoxical as it may sound, it is the rules of art which bestow upon the artist the utmost freedom, because they endow him with the capacity to create exactly the kind of object which he wishes to create, and nothing else. For as James Matthew Wilson noted in his excellent essay “Our Steps Amid a Ruined Colonnade“, the only freedom we can genuinely have in this world is “the freedom to be determined.”
What theorists like Aristotle, and Castelvetro, and Pope were trying to do – some more successfully than others – was to enunciate the principles which determine that a given piece of writing was a tragedy, or an epic, or a satire. All those critics of the past who tried to delineate the rules of their respective arts were trying to do the same sort of thing. As the modernist insistence on “artistic freedom” became more and more uncompromising, and more and more common, the need to formulate such principles came to be increasingly regarded as an inherently restrictive endeavor. The artist became more and more accustomed to creating without giving mind to such principles. And the work of art became increasingly malformed and chaotic, because without an adherence to the principles which determine the artifact as “this kind of thing,” there is nothing preventing the artifact from becoming “these other kinds of things.” We have now arrived at the hideous conclusion of this trajectory, when critics explicitly reject the possibility of apprehending any defining rules of the art-form, when artists (or those who have unjustly appropriated the name of “artist”) are guided in their creative activity by nothing other than their own perverse caprice, and when the artifact is undetermined by any rational principle whatsoever, and therefore unrestrained from degenerating into any sort of thing at all – a row of curtains hung in a park, an illiterate thug howling about his sexual conquests, canned animal parts, paint-splattered canvases, piles of twisted metal, lop-sided office buildings, a mentally unstable woman gibbering on about her genitalia in front of an audience of prurient poseurs. And this is why I claim, with such perfect confidence, that our society produces no art at all, because if the people who produce these things, and the people who enjoy them,were put to the question, and asked to explain what type of activity they were engaged in, and what sort of objects they fashioned and observed, they quite obviously would be unable to answer in any coherent or meaningful manner. They would necessarily reply that their creative activity was unguided by a single comprehensible precept, and that as a result, their artifacts were undetermined by any rational principle at all. But logically speaking, the only thing that is completely indeterminate is nothing.
It should not need to be said, but of course it does need to be said, that in advocating the importance of the rules of art, I do not suppose that I am arguing for the unum necessarium, the one thing needful for attaining excellence in the arts. I do not even mean to suggest that an adherence to rules of art is the most important aspect of such flourishing. One of the most common forms of fallacious reasoning in our age is the assumption that because something is not a sufficient condition of a given outcome, it is therefore also not a necessary condition of that same outcome. An adherence to the rules of art is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition of artistic flourishing. Craftsmanship – understood as I have defined it, as a knowledge of the relevant artistic precepts and a skill in their proper application – is the most basic prerequisite of artistic success, and an artifact which displays nothing but fine craftsmanship will be very far from excellent. But precisely because craftsmanship is so basic, it provides the foundation for the attainment of all the other excellencies which adorn and improve the work of art. Skill comes first, and by means of skill comes the movement of the passions and the elevation of the understanding which are undoubtedly the hallmark attributes of the best sort of art. I cite only the example of Shakespeare, who is often taken as a paragon of the lawless, unrestrained poet, conjuring his gorgeous verse entirely out of the stores of his own untutored and native genius. Yet Shakespeare was, as numerous critics have noted, a master of the art of rhetoric, and rhetoric as it was taught during the Renaissance, with its emphasis on invention through tropes, was a thoroughly rule-governed art. And it was because Shakespeare became so adept in the rules of this art that he acquired a facility of expression, by which he gave voice to that penetrating moral insight and metaphysical depth, which are truly among the wonderful elements of his artistry. 
A critic should always be mindful of the particular defects in taste and understanding that afflict his age, and direct some portion of his energies towards their remedy. Had I been born to a time when I might pass among the studios of Quattrocento Florence or the concert halls of 18th century Vienna, I would be embarrassed to make the argument which I am making now, because there would have been no need to remind the artists of those eras of the importance of craftsmanship. Indeed, had I been born in the neoclassical period, I might have felt compelled to write against an undue emphasis on the importance of rule-following, as Edward Young felt compelled to do. But it just so happens that we have all been born into an era when the various arts have decayed, one and all, into the most hopeless moribundity. What is required of us at this stage of history is the reestablishment of the minimal prerequisite of artistic flourishing, and that is craftsmanship. The re-acquaintance with the proper ends of the respective arts; the delineation of those precepts which most effectively secure such ends; the acquisition of skill in the practical application of those precepts – none of these things will, of themselves, invigorate the arts with that full health and fecundity they have displayed in the most golden epochs of mankind. But it is with such tasks we must begin now.

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