Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Postmodernism and the Marginalization of Causes

Fr. Barron ingeniously traces the dilemmas in modern art and ethics to the marginalization of the Aristotelian formal and final causes ( The 'modern turn' so 'hyper-stress[ed]' the remaining material and efficient causes that, outside the sciences where such emphases resulted in astonishing progress, art and ethics (=morality) could not sustain the greatness of their pasts, but were left no other course but decline.

While it is unclear exactly what kind of esthetic is brought to bear in Fr. Barron's discussion, he seems to be pointing to a kind of disfigurement that has enthralled art and ethics since the 17th century. Moreover, it appears that such disfigurement is informed by caricature: it's not that objectivity of form is eradicated, but shifted to the objectification of subjectivity; it's not that freedom is embraced, but freedom becomes indiscriminate license.

The postmodern turn looks to the margins. Though the contemporary mind seems not to think in Aristotelian categories,  it certainly can understand them: so, too, with causes. The category of 'artist' must have political import indeed if art is 'whatever the artist spits out.' Still, there is good and poor art, just as there are good and poor artists.

Whether the artist has lost faith in art as an imitation of nature, or has become suspicious of objective form, or lost confidence in such forms to convey the novel emotions/emotional contexts driven by the discoveries of modernism, seem inconsequential to the persistence of the artistic desire for, and gesture of, creation.  Perhaps it is here, in the creative impulse,  in the desire to create, where all artists of all times meet, and where contemporary art meets formal and final causes. Here, at the margins, the essential structures are found not out there but in here, the finality not radiant and harmonious but tentative and discordant.

Ethical issues can certainly become fractured when the meanings of finalities are contextual only---tentative, even discordant in competing values and senses of the good. The Catholic certainly values freedom, but of a different stripe than mere license. For the Catholic, freedom is only authentic and radical when it is oriented to its source and shaped by radical responsibility. Freedom reduced to license is hopelessly fettered by seeking the nearest good---immediate gratification, without recourse to conscience. Freedom raised to responsibility is love in actions performed by moral agents.

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