Bird nests: artificial or natural?

If nature and art are divided as what arises from a source in matter and what doesn’t, then bird nests, beaver dams, hornet bikes, etc. are all artificial. This makes our account of art too broad, especially in light of Chesterton’s defense of art as the signature of the person in Everlasting Man. If nature and art are first approach to dividing substantial and artificial form, then we’re arguing with Edward Feser that cubic zirconia, Styrofoam, stainless steel, etc. are natural. Though this is awkward at first it is very defensible, first because raw materials have never been thought of as having the distinctive character of art, and then because making these things seems to involve a facilitation of natural processes, no matter how contrived the environment is that we make for them to occur in. One can explain zirconia by pointing to what chemicals do in the right crucible; one can’t explain the novelty ring one makes with it in the same way. That said, this sort of division is a way of critiquing or brushing aside the difference between art and nature, in effect saying that there is nothing distinctive about art. But there is. So what is it?

Unlike bird nests or beaver dams, art is not explained by an organism finding its niche in an environment. Establishing niches is a matter of working and rearranging the things around you, and it might make sense to describe anything that does this as an extension of nature, even if it is a combine tractor or a sugar refinery. What we call art properly speaking breaks from this so far as its goal is an object that exists for itself. The knife might be just an extension of a claw, but a decorative embossing on the handle isn’t.

The extent to which a thing we make exists for itself can be unclear. A beauty that seems to exist for itself might be just a signalling of fitness, and as such it is an attempt to carve out a niche in an environment. Any attempt to reduce all art to this is ad hoc, and so we’re left with a distinctively artistic element that differs from a natural one. Art is a human striving to make something that exists on its own and for itself. In this sense Pygmalion or Pinocchio are attempts to specify the ultimate goal of art, but which exists for the artist as an unreachable limit.

Art therefore requires knowledge of what it is to exist for oneself. It makes sense that as soon as one recognizes that he exists for himself, he strives to make this arise in another as much as possible. The Trinity and creation are different ways we might see this happening.

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3 Comments

  1. thenyssan said,

    September 27, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    If you divide art from the useful, what kind of work are you going to have to do to show that use is a rational act? There’s certainly already some tension in how St. Thomas treats use, but I have a feeling this approach will radicalize it. I’m sorry I can’t make this question clearer–I’ll be mulling it over for a long time I think.

  2. Curio said,

    September 27, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    On this score, would you say bread is a natural substance or an artifact?

    • September 28, 2015 at 1:57 pm

      It depends how you’re considering it. As food it arises out of a desire to carve out one niche in the environment, and so counts as natural, but so far as there is a desire to make an object with a good of its own – which seems to happen when we exercise real craft in baking – it is art. The fact that it is consumable is not decisive in every respect.


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