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Art and the Privation of Good

Updated on May 21, 2012

Its Impact on the Soul and Reflected in the Written Word

Evil therefore is nothing but the privation of good. And thus it can have no existence anywhere except in some good thing. . . . So there can be things which are good without any evil in them, such as God himself, and the higher celestial beings; but there can be no evil things without good. For if evils cause no damage to anything, they are not evils; if they do damage something, they diminish its goodness; and if they damage it still more, it is because it still has some goodness which they diminish; and if they swallow it up altogether, nothing of its nature is left to be damaged. And so there will be no evil by which it can be damaged, since there is then no nature left whose goodness any damage can diminish. – St. Augustine of Hippo

With respect to art of late, and in all its forms, I do have a question. First, I must state that I notice that many art forms are taking on a “politically correct” kind of expression, like the artist is “frozen” or “convalescent,” and working totally to negate the good, meaning, reflecting the good only when it is appropriate or acceptable, and with wild abandon expressing only evil. Why is it always dark and nothing more, not of humor, not love, not life.

So, now that the delight in evil is brought forward at the expense of what is good, can it be called art? Do I dare say no? All art is enriched by deep truth. T.S. Elliot’s poem “Hysteria” speaks truth when:

I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped,
some of the fragments of the afternoon might
be collected, and I concentrated my attention with
careful subtlety to this end.

In praise of all art of truth! In praise of T.S. Elliot and all poets who are true! But where is truth today? Where is the passion, love and humor anymore? And how is darkness truth if it is not shed on a background of light? How can lightness be truth if not shed on a background of darkness? Where is the subtlety that moves us? It is as though works are made in celebration of the privation of good only; but what about the pretense in this? Is it truth? It can be truth if it works, but if it cannot even be imagined as true in life (for life cannot be sustained in the total absence of either), why is it art when it cannot be believed?

Art must be believed, or, if not believed, we must be convinced of this unbelief. How is it that, perhaps for the first time, the contents of our dualistic natures are squelched or only partially fulfilled by all of Yin or all of Yang, where the expression or imagery conveys mostly emotion and privation of good but no truth?

Please comment. Do you see this happening to art also?


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  • cynthtggt profile image

    cynthtggt 5 years ago from New York, NY

    Moonfroth – I am writing about beauty and truth in art on the earth, not the heaven above, even if I did misquote Keats. Even in artists’ darkest expressions, there still must be “truth” to believe it, and only then is there “beauty.” I am discussing “truth” in art as it reflects good and evil in the “inward man,” on both dualistic and monotheistic standpoints (i.e., Clement of Rome believed God rules the world with a right and left hand [Christ on the right, Satan on the left] while the dualistic view is that God is entirely good and evil is contained in Satan (the conventional Christian view)). I don’t mean either to suggest that it is not art or poetry to project either despair or darkness in any form. But it has to convince me of some truth. Some do, but most do not. Many people are not relativists, including me (although I used to be).

  • moonfroth profile image

    Clark Cook 5 years ago from Rural BC (Canada) & N of Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)

    Extraordinary Hub, Cynth. Thank you. You missed an important phrase in Keats ". . .that is all Ye know ON EARTH, and all Ye need to know." I think Keats was saying that it is fruitless for us to speculate about Divine matters, because we can never Know those mysteries--"God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform" (or however that one goes. . .) or, as Pope put it: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/The proper study of Mankind is Man." Okay, enough name-dropping.

    The substance of your Hub is provocative and timeless. Augustine himself wrestled with the dualities that are the substratum of Christian cosmology, esp. the duality of Flesh and Spirit. How to reconcile the fact that we are to aspire to pure Spirit, but we are given a cumbersome corporeal husk within which to seek Spirit? This eternal quandary, I think, is at the core of the Evil/Good dichotomy.

    In the past, the artist had DEFINED standards of Good and Evil all around, all the time. I'm not suggesting anything was easier, but surely it was CLEARER. Here Guys, I give you a garden. Do anything you want, but don't eat the fruit from that tree. Why not? 'Cause I'm God and I say so. Okay, enter Satan-as-snake. Aha--that's EVIL, 'cause he's filled with ENVY and JEALOUSY and he hates God. And we go from there.....

    But of course we don't. Artists THINK and interpretation began (pesky creativity stuff. . .!) But always, for centuries, within prescribed parameters of Belief. No artist in any medium dared presume to seriously challenge the efficacy of the Order of Things until. . what. . .the early 19th century? Since then, the lines between good and evil have become blurred to complete lack of focus, to translucence at best.

    Hey, I'm just blathering on here, but I think Augustine's cause-effect reasoning, which begins this wonderful Hub, is intensely MODERN, while being confined in a very unmodern way. The modern artist has no real models, hence his/her work is as much a quest for standards as it is a declaration of them. So, yes, we're going to have artists who seem to celebrate the dark, the murky, the ugly, the unwholesome. But if that is what they see in their world, is that not then a kind of Truth?

    Let us hope, an interim one. . . .

  • cynthtggt profile image

    cynthtggt 5 years ago from New York, NY

    I must correct myself: No human is absolutely good, and evil is only known from the nature of good. Evil has no existence in itself. Augustine said also, "The steel is not evil; but the man who uses the steel for a criminal purpose, he is evil." Humans can be evil, but absolutely, I do not think so. Why does the artist today persist in making it truth?

  • cynthtggt profile image

    cynthtggt 5 years ago from New York, NY

    Thank you, Faith, yes truth. All human natures are good but not good enough to prevent their badness. Some artists strive to be the total antithesis of good, but if they believe in absolute evil as real, is this truth? No human is absolutely evil, just as no human is absolutely good.

  • Faith Reaper profile image

    Faith Reaper 5 years ago from southern USA

    Very profound thinking in this piece. I believe that truth is real beauty and real love. Truth is best in all circumstances, no doubt. Voted Up, awesome, beautiful and interesting. In His Love, Faith Reaper

  • cynthtggt profile image

    cynthtggt 5 years ago from New York, NY

    Thank you, rfmoran - or if it is inner turmoil, is it sustainable to the imagination? I read a lot of profound imagery with profound words, but what is being said is often not believable. What of truth? The dark imagery expressed of past poets or writers, for example, was always true against a backdrop of moral hypocrisy or dubious lightness in being. In Lolita the main character is covered with "Quilty" (protagonist knows he's guilty) I think it is something to talk about because there is a lot hubris about nothing. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty - that is all there is and all ye need to know - to quote Keats

  • rfmoran profile image

    Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

    I hone to the odd belief that art, or at least some of it, should be beautiful, not merely an expression of the inner turmoil of the artist. This is a very well done and thoughtful Hub. Thank you.