Andrew Kern: Study Virtuous, Excellent Books That Are Worthy of Praise

The question of what makes a work of art great is both mysterious and obvious. When we see Da Vinciʼs paintings and compare them to the practice exercises produced in a high school art class, we donʼt wonder which is better (though it has become increasingly fashionable to pretend we are blind). When we see great art, we know it—if we have eyes to see.

At the same time, we donʼt always know why a given work is so highly acclaimed. This is because a work of art is a logos. The greater the work, the deeper the logos and the better (the more like the logos itself) its expression. But the deeper the inner logos, the more difficult it is to express. Artists do not state their ideas. They make a work of art: a mimetic logos. That is why authors are famously frustrated by readers who ask them to “explain” their stories or compositions.

Those who are most trained in a given art can often guide the rest of us into the mysteries of a specific artifact by showing us the elements of design or the artistic principles that seem to have guided the artist. Sometimes they can even share the artistʼs wonder over the mystery that shines through the masterpiece. This helps us see better and is surely one of the greatest gifts a teacher can offer.

Yet the mystery of the glory of the mimetic logos (the work of art) remains a mystery, even to the experts and artists. The best thing we can do is gaze upon it and receive it into our souls. There, it can point us through the work of art to the glory that the artist saw and embodied for us, thus making us more like the artist who made it.

Ultimately, every work of art is or flows out of an inaccessible mystery (an inner logos) and its value comes from the depth of the artistʼs perception of the logos he perceives, receives, and reflects. A great work of art radiates its logos from every lamp in its soul, and it does so with identifiable principles and boundaries, within which all of its parts can be purposefully arranged by the artist.

Guided by his intuitions into the essence of the logos, having mastered the tools of his craft, the artist joins the logos to the material in a manner that honors both, raising the matter to the level of the logos as the logos descends into the matter. What we see extends far beyond the principles and boundaries and the arrangement of parts. What we see is a logos made flesh.

If that sounds mysterious or mystical, I am not sure it isnʼt. It is analogous to what Christ did when The Logos became flesh. When we create mimetic logoi, such as lessons, paintings, or sentences, we are enacting the privilege to do by analogy what He did as First Principle.

When we study or teach art, we tend to go one of two directions: analysis or appreciation. Both are important. Both should serve perception. Ideally, the analysis is meant to increase the appreciation, but too often it becomes a dissection of a carcass. The logos of a work of art is its soul, so without the logos the carcass is all that remains. A great work of art is magnanimous: great souled.

Ironically, perhaps, a Logos-centered understanding of art helps us analyze artifacts without reducing them to a laboratory dissection while simultaneously augmenting our capacity to enjoy and even revere them. Thus, both analysis and appreciation are fulfilled by logos-centered teaching.

There is another reason we ought to prefer the greatest works: because they are more God-like. When God judged His own creative work, He judged it to be good and, when complete, very good. We ought also to make and say good things. To be God-like in our work is to be generous, humble, free of envy, orderly, meaningful, joyful, simple, pure, harmonious, and creative. God-like work expresses patience, kindness, submission, authority, and honesty.

This is wisdom and virtue, such as Bezalel showed when he designed the tabernacle (Exodus ref).

No matter how true we suppose our content to be when we express it in statements and propositions, if our actions and artifacts are less than “good,” the truth of the statement will sound like a clanging cymbal.

Thus, when we think of lessons for the classroom, statements in a conversation, works of art or craft, household duties, or any other expression, if we think about them in the light shed on them by the Logos, our understanding will be enriched and we will be better able to bless those to whom we offer our words, verbal or otherwise.

Mimetic logoi, then, are the words and artifacts that we make in imitation of God who speaks to us as created logoi, images of the Uncreated Logos who is Christ.

When he selects an artifact to study, the Christian educator follows the Apostle Paulʼs counsel: he chooses what is worthy praise, what is virtuous or excellent. (Phil.4:9) Such works more closely approximate the logos they imitate, which is what makes a “great work” great.

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of the CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America.



Andrew Kern
Founder and President of the CiRCE Institute

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