“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

From Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

Do we agree with Keats? Can we even say what he means? I am inspired at least to attempt it by Jedson’s thoughts on how we should judge art, an issue we are moved to ponder now that artist Graham Ovenden‘s work is being condemned and censored.

Jedson said,

 “I question the idea that aesthetics is the only criterion by which we should judge art (which I suspect is your position [i.e. Heretic TOC’s].) That makes art harmless. Which I think it’s not. We can, let me suggest, evaluate art by three criteria: 1. aesthetic interest, 2. truthfulness and 3. moral vision. Ovenden scores very high on all three counts…”

I don’t know Ovenden’s work well enough to offer a deep evaluation of his truthfulness and moral vision, but I have no reason to challenge Jedson’s well articulated thinking on this. Art is only art if it affects people, whether emotionally or intellectually, and these effects can be benign or, as Jedson says, harmful. Indeed, I do remember Ovenden himself talking very convincingly about these aspects of his work on a TV documentary many years ago, when BBC presenter Robert Robinson was a guest at his country cottage, Barley Splatt. His drawings and paintings of little girls – some of them well before “the cusp of adolescence” by the way – were very much on display, and he discussed them with every appearance of high purpose and sincerity.

Be that as it may. Turning to Jedson’s criteria for evaluating art, let’s consider them, starting with aesthetic interest. Googling “aesthetic”, the first definition I encountered helpfully said, “concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty”. Quite! That’ll do for now. Essentially, like Keats, we are talking beauty here. Moving on briskly to truthfulness, what do we notice? Keats again! What about number three, moral vision?

Now it gets really interesting. Not only does Keats not mention moral vision, he in effect militantly asserts we do not need to. His poem is essentially a reflection on the meaning and value of art, just as are Jedson’s three criteria. But Keats has only two criteria, and he even manages to boil those down to just one, saying truth and beauty are the same.

So what is going on here? Isn’t this “reductionism” gone mad? Can Keats really be indifferent as to whether art is beneficial or harmful, an indifference that would seem implicit in saying only truth and beauty are important, leaving moral vision out of his account?

The key to Keats’ intriguing abstractions, I suggest, and their value to us here at Heretic TOC, lies in the poem as a whole, not in these two lines, with which it concludes. Far from being abstract, Ode on a Grecian Urn is packed with vividly concrete imagery, drawn from the poet’s contemplation of the scenes depicted (or so we are invited to believe) on a particular work of art, an ancient urn that lay buried and unseen for millennia, and which had been unearthed to reveal its marvellous story.

Amazingly, part of that story can now speak to us, right here at Heretic TOC, more powerfully than to generations of critics who have pondered and debated every line – some of them bizarrely dismissing the “truth is beauty” trope as merely vacuous semantics. Not so!

Do I seem to speak in riddles? So did Keats. Let me explain!

The key is in the context. Keats lived in London at a time when an immensity of ancient artistic riches were pouring into the city, such as the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles, exciting huge public interest. He had been educated in history and the classics, and is known to have taken an interest in the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a founding figure of archaeology and the history of art. Winckelmann’s work, in the 18th century, included excavation of the buried city of Pompeii, near Naples, where great treasures of erotic ancient art were discovered, including the homoerotic variety. Sir William Hamilton, around the same time, was also based in Naples, where he amassed immense collections of artistically decorated ancient Greek ceramics and had them transported to England, including homoerotic “sympotic” ware i.e. vessels used at the symposium, the all-male dinner parties where high-minded intellectual discussion was happily conjoined with more sensual pleasures, including the man-boy kind.

Keats was not gay (though Winckelmann was a BL), but his poetic enthusiasm for a piece of ancient “pagan” art would have marked him out as too sophisticated by half in the conservatively Christian England of 1820, when Ode on a Grecian Urn was published. Pagan art meant pagan values, and those included shocking sexual behaviours. No wonder the critics of the day trashed the poem: for them, one suspects, it lacked “moral vision”.

But did it? Moral vision is not necessarily conservative, and although Christianity is hard to beat when it comes to moralising, it holds no monopoly on morals, which were of course discussed in the ancient symposia – most famously as described in Plato’s Symposium. One of the many things Keats gives us in Ode on a Grecian Urn, I suggest, is a sense of excitement about the past, a fresh and lively sense that a very different sort of life was once both possible and real, rich and “true”: the aesthetic beauty of the urn, and of the scenes from long-past lives it evoked, spoke of the value in which the ancients held those lives; they revealed a truth about the past, and that revelation was not without moral significance in a good way.

But Keats could not be too explicit. It would have ruined the poem (as I am probably doing!) and might have ruined him too, had he scandalously committed himself to pagan values. So he opts for the faux innocence of aesthetic immediacy, and the sensual intensity for which his work is renowned.

What I am suggesting, in all this, is that there is sometimes a role for artfully disguised moral vision, or subversive art. That, perhaps, is what Jedson discerned in Graham Ovenden’s work: not the absence of morality, but its subtle deployment. Finally, to return to Jedson’s suspicion that aesthetics is the only criterion by which I judge art, I say yes, and no.

In the Keatsian sense, yes: beauty, and truth are aspects of the same thing, and insofar as they engage humanity (which a beautiful photograph of an iceberg, say, may not), they imply a good and inspiring moral element.

In a less poetic and more philosophical sense, though, no. Keats was no philosopher, you see. He was only 25 when he died, in the year after Ode on a Grecian Urn appeared. His schooling had been good, but by his own admission he had not read all that much. He was an enthusiast for Greek art but had simply not lived long enough to become a connoisseur, and in any case his unreserved rapture in the face of art was boyish; it was not entirely innocent but neither was it the sober assessment of the seasoned expert.

Was he even aware, I wonder, how ancient is the concept of beauty he brings to his evocation of ancient times? Or is the effect deliberate? The pre-Socratic Greeks, going back to Homer, conceived of beauty in a rough and naïve way: to be beautiful (kalos) was also to be good and noble; external beauty spoke of a matching inner beauty; a beautiful face betokened a beautiful soul. Now clearly Socrates, being decidedly ill-favoured by the gods in the facial appearance department, was not going to put up with that! He might have been ugly, but at least he was virtuous!  Which is why (if you’ll forgive a certain “How the tiger got its tail” simplicity) the classical Athenians, thanks to Socrates, Plato and the rest began to get a whole lot more thoughtful about this beauty business, and invented the much more refined idea of kalos kagathos to describe a person who was not just physically beautiful but beautiful in a sense which separately specified virtue (agathos = virtuous).The new expression really came to mean something like “fine and upstanding”, rather than good-looking.

The classical thinkers also, crucially, obliged the Greeks and every subsequent generation exposed to their wisdom, to consider precisely what is meant by high-sounding terms such as beauty and truth: these words can indeed be vacuously used, notwithstanding my earlier disavowal. What it comes to, I think, is that the judgment of art must engage, in addition to niceties of taste, also very specific definitions and arguments as they concern the moral element. Democratic societies place a high value on freedom of expression, which means that even “bad” art deserves respect for its contribution to the richness of our diversity – and we are constantly changing our minds, are we not, over what passes muster aesthetically, and even morally? Thus we are entitled to criticize, in my view, but not to censor, except when harm of a criminal nature is imminently threatened; but that is another debate.