That there exists a relationship between art and morality can hardly be doubted. Nothing better reflects our abstract ideals and longings. Whether art can actually drive behavior is an open question, which I won’t tackle here. Certainly, every religion and every totalitarian ideology has believed in the power of art to influence our actions.
The art of every age embodies its moral tone. Greek art personifies aristocratic excellence. Modern art gives shape to a kind of moral panic. Artistically, of course, all periods of history weren’t created equal. My favorite is the Quattrocento (that is, fifteenth century – but it sounds so much better in Italian) art of Florence, and not only because it is beautiful beyond words. At a wonderfully high level of execution, it manages to make real an ideal of humanity that I find more profound than a thousand tomes of moral philosophy.
The Quattrocento, to Florentine artists, was an age of moral seriousness. What does that mean? I think it means that human beings, as represented in art, were made to seem like they faced important choices, on which they would expend considerable gifts.
Quattrocento humanity was different from classical humanity. The Greeks devised a limited number of patterns for beauty or nobility; everything else was discarded, and never seen in art. The Florentines, on the other hand, loved every form and shape of humanity, and saw at least the possibility of glory in all. Quattrocento painters loved faces. They loved to represent crowds of individuals: the faces were handsome and plain, young and old, even black and white – but all are powerfully human, all are actors in a moral drama in which their individual decisions will settle the rule of good or evil.
Quattrocento humanity was different from medieval humanity. Medieval Christianity considered the highest moral act to be renunciation. John the Baptist in his hairshirt, eating insects in the desert, was the hero of this moral vision. The Quattrocento artists created – an abused word, but quite true in this case – a new moral direction, in harmony with the Renaissance humanists.
That direction rejected escape from society, and placed specific burdens on individuals in the community. They were to behave as citizens, not mafiosi, and help enrich the lives of their fellow citizens in the moral as well as the material sense. They were to be patrons of public buildings and public art, and benefactors to the poor. They were to serve the state without benefit, and treat every person (at least within the city walls) with honor and dignity. Above all, they were to expect of themselves the highest achievements possible to our species, so that being human, and measuring life in human terms, could become an ennobling rather than a degrading experience.
There are at the Bargello in Florence three statues that illustrate these different moral perspectives, two by Donatello, the third once ascribed to him. One is the David – a great work of art, glorifying the triumph of the flesh. David’s face is that of Antinous, the emperor Hadrian’s toy-boy, and his pose is all come-hither. This is the most pagan work of art I have ever seen, and that includes large serried battalions of marble men and women. This David signifies the surrender of the will to the flesh.
The second statue – the pseudo-Donatello – is of the young John the Baptist, an emaciated adolescent, head wobbling on a skeletal neck, stick-like arms emerging from his hairshirt. St. John is renunciation. He is the medieval ideal: abandon your family, your community, the material world, and seek salvation in the wilderness.
St. Francis was only a more charming version of this austere vision. He rejected his father and his trade, and went off to commune with the animals. If pagan sensuality is a great temptation, the St. John of the Bargello represents another, equally great temptation: the wish to escape from the world, to live without human commitments, accompanied only by one’s dreams and fantasies.
Between these two statues is a third: the great St. George. It is, in my inexpert opinion, the most magnificent piece of sculpture in all history.
St. George is neither a sensualist nor an escape artist. He belongs in this world. He’s a soldier, about to fight. His expression conveys a deep uncertainty about the outcome. But he won’t escape – his expression tells that as well. He won’t run away because those things he is fighting for – his community, his honor, his integrity – are more important than his life. And he is not a sensualist for the same reason. There are nobler ways of achieving humanity – and those must always be shared, must be a family matter, a community affair, and are thus unattainable to the sensualist.
St. George is human as I would like to see the human race. He is not a superhero. His weaknesses are written on his face. He may be tempted to give up the fight, to party and enjoy as the David clearly does. Or, being a saint, he may think it the better part of valor to chuck his armor, put on a hairshirt, and disappear, alone, into the desert. Those are his doubts: his dragon. They must be fought every day, and the losses will no doubt equal the wins. But St. George wins in the fighting. His nobility is in knowing so deeply the likelihood of defeat, yet striving for victory.
That is the moral seriousness of the humanists and the Quattrocento artists. They did not despise God or the flesh – far from it, they probably indulged both more than we latter-day St. Georges would dare. But they envisioned a middle way, a true humanity between God and the flesh, and they left us that ideal in hundreds of great works of art.