Category Archives: Art

The Telos of Art and why it matters

Before writing this, I must give a disclaimer: I am very much a layman in this field, Aesthetics is not a field of philosophy I have done much research in or, until recently, had much interest in. With that being said, I will continue with my attempt to contribute to the field.

With all the important issues facing our world today, it may seem natural to question why something as trivial as “art” would merit serious consideration. Having put thought into it, I believe these qualms are mistaken on at least two points; art reflects and guides culture. Art is reflective in culture as being a type of social commentary- the values, themes, and ideologies found in art tend to reflect their societal counterparts (e.g. the rise of philosophical postmodernism corresponded to postmodern art). On the other and, art guides culture in that it has formative powers; art speaks powerfully to the heart and mind of a viewer, over a course of time, the ideological values placed within art can begin to affect the culture which it mirrors. Rather than a strict reflection, art can give a distorted reflection of cultural mores to emphasize certain facets thereof; in so doing, art can begin to guide the culture to a corresponding emphasis (Giovannelli). With this in mind, the question of whether or not art has a “telos” becomes a more significant question-one that has been debated for millennia.

Art is fundamentally experiential; and,  while different forms will be experienced differently and to different degrees, no piece of artistic endeavor is complete unless it elicits an experiential response (Morscher). This would imply that the proper function of art is, at least in part, an active response on the part of the people experiencing the art. At least one Aesthetistician (Leddy) argues that the purpose of art is to find an equilibrium of “feeling”, “action”, and “meaning”; or, more concretely, to create a synthesis of the past and the future in the present. While this may seem meaninglessly esoteric, it is actually rather profound-art seeks to give substance to the journey of life, synthesizing the path we have already walked with the destination we wish to arrive at. In other words, art has both normative and formative roles as signposts towards the person (or society) we want to be.   Goodman argues that this work is done via the exemplification of abstract ideas and concepts (e.g. emotions, states of mind, relationships, perspectives, etc.) in concrete works. Relevant to this blog, this would entail the exemplification of virtues or vices in an artist’s work. So, if we coalesce these conceptions of art’s purpose into a single statement, the telos of art appears to be the pedagogical exemplification of abstract concepts for the formation of an ideal character.

If I am correct in identifying the telos of art, what does that have to say regarding the relationship between art and ethics (which is to say, does ethical consideration affect the aesthetic quality of art)? Broadly speaking, there are three camps of viewing the relationship between these two fields: Autonomism (aestheticism), Moralism, and Ethicism. Autonomism and Moralism are polar opposites, holding that morality is irrelevant to aesthetic evaluation and aesthetic quality is wholly dependent upon morality respectively. The mediating position of Ethicism holds that “some works of art may be evaluated morally (contra radical autonomism) and that sometimes the moral defects and/or merits of a work may figure in the aesthetic evaluation of the work” (Peek). If my evaluation is accurate, radical autonomism is immediately disqualified as it would fail to embody the proper telos of aesthetic endeavor. While moralism seems to be the ultimate embodiment thereof, it also seems to be lacking… we seem to intuitively know that aesthetic qualities factor in to the value of an artistic piece; regardless of the ethics exemplified, a piece of art that I were to make would not be called “good”.  It seems the answer is the “golden mean” between two vices is the best position- aesthetic quality is influenced by, but not solely dependent upon, moral considerations.

I will seek to illustrate this  function of art by comparing the work of two authors and the manner in which they affect readers; the two have been selected due to popularity of respective works and the comparisons in popular analyses. (Also there have been a series of entertaining discussions about relative merits between myself and some misguided friends).

Over the span of 1954-1955, J.R.R. Tolkien released his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings as the culmination of 16 years of work (Doughan). Contrary to the expectations of critics and supporters alike, this monumental work was immediately a hit—widely heralded as the dawn of modern fantasy Tolkien’s epic saga has cast a wide shadow over the genre ever since. G.R.R. Martin is a contemporary author currently heralded as the “American Tolkien” best known for his bestselling series A Song of Ice and Fire, and the HBO series based thereon, A Game of Thrones, . Both the book and television series are ongoing, beginning with the publication of Game of Thrones in 1996, there have been five books published and HBO is currently airing the sixth season of the show. This blog is meant to use these two popular (and comparable) works to illustrate the telos of art- I will argue one embodies it and the other does not. At the onset, it must be emphasized that this is dealing with the objective characteristics of the works; per the scholastic proverb, De gustibus non est disputandum, subjective preferences cannot be evaluated in such a manner.

Warning: Remainder of the post will allude to numerous spoilers for works by both authors; while specifics will be avoided as much as possible, the possibility that further reading may spoil certain plot points cannot be avoided.

These two different epics are wildly popular and both have a devout fan base. Yet while one embodies the telos of art in exemplifying virtues to challenge its readers to be better, the other exemplifies a nihilistic amorality. Tolkien’s work celebrates and encourages virtues such as humility (e.g. council of Elrond deferring to Frodo or Faramir knowing he was unfit to bare the ring), self-sacrifice (e.g. Frodo taking upon himself to burden of the ring or the battle of Morannon), friendship (e.g. the fellowship), honor (Rohan answering Gondor’s call or Pippin’s submitting himself to Denethor’s authority), among numerous others. In contrast, Martin’s work shows a celebration of gratuitous violence be it physical (e.g. exploding head(s)), psychological (e.g. Ramsey and Joffrey), or sexual (e.g. numerous rapes, paedophilia, and genital mutilation); loyalties are transient with betrayals frequent and gruesome (e.g. Red Wedding), sex is used as a weapon or tool (e.g. Cersei). The only constant in A Song of Ice and Fire is the pursuit of power- to quote another author, “there is no good or evil; only power and those to weak to seek it” (Rowling, 211).

Some may argue that this is purely because A Song of Ice and Fire depict the dark side of humanity while The Lord of The Rings does not. Granting this for the sake of argument, this line of reasoning is shown to be wrong on at least two accounts: the way virtue is depicted in Martin’s work and vices are in Tolkien’s other works. Eddard Stark is depicted as a noble and honorable man and in recompense for his honor he is beheaded by a spoiled snob. The challenge of virtue does not need a positive depiction, in The Children of Hurin (a less famous but, in my opinion, better example of Tolkien’s work in Arda) Tolkien emulates the call to virtue found in its more famous counterpart by depicting the darker side of humanity- the virtue of humility is extolled when Turin’s pride causes him to kill his hosts, the virtue of honor is extolled when Hurin stands before the gates of Angband in defiance of Morgoth’s forces fighting to give his comrades a chance to escape (before being caught and tortured) and the virtue of honesty is extolled when Turin’s deceit leads to incest which in turn leads to suicide-a dark ending that would fit in with Martin’s work.

So, to give the aforementioned “telos” concrete form, why does this matter? It matters because when we read works like Tolkien’s we are challenged to be better, to embody these virtues that are exemplified in characters-these characters are better people than we are, they challenge us to become like them (our ideal self) in their virtuous nature. In contrast, works like Martin’s fail to challenge us to be better; if anything, the celebration of vice encourages us to be worse-to mimic our favorite characters in their revelry. More likely, works like Martin’s allow us to feel better about our faults- after all, we are not as bad as the we could be. The difference really is as simple as that, one shows the degradation of man and allows us to justify ourself in comparison to that, while the other depicts the glory of what man should be and challenges us to seek after it.


Doughan, David. “Biography.” The Tolkien Society. 2014. Accessed June 10, 2016.

Giovannelli, Alessandro. “Goodman’s Aesthetics.” Stanford University. May 27, 2010. Accessed June 14, 2016.

Grossman, Lev. “Books: The American Tolkien.” Time, November 13, 2005.

Leddy, Tom. “Dewey’s Aesthetics.” Stanford University. February 8, 2016. Accessed June 11, 2016.

Morscher, Edgar. “Bolzano’s Theory of Fine Arts.” Stanford University. 2013. Accessed June 14, 2016.

Peek, Ella. “Ethical Criticism of Art.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Accessed June 10, 2016.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic, 1997. 309. Print