Integritas and the aesthetic appreciation of incomplete artworks

by Daniel B. Gallagher

March 19, 2006


This paper examines how the notion of integritas, central to a Thomistic philosophy of art and aesthetics, applies to works of art which are corrupt or incomplete due to missing parts. Using the Laocoön as a primary example, the author argues that the concept of unitas in Thomistic philosophy is essential to understanding how a work such as the Laocoön can retain its integritas even when a portion of the father’s right arm is missing. Although the epistemological foundation that undergirds the aesthetic perception of the "incomplete" Laocoön differs from that of the "complete" Laocoön, the author concludes that the Thomistic concept of integritas allows a work of art to be "imperfect" in one sense, though still "perfect" in another.


1. The Laocoön and incompleteness

While contemplating the Laocoön sculpture group in the Vatican Museums one spring afternoon I was distracted by an exchange between a mother and her five-year-old daughter. "My dear," the mother asked, "isn’t this statue beautiful?"

     The girl pondered the question for a moment before replying, "I guess so" But mommy, where are the arms?"

     "They’re lost " that’s all." Unsatisfied though she seemed, the girl accepted her mother’s authoritative judgment and tagged along behind her toward the Sistine Chapel.

     My paper is an attempt to sketch the philosophical implications of the distinction between the girl’s observation and her mother’s explanation. In the girl’s estimation, two of the figures in the statue that so impressed her mother did not have arms. The mother’s experience and wisdom enabled her to recognize that the arms were merely missing. At a rudimentary level, it may be that the girl assumed that figures in the sculpture never had arms, whereas the mother knew that they once had had them, but had them no longer. The child hesitated to label the sculpture "beautiful" because intuitively she knew that beautiful things are "wholes". Her mother, aware that arms were once there, was somehow able to designate the artwork as beautiful. I cannot help but wonder what deeper philosophical speculation I might have provoked that day had I interjected with the mendacious claim that Roman sculptors rarely included arms on their sculptures. Should the mother have appreciated them any less?

     The Laocoön is undoubtedly the cause célčbre of the rediscovery and restitution of a missing limb. This piece, a deceptively complex and tragic work representing the punishment of the Trojan priest along with his two sons, was reputedly discovered in a field on the Esquiline Hill on January 14, 1506. Among the eyewitnesses to the discovery were Michaelangelo, Sangallo the Elder, and his son. Pope Julius II, ecstatic that the famous work described by Pliny had finally been found, immediately purchased the statue and had it installed in a courtyard of the Vatican Palace. It instantly became the paradigmatic model for training in the art of sculpture and a canonical piece for artistic contests in sculpture and drawing.

     The story of the reproduction and "rediscovery" of the right arm is as convoluted as the unearthing of the statue itself. Baccio Bandinelli, who was eventually commissioned by Leo X to make a copy of the Laocoön, originally designed a replacement for the missing right arm, but it was never subsequently attached. Later, an arm was finished by a little known apprentice of Michaelangelo by the name of Giovanni Montorsoli. Michaelangelo, who initially had declined an invitation to reproduce the right arm, and who was exasperated by unsatisfactory attempts to extrapolate and imitate the original position and angle of the arm by other artists, himself completed the right forearm at a much more restricted and contorted angle in respect to the upper arm. In 1905, a German archeologist discovered a highly reliable fragment of the right elbow of the Laocoön revealing that Michaelangelo had demonstrated the most accurate understanding of the arm’s original position.

     A lively debate continues today concerning the origin and authenticity of the Laocoön. At first, scholars simply questioned whether the sculpture was genuinely Hellenistic or merely a Roman copy. But in April of 2005, Dr. Lynn Catterson presented a paper at Columbia University’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America in which she argues rather persuasively that the Laocoön is in reality a Michaelangelo forgery of the still-undiscovered classical sculpture.

     As intriguing as the whole story may be, and without denying that the scholarly activity continuing to unfold in other disciplines bears upon the work of philosophers, I only hold up this piece as an example of an "imperfect" artwork for the sake of discussion. We could choose the equally famous and arguably more interesting Belvedere torso, Michaelangelo’s never-completed Pietŕ at the Uffizi, the Venus of Milo, or any of the various armless statues at the Vatican that baffled the five-year girl as she was corralled toward the Sistine Chapel. The Laocoön, however, offers itself as a most interesting test-case insofar as the missing forearm has become an obsession to artists, historians, and philosophers alike.

     I argue that an understanding of the three essential characteristics of beauty advanced by Thomas Aquinas may help us understand the nature of these damaged art objects and the reasons for which we continue to admire them. As we shall see, the concepts of integritas and unitas may be of particular usefulness in understanding the distinction implicit in the exchange between mother and daughter.

Before proceeding, I would like to mention three of several reasons why such a philosophical study might be worth pursuing. First of all, a consideration of the Thomistic principles of beauty and their application to damaged classical sculptures may help to further a path of inquiry already well trod by aestheticians. The missing arm, for example, was only of passing interest to Lessing when he wrote Laocoön, An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1853). But his arguments concerning the inherit limitation of the plastic arts to represent poetic narrative do bear on the issue of incompleteness and imperfection. Just as the viewer must employ the imaginative faculty to complete the narrative chronologically with any piece of sculpture, so must the viewer "complete" a piece of sculpture spatially when parts are missing. In his landmark Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, Monroe Beardsley analyzes the categories of completeness and coherence in the visual arts and their analogous use in music and literature (1958). He concedes that a sculpture with missing limbs can nevertheless be complete in design (pp. 190-200). And although Ernst Gombrich’s ETC principle is to be understood within the larger context of his elaborate theory of illusion in art, it proves a fascinating framework for explaining how what is present in the Laocoön suggests or tends toward what is now absent (1960). Finally, a phenomenological basis for the relation between imaginative reconstruction and beauty was famously proposed by Roman Ingarden (1967).

     A second reason for which Aquinas’ might be worth revisiting is more historical in nature. It is quite possible that Aquinas was familiar with incomplete works of art. However, another two hundred years would pass before the halls of the Vatican Palace would begin to fill with limbless sculptures discovered from ages past. In other words, Aquinas’ experience of incompleteness in art would have been much different at the height of the Middle Ages than it would have been at the height of the Renaissance. Consequently, an application of Aquinas’ theory of beauty to a work such as the Laocoön opens doors to further considerations of the theory’s flexibility and universality.

     Finally, allowing Aquinas’ theory to enter the wider discussion of incompleteness in art may help us to reconsider the role of "things" in philosophical aesthetics. It would be hard to deny that Aquinas’ theory is, as Beardsley suggests, "objectivist" (1966). As we shall see, the three essential characteristics of beauty are primarily predicated of "things" and not of "knowers". Although Aquinas’ metaphysical realism may be suspect in many post-Kantian philosophical schools, fewer philosophers dismiss Aquinas’ philosophy as mere dogmatism as once upon a time. Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, has made admirable attempts to relate Aquinas’ characteristics of beauty to contemporary psychological explanations of analogous perception across different art forms (1980).

2. Integritas in Aquinas

     According to Aquinas, a beautiful thing possesses three essential characteristics: integritas, proportio, and claritas (ST I, ques. 39, art. 8c). The latter two characteristics were expounded at length in the writings of St. Augustine. A long and fascinating history led to Aquinas’ inclusion of integritas (Eco, 1988). I will have a word to say in regard to the relevance of including integritas among the essential characteristics of the beautiful at the end of this paper. Integritas is that which makes a work whole, perfect and complete (ST I, ques. 73, art. 1c). It subsists in a work that lacks nothing essential to its proper nature. Proportio refers to the arrangement of the individual parts of a work and the relationships between them (ST I, ques. 12, art. 1, ad 4). Claritas is the most difficult to articulate, but arguably the most important. Augustine used the word claritas to designate merely the brilliance of a color and the pleasure it causes. Etienne Gilson wrote that claritas "is the objective basis of our own perception of the beautiful" (1965, p. 31). In somewhat elliptical terms we can say that claritas is that which makes a thing clearly seen for what it is. The Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has poetically expressed claritas as "utter visibility" in his description of stone figures on the facade of a cathedral (1991).

     The presence of these three properties together characterizes everything worthy of the name "beautiful". Although it seems that Aquinas primarily had in mind objects present to the eye, others in the Thomistic tradition have analogously applied integrity, proportion, and clarity to audible and dramatic works of art (Vaski, 1976). Whether these three qualities are found in art or in nature, Thomist predicates them primarily to things and only secondarily to our perception of them. Evidence for Aquinas’ objectivist "kalology" is to be found just as much in his metaphysics and epistemology as it is in his aesthetics (Grief, 1963). In maintaining such a bold objectivism, however, Aquinas by no means shuns the indispensable role of the senses and intellect necessary for a coherent theory of aesthetics. The Thomistic definition of a beautiful thing --id quod visum placet--clearly indicates that that which pertains to the essence of beauty also ineluctably refers to the one who perceives it.1 In the words of Etienne Gilson, it is not that "the beautiful itself consists in the pleasure that it gives, but rather that the presence of the beautiful is known by the pleasure that attends its apprehension" (p. 23).

     When the mother asserted that the armless statue was beautiful, she was making a statement about the object before her. But she was only able to make that assertion because she had perceived it. The Laocoön group, when seen, was pleasing to her. Rather than challenge or analyze the validity of her judgment (I happen to agree with her; the Laocoön is beautiful), I turn to consider the ways in which the Thomistic characteristics of beauty might pertain to a sculpture that has become "incomplete" due to damage or corruption over time.2 How does the missing arm of the Laocoön affect the work’s integrity, proportion, and clarity?

     The essential interplay between object and viewer must be maintained in order for the assertion of either mother or daughter to make sense. On the one hand, it would be ridiculous to claim that the Laocoön, because it is incomplete, has entirely lost its integrity and consequently cannot in any way be considered beautiful. Not quite as ridiculous, but just as extreme, would be the claim that the woman’s imaginative faculty, insofar as she mentally reconstructs the statue by supplying the missing arm, is alone responsible for bringing about the integritas essential to the sculpture’s beauty. For at what point does such a mental reconstruction become impossible? The archeologist who recognized the elbow of the Laocoön in the mason’s shop was also able to reconstruct the statue mentally. Indeed, it was such a reconstruction that enabled him to identify the elbow. Was the elbow alone just as beautiful to him as the incomplete Laocoön was to the mother in the Vatican museums?3 Clearly, there must be something in the artwork itself to which we can refer in attempting to justify the claim that it is beautiful. If we accept integritas as an essential characteristic of the beautiful, we must be ready to defend the integrity of a damaged piece such as the Laocoön.

3. Integritas, form, and end

     According to a Thomistic understanding of the three characteristics of beauty, the incompleteness of the Laocoön leads to an imperfection non simpliciter sed secundum quid. Most would agree that it would be preferable to have the missing arm restored so as to appreciate the work it its completeness.4 But even without the arm, the sculpture, as a work of art, still possesses a certain integrity pertaining to its beauty as a work of art, an integrity supported by the proportion and clarity also adhering in it. Because integrity, proportion, and clarity are properties of beauty, and beauty, in turn, is a transcendental5 in the thought of Aquinas, there must be a metaphysical ground for its presence. Admittedly, there has been a long line of debate in Thomistic circles regarding the nature of beauty as a transcendental (Pouillon, 1946). The three other transcendentals--goodness, truth, and unity--have been the cause of considerably less disagreement among Thomists in respect to their universal predictability in the order of being.

     Of the three essential characteristics of the beautiful, integrity most directly pertains to the unity of an art object. In the realm of nature, and more specifically in the case of living beings, integrity refers to the harmonious functioning of all the necessary parts of an organism present in the normal case. The presence of roots, a trunk, branches, and leaves together constitute the integrity of a tree. Its unity, which, according to Thomas, is a principle of its intelligibility as "tree", depends on its integrity (ST I, ques. 107, art. 1c ad 2; ques. 79, art. 3c). Yet there is a distinction between the two. Whereas unity refers to the hylomorphic and intelligible entity that we call a tree, integrity refers to the interdependence of the essential parts of the tree that allow it to maintain its unity. In the order of cognition, unity primarily refers to its intelligibility as "tree", whereas integrity refers to (1) its completeness in view of its final end, and (2) its ability to be perceived as "beautiful". If several of the tree’s main branches are cut by the gardener or knocked down by heavy winds, it continues to maintain its unity. Its integrity, on the other hand, may be diminished in both respects: (1) in its ability to assimilate the water, minerals, and sunlight necessary for it to flourish as a living organism (i.e., to achieve its final end); and (2) in its ability to be perceived as a natural object of beauty. For the most part, we consider healthy trees to be more beautiful that unhealthy ones.

     We might also consider the case of the human body as an even closer analogate to the sculpture in question. Unlike the Laocoön, we generally consider the absence of an arm to debilitate a person. In Aristotelian philosophy, the classic case of incompleteness is the absence of something that by nature should be present for the full and proper functioning of the body. But what of an incomplete sculpture of the human body? Clearly, is not a matter of a disability as in the case of a physical body. The statue has no need of an arm in the same way that an actual man does. Yet, the little girl was right in maintaining that the "wholeness" of the statue somehow suffered from the loss of an arm.

     Here we may delineate the distinction between incompleteness in an actual human body and in a sculpture of the body against the background of the Thomistic categories already discussed. The human body has a distinctively different final cause than does a statue (ST I, ques. 3, art. 1c). The human being, as a natural entity, is, in peripatetic philosophy, ordered to eudainomia. Thomas Aquinas both adopts and transforms this Aristotelian teaching with his own doctrine of beatitudo (ST I, ques. 62, art. 3; ques. 73, art. 1c; ST I-II, ques. 3, art. 2; ques. 55, art. 2, ad 3).

     The human body plays an essential role in achieving the final end of man insofar as it is ordered to health (ST I, ques. 79, art. 5, ad 3). Health is a constitutive part of human flourishing (eudainomia). The work of the artist, on the other hand, at least in the classical period we have been discussing, is ordered to beauty as its final cause. We may distinguish the sculpture from the actual human body insofar as the sculpture is ordered to a purely aesthetic end and not a beatific end. The human body is indeed beautiful, but its beauty is caught up and ordered to the higher final end of beatitude. The statue, on the other hand, exists as a product of the artist executed solely for the enjoyment of the beholder.

     This distinction between the human body and the piece of sculpture assists us in a more satisfactory analysis of the three essential characteristics of beauty in the case of a human body and in the case of a piece of sculpture. The integrity of the human body is more than the right ordering of the individual physical components that enable a person to perform manual tasks, move from one place to another, and vocalize emotions and thoughts. The composition of body and soul as form to matter is at the core of integritas in the case of the human person. Although Aquinas, following Aristotle, does speak of a statue’s form, it is of an entirely different kind than the form of the human body. Whereas the soul of the human person is intellectual, incorruptible, and eternal, the form of the statue is insentient, corruptible, and ephemeral. The loss of a limb in the case of a human being does not result in the loss of a soul (i.e., its form), whereas the loss of the right forearm from the Laocoön does result in a certain disfiguration of its form (ST I, ques. 76, art. 1; ques. 90, art. 2, ad 1). Nevertheless, it would be difficult to argue that losing a part of a statue is more lamentable than losing part of an actual human body. We must add to this a second distinction. I have already noted that the activity of the artist is ordered to the perfection of the work, and that the perfection itself consists in beauty. In this respect, beauty is considered the final cause of the work. However, beauty itself, according to Aquinas, is primarily in the order of formal causality (ST I, ques. 5, art. 1).

     We have some flexibility on how to interpret Aquinas on this point. Maritain explains that as transcendentals, goodness is in the order of final causality, whereas beauty is in the order of formal causality (1930, pp. 16-22). A thing is good insofar as it is ordered toward the fulfillment of the natural end for which it exists. A thing is beautiful insofar as it is constituted by its form to achieve that end. In the case of the fine arts, therefore, integrity, proportion, and clarity constitute the form by which a thing is made beautiful in the following respective ways: integrity, insofar as the form maintains a coherent unity; proportion, insofar as the individual parts are arranged in such a way as to render that unity harmonious; clarity, insofar as the harmonious unity of the form is rendered visible.

     This distinction between goodness, beauty, and the Aristotelian causes to which they refer provides a basis for the validity of the mother’s assertion. From the artistic vantage point, the artifex who executed the Laocoön crafted the work in such a way that its final cause was to be a beautiful thing. From the aesthetic vantage point, the Laocoön itself is beautiful in the order of formal causality. Consequently, the formal cause of the statue enjoys a certain independence from its efficient cause, i.e. the artist who created it. That is to say that the Laocoön group maintains its formal causality whether Dr. Catterson’s thesis is correct or not (see above).

     With the Thomistic distinctions serving as a background, let us turn to reconsider the respective judgments of mother and daughter. The little girl hesitates to attribute beauty to the statue because she perceives in it a lack of "wholeness". In Thomistic language, "wholeness" may also be understood as unitas, and as we have seen, unity pertains primarily to the order of being (DV, ques. 21, art. 5, ad 8m; ST 1, ques. 11, art. 1, ad 1m). Each and every ens, insofar as it exists, is one. Aquinas asserts that the primary characteristic of the transcendental attribute of unity is indivisibility. Unum enim nihil aliud significat quam ens indivisum (ST I, ques. 11, art. 1). As a being (ens), the Laocoön still remains one. In the metaphysical order, the sculpture has not forfeited its unity by the loss of a limb. Even without the arm, we call the piece in the Vatican Museums "the Laocoön group", but we would hesitate to confer the same name upon the rediscovered elbow in isolation. Unity, as a transcendent metaphysical property, is unique in that it does not allow for degrees. A thing is either one, or there are many things. In Aquinas’ larger theological context, the way in which a thing is one may be greater or lesser depending on the perfection of that thing. For example, Thomas argues that the oneness of God pertains to him in an utterly more perfect way than others things exist as unities (ST I, ques. 11, art. 4).

     Integritas, however, as an essential characteristic of beautiful things, does allow for differences in degree. Evaluative judgments are made in art criticism routinely on this basis. One work can be shown to be more complete than another, just as it can be shown to be more harmoniously proportioned than another or have greater clarity than another. Each of these three characteristics, in turn, reinforces the other two. Viewing the Laocoön through this lens, the mother is able to call the statue beautiful. Even without the father’s arm, the group exhibits a certain completeness that is supported by its internal proportion and clarity. In particular, we may say that the extraordinary proportion inherent in the work, along with its clarity of form, was precisely what allowed Michaelangelo to deduce the correct size, shape, and position of the missing arm. A work of considerably inferior proportion and clarity would have prevented even a genius like Michaelangelo from visualizing and executing a replacement arm that would restore the work’s original integrity.

     In summary, the concepts of unity and integrity provide a framework for understanding why we continue to appreciate corrupt or incomplete sculptures. The Laocoön group is beautiful because, as a unity, it maintains its original form even though it lacks a right forearm, insofar as the integrity of the sculpture, because it pertains to the order of formal causality, continues to adhere in the sculpture. In this regard, the mother is correct. Her daughter, however, also has grounds for withholding her aesthetic approbation insofar as the integrity of the sculpture could be enhanced through a restoration of the missing limb. Unfortunately, by rushing off in haste to the Sistine Chapel, the mother missed an opportunity to deepen her appreciation of the integrity she already perceived, while the daughter missed an opportunity to apprehend the unity she had mistaken as a lack of integrity.

4. Integritas as an essential characteristic of the beautiful

     A practical application of integritas, proportio, and claritas to a work such as the Laocoön testifies to the importance of including integritas among the essential characteristics of the beautiful. Cicero had set a precedent by emphasizing proportion and clarity over integrity which lasted well until the time of Augustine. The classic passage in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations reads: " corporis est quaedam apta figura membrorum cum coloris quadam suavitate " quae dicitur pulchritudo (of the body, there is a certain fitting arrangement of parts with a certain agreeableness of color which is called beauty) (Cicero, Tusculanarum Disputationum, iv, xiii). Four centuries later Augustine echoes the Ciceronian aesthetic when he writes: "All bodily (corporeal) beauty consists in the proportion of the parts (congruentia partium), together with a certain agreeableness (suavitas) of color" (De civitate Dei, CXXII, xix; XI, xxii).

     Although Augustine’s treatise De pulchro et apto has been lost, we can deduce from his later comments in Book IV of De vera religione and Book IX of De civitate Dei that he must have foreshadowed the Thomistic aesthetic in distinguishing between complex and partial beauty. He argues that there is a solid basis for the predication of beauty to wholes in a way that distinguishes such beauty from the type we predicate to isolated colors or sounds. In short, Augustine’s totum paved the way for a long and arduous journey toward Aquinas’ integritas. In the end, it is only by including integritas that we have a better understanding of how proportion and clarity enhance the overall completeness or wholeness of a work of art.  


End Notes

1 Although the exact phrase used by Aquinas is "pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent," neo-Thomistic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain have readily adapted the modified id quod visum placet definition. See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 39. Cf. Jacques Maritain (1930). Eco (1988) criticizes Maritain and neo-Thomists for using this modified definition because Eco believes that the id quod visum placet definition contains a metaphysical import Aquinas himself never intended.

2 Such cases differ considerably from artworks that are intentionally left "incomplete" by their makers. Although much of the Thomistic analysis might be applied to these cases as well, they are not my primary interest in the present paper. In any case, Maritain holds that such intentionally "incomplete" artworks may in many cases allow for a fuller realization of integritas. "The slightest sketch of Leonardo’s or even Rodin’s in nearer to perfection than the most finished Bouguereru. And if it pleases a futurist to paint a lady with only one eye, or a quarter of an eye, nobody denies him such a right: all one is entitled to require--and here is the whole problem--is that the quarter eye is all the lady needs in the given case" (p. 27)

3 Working within the psychoanalytic tradition, Peter Fuller argues that completing a statue such as the Venus of Milo by use of imagination is actually more pleasurable (1980). See also T. Pateman (1997). Here, however, I am suggesting that beauty, if understood objectively, is reduced in proportion to the extent that the object is damaged and consequently rendered less apprehensible in its "wholeness".

4  I confess that this proposition is not entirely self evident. Persuasive arguments can be made in favor of the Laocoön’s enhanced aesthetic appeal precisely on account of the missing arms. See Ginsberg (2004).

5 I use the term here in the uniquely Thomistic sense as distinguished from the Kantian sense. In Thomistic philosophy, being, unity, truth, goodness, beauty, and "thing" (res) are "transcendental" properties because they are predicated of being wherever it is found. In this sense, each of these properties both "climbs across" and "climbs beyond" all of the Aristotelian categories.



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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Daniel B. Gallagher "Integritas and the aesthetic appreciation of incomplete artworks". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: March 11, 2006, Published: March 19, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Daniel B. Gallagher