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What the artist knows

November 24, 2014

In 1920 Jacques Maritain, not yet become a famous neo-Thomist, wrote a small book titled Art and Scholasticism. It sought through the scattered remarks on beauty and art found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas to justify the recent modernist revolutions in painting, music, and poetry.

Georges Rouault - Christ dans le Banlieu (c. 1920-24); Rouault and Maritain were good friends

Georges Rouault – Christ dans le Banlieu (c. 1920-24); Rouault and Maritain were good friends

“Recent” doesn’t really do Maritain justice. True, the work of Manet, Wagner, and Baudelaire, the founders of modernism[1], had been around for half a century; but the theorists of modernism to whom Maritain most often turns were still-living members of Les Nabis; and Picasso, Stravinsky, and Eliot, all of whom he discusses, were basically his contemporaries. Maritain was writing at a time when modernist art just meant the art that’s going on right now.

It’s difficult, I think, for us to imagine such a book coming out today. A scholarly analysis of contemporary art: of course. An essayistic justification of the artistic revolutions that began in the 1960s and have only just begun to crest–perhaps. An argument along these lines made by appeal to the philosophy of the 1260s–well, if it’s out there, I want to see it, and I hope it’s as well done as Art and Scholasticism.


Not being an expert, I can’t say how true the book is to medieval thought, but as a work of aesthetic philosophy I found it a quite compelling synthesis of the best parts of Romanticism and Classicism. Its first core idea, which we might call Classical, is that “art” is an intellectual activity:

The virtue of the craftsman was not, in their eyes, strength of muscle and nimbleness of fingers, or the rapidity of the chronometered and tailored gesture; nor was it that merely empirical activity (experimentum) which takes place in the memory and in the animal (cogitative) reason, which imitates art and which art absolutely needs, but which remains of itself extrinsic to art. It was a virtue of the intellect, and endowed the humblest artisan with a certain perfection of the spirit. (20)

Artistic virtue is knowledge of how to make something for a particular purpose; how to make something that can be an aid to doing something. But the “fine” arts, the arts directed towards beauty, make things that have no particular purpose, other than to be beautiful; they do not help us to do anything:

Art in general tends to make a work. But certain arts tend to make a beautiful work, and in this they differ essentially from all the others. The work to which all the other arts tend is itself ordered to the service of man, and is therefore a simple means; and it is entirely enclosed in a determined material genus. The work to which the fine arts tend is ordered to beauty; as beautiful, it is an end, an absolute, it suffices of itself; and if, as work-to-be-made, it is material and enclosed in a genus, as beautiful it belongs to the kingdom of the spirit and plunges deep into the transcendence and the infinity of being.” (33)

This plunge into transcendence leads us to the second, more Romantic, and more difficult, tenet of Maritain’s aesthetics: beauty must be understood as splendor of form, and the artist’s knowledge is the knowledge of how to bring the splendor into view. As a footnote[2] describes the artistic genius, it is

the altogether particular knowledge by which the poet, the painter and the musician perceive in things forms and secrets that are hidden to others and which are expressible only in the work–a knowledge which may be called poetic knowledge and which falls under the heading of knowledge through connaturality, or, as one says today, existential knowledge.(n130, 195)

The artist need not reproduce the appearance of things which he sees–a belief Maritain associates with Cartesian subjectivism–but rather the inherent intelligibility of the form he has in mind; a form associated with nothing in particular, which he arrives at through seeing more deeply; and which he may display through reproducing the appearances of things, but which is not located in the appearances reproduced, but in how he arranges and shapes them:

the beauty of a work of art not being the beauty of the object represented, painting and sculpture are in no way bound to the determined proportions and to the imitation of such a type. The art of pagan antiquity thought itself so bound because of an extrinsic condition, because it represented above all the gods of an anthropomorphic religion. (n61, 171)

This point–that, no longer worshipping anthropomorphic gods, we are free to plumb the depths of our creative power–gives artistry its religious overtones, which Maritain acknowledges as extra-moral and only half seeks to diffuse:

Artistic creation does not copy God’s creation, it continues it. And just as the trace and image of God appear in His creatures, so the human stamp is imprinted on the work of art–the full stamp, sensitive and spiritual, not only that of the hands, but of the whole soul. Before the work of art passes from art into the matter, by a transitive action, the very conception of the art has had to emerge from within the soul, by an immanent and vital action, like the emergence of the mental word. (60)

So, anti-mimetic, but also anti-expressive; the artist does not give shape to the world, or to his feelings, but to an idea. The artist’s task is to make this idea shine through as clearly as possible. As the supplementary essay “The Frontiers of Poetry” (1927) puts it:

Modern poetry is not going to free itself of language or of the work-to-be-made, but it must make transparent these intermediaries of the soul, it must make of matter, by dint of diligent attention and abnegation, a means of transmission that does not twist or mutilate its message. (150)


I quote so extensively because there is, I think, much to be learned here. But there are also dangers. For one, the lack of care taken to distinguish painting, music, and poetry from each other; do the things we say about any one really translate so easily to the others? For another, the belief in spiritual “progress,” as shown in this last quotation; Maritain explicitly rejects the idea that art can bring about Paradise, but his rhetoric still suggests that it will play a part, an idea we should always view with suspicion.

But, perhaps most importantly: I’m not convinced by this business about beauty as “an end in itself.” Or, rather, I can accept the thought that Beauty is an end in itself, just as Truth is; but that fact alone, it seems to me, does nothing to make either an end for us. At the very least, a more robust anthropology is needed before we can use these transcendentals to justify either the Scientific or the Artistic Revolutions.

The first step, I think, would involve attending to how we use the beautiful objects that we make. Maritain is, of course, right that we don’t do anything with them, not anything in particular. They do not serve us as the servile arts do. But we do live with them, and befriend them; and that’s something. Maritain was, it turns out, good friends with Georges Rouault, the proto-expressionist French painter, and he does not ignore the role friendship plays in artistic creation. But I wish he had paid it more attention.


[1]: My claim, not Maritain’s. Though obviously it’s an overly simplistic way of looking at things, I don’t think many people would say it’s wrong.

[2]: The footnotes must be read. They contain numerous additions, clarifications, and emendations made by the later Maritain as he saw modernism unfold.


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