Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain

Chapter VII

The Purity of Art

"What we now seek in art," Emile Clermont observed,[99] "the Greeks sought in something quite different, sometimes in wine, most often in the celebration of their mysteries: a frenzy, an intoxication. The great Bacchic madness of these mysteries corresponds to our highest point of emotion in art, which is something derived from Asia. But for the Greeks art was altogether different . . . . [100] It did not have for its purpose to convulse the soul, but to purify it, which is the exact opposite: 'art purifies the passions,' according to Aristotle's celebrated and generally misunderstood observation. And what would doubtless be a prime necessity for us, is to purify the idea of beauty. . . ."

Both with regard to art in general and with regard to beauty, the Scholastic Doctors insistently teach that the intellect has primacy in the work of art. They never stop reminding us that the first principle of all human works is reason.[101] Let us add that in making Logic the liberal art par excellence, and in a sense the prime analogate of art, they are telling us that in every art there is a sort of lived participation in Logic.

There all is ORDER and beauty, Richness, tranquillity and pleasure.[102]

If in architecture all unnecessary veneer is ugly, it is because it is illogical;[103] if sham and illusion, always irritating, become detestable in sacred art, it is because it is profoundly illogical that deceit should serve to decorate God's house:[104] Deus non eget nostro mendacio. "Everything in art," said Rodin, "is ugly which is false, which smiles without motive, everything that is senseless affectation, everything that struts and prances, everything that is but parade of beauty and grace, everything that lies."[105] "I want you," Maurice Denis adds,[106] "to paint your figures in such a way that they have the look of being painted, subject to the laws of painting -- I don't want them to try to deceive my eye or my mind; the truth of art consists in the conformity of the work with its means and its end." Which is to say with the ancients that the truth of art is taken per ordinem et conformitatem ad regulas artis,[107] and that every work of art must be logical. Therein lies its truth. It must be steeped in logic: not in the pseudo-logic of clear ideas,[108] and not in the logic of knowledge and demonstration, but in working logic, always mysterious and disconcerting, the logic of the structure of the living and of the intimate geometry of nature. Notre-Dame de Chartres is as much a marvel of logic as Saint Thomas' Summa; flamboyant Gothic itself remains averse to veneer, and the extravagance in which it exhausts itself is that of the elaborate and tortuous syllogisms of the logicians of the period. Virgil, Racine, Poussin, are logical. Chateaubriand is not.[*f] -- The architects of the Middle Ages did not restore "in the style," like Viollet-le-Duc. If the choir of a Romanesque church was destroyed by fire, they rebuilt it in Gothic, without further thought. But observe in Le Mans Cathedral the joints and the transitions, the sudden and self-assured arcing in splendor: there you have living logic, like the logic of the orogeny of the Alps or of the anatomy of man.

The perfection of the virtue of art consists according to Saint Thomas in the act of judging.[109] As for manual dexterity, that is a requisite condition, but extrinsic to art. It even represents -- at the same time that it is a necessity -- a perpetual menace to art, inasmuch as it runs the risk of substituting the guidance of muscular habit for the guidance of the intellectual habitus, and of having the work escape the influx of art. For there is an influx of art which, per physicam et realem impressionem usque ad ipsam facultatem motivam membrorum, proceeds, from the intellect where art resides, to move the hand and to cause an artistic "formality" to "shine" in the work.[110] A spiritual virtue may thus pass into a clumsy stroke.

Hence the charm one finds in the clumsiness of the primitives. In itself clumsiness has nothing charming about it; it has no attraction where poetry is lacking, and it even becomes downright obnoxious whenever it is -- however so little -- willed for itself or imitated. But in the primitives it was a sacred weakness through which the subtle intellectuality of art revealed itself.[111]

Man lives so much in sensibus, he has so much trouble maintaining himself at the level of the intellect, that one may well wonder whether -- in art as well as in social life -- progress in material means and in scientific technique, good as it is in itself, is not an evil in actual fact, so far as the average state of art and civilization is concerned. In this category, and beyond a certain limit, whatever removes a constraint removes a source of strength, and whatever removes a difficulty removes a source of grandeur.


When on visiting an art gallery one passes from the rooms of the primitives to those in which the glories of oil painting and of a much more considerable material science are displayed, the foot takes a step on the floor but the soul takes a steep fall. It had been taking the air on the everlasting hills: it now finds itself on the floor of a theatre -- a magnificent theatre. With the sixteenth century the lie installed itself in painting, which began to love science for its own sake, endeavoring to give the illusion of nature and to make us believe that in the presence of a painting we are in the presence of the scene or the subject painted, not in the presence of a painting.

The great classicists from Raphael to Greco, to Zurbaran, Lorrain, and Watteau, succeeded in purifying art of this lie; realism, and, in a sense, impressionism, delighted in it. Does Cubism in our day, despite its enormous deficiencies, represent the still groping and noisy childhood of an art once again pure? The barbarous dogmatism of its theorists compels one to doubt this very much, and to fear that the new school may be endeavoring to free itself radically from naturalist imitation only to immobilize itself in stultae quaestiones,[112] by denying the primary conditions which essentially distinguish Painting from the other arts, from Poetry, for instance, or from Logic.[*g]

We observe, however, in a few of the artists -- painters, poets, and musicians -- whom Criticism only recently lodged at the Sign of the Cube (an astonishingly expandable cube), the most noteworthy effort towards the logical coherence and the simplicity and purity of means that properly constitute the veracity of art. These days, all the best people want the classical.[113] I know nothing in contemporary production more sincerely classical than the music of Satie. "Never any sorcery, repetitions, suspicious caresses, fevers, or miasmas. Never does Satie 'stir the pool.' It is the poetry of childhood relived by a master technician."[114]

Cubism has rather violently posed the question of imitation in art. Art, as such, does not consist in imitating, but in making, in composing or constructing, in accordance with the laws of the very object to be posited in being (ship, house, carpet, colored canvas or hewn block). This exigency of its generic concept takes precedence over everything else; and to make the representation of the real its essential end is to destroy it. Plato, with his theory of imitation in its several degrees[115] and of poetry as a conjurer, misconceives, like all exaggerated intellectualists, the proper nature of art; whence his contempt for poetry. It is obvious that if art were a means of science, it would be tremendously inferior to geometry.[116]

But if art, as art, is a stranger to imitation, the fine arts, insofar as they are ordered to Beauty, have a certain relation to imitation, and one that is quite difficult to define.

When Aristotle wrote, apropos the first causes of poetry: "To imitate is natural to men from childhood. . . . man is the most imitative of the animals: he acquires his first knowledge through imitation, and everybody delights in imitations. We find a sign of this latter in works of art: for of the very things that we look at with uneasiness we rejoice to behold the most exact images, such as the forms of the vilest beasts and of corpses. The explanation is that to learn is the greatest of pleasures not only for philosophers but also for other men . . ."[117] -- when Aristotle wrote these words, he enunciated a specific condition imposed on the fine arts, a condition grasped from their earliest origin. But Aristotle is to be understood here in the most formal sense. If, following his usual method, the Philosopher goes straight to the primitive case, it would be an utter mistake for us to stop there and always to limit the word "imitation" to its everyday meaning of exact reproduction or representation of a given reality. When the man of the reindeer age traced the forms of animals on the walls of caves, he was no doubt prompted above all by the pleasure of reproducing an object with exactness.[118] But since that time the joy of imitation has been remarkably purified. Let us try to make this idea of imitation in art more precise.


The fine arts seek to produce, by the object they make, the joy or delight of the intellect through the intuition of the sense: the aim of painting, said Poussin, is delight. This delight is not the delight of the very act of knowing, the delight of the possession of knowledge, the delight of the true. It is a delight that overflows from this act, when the object upon which it bears is well proportioned for the intellect.

Thus this delight presupposes knowledge, and the more knowledge there is, or the more things given to the intellect, the greater is the possibility of delight. This is why art as ordered to beauty refuses -- at least when its object permits it -- to stop at forms or colors, or sounds or words grasped in themselves and as things (they must first be grasped in this manner -- that is the first condition), but it grasps them also as making known something other than themselves, that is to say, as signs. And the thing signified can be a sign in its turn, and the more the object of art is laden with signification (but with spontaneous and intuitively grasped signification, not with hieroglyphic signification), the greater and richer and higher will be the possibility of delight and beauty. The beauty of a painting or a statue is thus incomparably richer than the beauty of a carpet, a Venetian glass, or an amphora.

It is in this sense that Painting, Sculpture, Poetry, Music, and even the Dance, are imitative arts, that is, arts which effect the beauty of the work and procure the delight of the soul by making use of imitation, or by rendering, through certain sensible signs, something other than these signs spontaneously present to the spirit. Painting imitates with colors and plane forms things given outside of us, Music imitates with sounds and rhythms -- and the Dance with rhythm only -- the "characters," as Aristotle says,[119] and the movements of the soul, the invisible world which stirs within us. Allowing for this difference as regards the object signified, Painting is no more imitative than Music and Music is no less imitative than Painting, if "imitation" is understood precisely in the sense just defined.

But since the delight procured by the beautiful does not consist formally in the act itself of knowing the real, or in the act of conformity with what is, it does not at all depend on the perfection of imitation as reproduction of the real, or on the exactness of the representation. Imitation as reproduction or representation of the real -- in other words, imitation materially taken -- is but a means, not an end; along with manual dexterity, it relates to artistic activity, but no more than manual dexterity does it constitute it. And the things rendered present to the soul by the sensible signs of art -- by the rhythms, sounds, lines, colors, forms, masses, words, metres, rhymes, images, the proximate matter of art -- are themselves but a material element of the beauty of the work, just like the signs in question; they are a remote matter, so to speak, which the artist arranges and on which he must make shine the radiance of a form, the light of being. To propose to oneself as an end the perfection of imitation understood materially, would therefore be to direct oneself to what is purely material in the work of art, and to imitate slavishly; this servile imitation is absolutely foreign to art.[120]

What is required is not that the representation exactly conform to a given reality, but that through the material elements of the beauty of the work there truly pass, sovereign and whole, the radiance of a form[*h] -- of a form, and therefore of a truth: in this sense the great phrase of the Platonists, splendor veri, always remains. But if the delight in the beautiful work comes from a truth, it does not come from the truth of imitation as reproduction of things, it comes from the perfection with which the work expresses or manifests the form, in the metaphysical sense of this word,[121] it comes from the truth of imitation as manifestation of a form. Here we have the formal element of imitation in art: the expression or manifestation, in a work suitably proportioned, of some secret principle of intelligibility which shines forth. It is upon this that the joy of imitation bears in art. It is also what gives art its value of universality.

What constitutes the rigor of the true classical, is such a subordination of the matter to the light of the form thus manifested, that no material element issuing from things or from the subject is admitted into the work which is not strictly required as support for or vehicle of this light, and which would dull or "debauch"[122] the eye, ear, or spirit. Compare, from this point of view, Gregorian melody or the music of Bach with the music of Wagner or Stravinsky.[*i]

In the presence of a beautiful work, as I have already pointed out, the intellect rejoices without discourse. If therefore art manifests or expresses in matter a certain radiance of being, a certain form, a certain soul, a certain truth -- "Oh! you'll confess in the end," Carrière once said to one whose portrait he was painting -- it does not give a conceptual and discursive expression of it in the soul. It is thus that it suggests without properly making known, and that it expresses that which our ideas cannot signify. A, a, a, exclaims Jeremias, Domine Deus, ecce nescio loqui.[123] But where speech leaves off, song begins -- exsultatio mentis prorumpens in vocem.[124]

Let us add that in the case of the arts which address themselves to sight (painting, sculpture), or to the intellect (poetry), a stricter necessity of imitation or signification imposes itself extrinsically on art, because of the faculty involved. For this faculty must rejoice -- above all, if it is the intellect, secondarily and instrumentally if it is sight.[125] Now sight and intellect, being the most cognitive of the powers of knowing and the ones most drawn to the object, cannot experience complete joy if they do not know, in a sufficiently lively manner, some object -- doubtless a sign itself in its turn -- which is signified to them by mass, color, or words. The eye therefore and the intellect need to perceive or to recognize in the work some element that is legible. And no doubt it is a question here only of a condition extrinsic to art itself formally considered[*j] -- an obscure poem can be better than a clear poem; nevertheless, the poetic value being equal, the soul will derive more enjoyment from the clear poem, and if the obscurity becomes too great, if the signs are no longer but enigmas, the nature of our faculties protests. In some degree the artist always does violence to nature, and yet if he did not take account of this exigency, he would sin, by a kind of idealist vertigo, against the material or subjective conditions which art is humanly obliged to satisfy. Therein lies the danger of the foolhardy voyages, however noble in other respects, to the Cap de Bonne Esperance, and of a poetry which "teases eternity" by voluntarily obscuring the idea under films of images arranged with an exquisite sense. When a Cubist, in his horror of impressionism or naturalism, declares that a picture, like a cushion, should remain just as beautiful when turned upside down, he affirms a very curious return -- and a very useful one, if properly understood -- to the laws of absolute constructive coherence of art in general;[126] but he forgets both the subjective conditions and the particular exigencies of the beautiful which is proper to painting.

Nevertheless the fact remains that if "imitation" were understood in the sense of exact reproduction or copy of the real,[127] it would have to be said that except for the art of the cartographer or of the draftsman of anatomical plates there is no imitative art. In this sense, and however deplorable his writings may be in other respects, Gauguin, in affirming that it was necessary to renounce making what one sees, formulated a primary truth which the masters have practiced from the very beginning.[128] Cézanne's well-known remark expressed the same truth: "What is required is that we re-create Poussin by painting from nature. Everything is there."[129] The imitative arts aim neither at copying the appearances of nature, nor at depicting the "ideal," but at making an object beautiful by manifesting a form with the help of sensible signs.

The human artist or poet, whose intellect is not the cause of things, as is the Divine Intellect, cannot draw this form entirely from his creative spirit: he goes and imbibes it first and above all in the immense treasure-house of created things, of sensible nature as also of the world of souls, and of the interior world of his own soul. From this point of view he is first and foremost a man who sees more deeply than other men, and who discloses in the real spiritual radiances which others cannot discern.[130] But to make these radiances shine in his work, and therefore to be truly docile and faithful to the invisible spirit that plays in things, he can, and he even must, distort in some measure, reconstruct, transfigure the material appearances of nature. Even in a portrait that is "a perfect likeness" -- in Holbein's drawings, for instance -- the work always expresses a form engendered in the spirit of the artist and truly born in that spirit, true portraits being nothing other than "the ideal reconstruction of individuals."[131]

Art, then, remains fundamentally inventive and creative. It is the faculty of producing, not of course ex nihilo, but from a pre- existing matter, a new creature, an original being, capable of stirring in turn a human soul. This new creature is the fruit of a spiritual marriage which joins the activity of the artist to the passivity of a given matter.

Hence in the artist the feeling of his peculiar dignity. He is as it were an associate of God in the making of beautiful works; by developing the powers placed in him by the Creator -- for "every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" -- and by making use of created matter, he creates, so to speak, at second remove. Operatio artis fundatur super operationem naturae, et haec super creationem.[132]

Artistic creation does not copy God's creation, it continues it. And just as the trace and the 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. Processus artis est duplex, scilicet artis a corde artificis, et artificiatorum ab arte.[133]

If the artist studies and cherishes nature as much as and a great deal more than the works of the masters, it is not in order to copy it, but in order to base himself on it; and it is because it is not enough for him to be the pupil of the masters: he must be the pupil of God, for God knows the rules governing the making of beautiful works.[134] Nature is essentially of concern to the artist only because it is a derivation of the divine art in things, ratio artis divinae indita rebus. The artist, whether he knows it or not, consults God in looking at things.

They exist but for a moment, but all the same it was fine! He were ignorant of his art who found a flaw in Thine.[135]

Nature is thus the first exciter and the first guide of the artist, and not an example to be copied slavishly. Ask the true painters what their need of nature is. They fear her and revere her, but with a chaste fear, not with a slavish one. They imitate her, but with an imitation that is truly filial, and according to the creative agility of the spirit, not with a literal and servile imitation. One day, after a walk in the wintertime, Rouault told me he had just discovered, by looking at snow-clad fields in the sunshine, how to paint the white trees of spring. "The model," said Renoir[136] for his part, "is there only to set me on fire, to enable me to dare things that I could not invent without it. . . . And it makes me come a cropper if I throw myself too much into it." Such is the liberty of the sons of the Creator.

Art has not to defend itself only against the allurements of manual dexterity (or of that other cleverness which is taste[137]) and against slavish imitation. Other foreign elements also threaten its purity. For example, the beauty to which it tends produces a delight, but it is the high delight of the spirit, which is the exact contrary of what is called pleasure, or the pleasant tickling of the sensibility; and if art seeks to please, it betrays, and becomes deceitful. Similarly, its effect is to produce emotion, but if it aims at emotion, at affecting the appetites or arousing the passions, it falsifies itself, and thus another element of lie enters into it.[138]

This is as true of music as it is of the other arts. Music no doubt has this peculiarity that, signifying with its rhythms and its sounds the very movements of the soul -- cantare amantis est -- it produces, in producing emotion, precisely what it signifies. But this production is not what it aims at, any more than a representation or a description of the emotions is. The emotions which it makes present to the soul by sounds and by rhythms, are the matter through which it must give us the felt joy of a spiritual form, of a transcendent order, of the radiance of being. Thus music, like tragedy, purifies the passions,[139] by developing them within the limits and in the order of beauty, by harmonizing them with the intellect, in a harmony that fallen nature experiences nowhere else.

Let us designate as thesis every intention extrinsic to the work itself, when the thought animated by this intention does not act on the work through the artistic habitus moved instrumentally, but juxtaposes itself to this habitus in order itself to act directly on the work; in that case, the work is not produced wholly by the artistic habitus and wholly by the thought thus animated, but partly by the one and partly by the other, like a boat pulled by two men. In this sense every thesis, whether it claims to demonstrate some truth or to touch the heart, is for art a foreign importation, hence an impurity. It imposes on art, in art's own sphere, that is to say in the very production of the work, a rule and an end which is not the end or rule of the production; it prevents the work of art from springing from the heart of the artist spontaneously like a ripened fruit; it betrays a calculation, a duality between the intellect of the artist and his sensibility, which two, art, as it happens, wants to see united.

I willingly accept the ascendancy of the object which the artist has conceived and which he lays before my eyes; I then abandon myself unreservedly to the emotion which in him and in me springs from a same beauty, from a same transcendental in which we communicate. But I refuse to accept the ascendancy of an art which contrives suggestive means by which to seduce my subconscious, I resist an emotion which the will of a man seeks to impose upon me. The artist must be as objective as the man of science, in the sense that he must think of the spectator only in order to present him with the beautiful, or the well-made, just as the man of science thinks of his listener only in order to present him with the true. The cathedral builders did not harbor any sort of thesis. They were, in Dulac's fine phrase, "men unaware of themselves."[140] They neither wished to demonstrate the propriety of Christian dogma nor to suggest by some artifice a Christian emotion. They even thought a great deal less of making a beautiful work than of doing good work. They were men of Faith, and as they were, so they worked. Their work revealed the truth of God, but without doing it intentionally, and because of not doing it intentionally.

Chapter VIII Christian Art