Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain

Appendix I

An Essay on Art

i. Dignity of Art

The philosophers tell us that art consists essentially, not in performing a moral act, but in making a thing, a work, in making an object with a view not to the human good of the agent, but to the exigencies and the proper good of the object to be made, and by employing ways of realization predetermined by the nature of the object in question.

Art thus appears as something foreign in itself to the sphere of the human good, almost as something inhuman, and whose exigencies nevertheless are absolute: for, needless to say, there are not two ways of making an object well, of realizing well the work one has conceived -- there is but one way, and it must not be missed.

The philosophers go on to say that this making activity is principally and above all an intellectual activity. Art is a virtue of the intellect, of the practical intellect, and may be termed the virtue proper to working reason.

But then, you will say, if art is nothing other than an intellectual virtue of making, whence comes its dignity and its ascendancy among us? Why does this branch of our activity draw to it so much human sap? Why has one always and in all peoples admired the poet as much as the sage?

It may be answered first that to create, to produce something intellectually, to make an object rationally constructed, is something very great in the world: for man this alone is already a way of imitating God. And I am speaking here of art in general, such as the ancients understood it -- in short, of art as the virtue of the artisan.

But where the maker of works especially becomes an imitator of God, where the virtue of art approaches the nobility of things absolute and self-sufficient, is in that family of arts which by itself alone constitutes a whole spiritual world, namely the fine arts.

There are two things to be considered here. On the one hand, whatever the nature and the utilitarian ends of the art envisaged, it participates by its object in something superhuman, since it has as its object to create beauty. Is not beauty a transcendental, a property of being, one of the Divine Names? "The being of all things derives from the Divine Beauty," says Saint Thomas. In this respect, then, the artist imitates God, Who made the world by communicating to it a likeness of His beauty.

...The architect, by the disposition he knows,
Buildeth the structure of stone like a filter in the waters of the Radiance of God,
And giveth the whole building its sheen as to a pearl.

On the other hand, to create a work of beauty is to create a work on which shines the radiance or the splendor, the mystery of a form, in the metaphysical sense of this word, of a ray of intelligibility and truth, of an irradiation of the primal brilliance. And no doubt the artist perceives this form in the created world, whether exterior or interior: he does not discover it complete in the sole contemplation of his creative spirit, for he is not, like God, the cause of things. But it is his eye and his spirit that have perceived and uncovered it; and it must itself be alive within him, must have taken on human life in him, must live in his intelligence with an intellectual life and in his heart and his flesh with a sensitive life, in order for him to be able to communicate it to matter in the work he makes.

Thus the work bears the mark of the artist; it is the offspring of his soul and his spirit.

In this respect also human art imitates God: it realizes in the order of intellectuality, that is to say, in the highest order of nature (I do not speak of the order of charity, which is superior to it, being supernatural), it realizes in act one of the fundamental aspects of the ontological likeness of our soul with God.

For it is the aspiration and ardent desire of the intelligence, considered in the pure state, to beget a living being like unto itself. Moreover every intelligence utters a word. "To be fertile, so as to manifest that which one possesses within oneself, is a great perfection, and it essentially belongs to the intellectual nature."[169] Thus in the world of pure spirits, where there is no generation, there is the spiritual production of the mental word, in which the Angel in knowing himself expresses himself to himself, and through which he manifests what he knows to whomever it pleases him among the other pure spirits. This mental word, it is true, this spiritual utterance remains a quality of the subject; it is not a substance, it is a sign. In creatures, the intellect does not succeed in producing in similitude of nature another "itself"; it does not, properly speaking, engender; it utters a word, but this word is not a son. This, however, is owing to the essentially deficient condition of the creature; intelligence itself, considered in the pure state, in its pure formal line, desires to engender, to produce, in knowing itself, something which will not be merely a likeness, a sign, an idea of the thing known, but the thing known itself existing for itself.

Only in God, only in Pure Act, is intelligence, which is then subsisting Intelligence, able to realize fully the fundamental exigencies of its nature and give birth to another itself substantial and personal, to a Word which is really a Son. It is only in the Holy Trinity that we see two functions coincide which everywhere else are separate, the uttering of the word and the generation of the son, that we see intelligence issue in a subsisting term, into which passes substantially the integrity of its own nature.

Well! We too, weak though our intelligence may be (it is on the lowest rung of the ladder of spirits), must participate in the nature of the intelligence. This is why, in spite of all the deficiencies peculiar to our kind, the intelligence endeavors to engender in us, it seeks to produce: and not only the interior word, the idea which remains within us, but a work at once material and spiritual, like ourselves, and in which superabounds something of our soul.

It is because of this exigency of the intelligence that there are artists among us.

And you see that to establish fully the dignity and the nobility of art, it was necessary for us to ascend to the mystery of the Trinity itself.

It must, however, be carefully observed that our works of art are very far from being able to be truly called our children. They are inanimate; they do not proceed from us in similitudinem naturae; they are the result of an artificial making, not of a natural generation.

But note that, accidentally and in a certain respect, there is in the work of art something that better answers the exigencies of the idea of generation: I mean that in his work the great artist is sure to put himself really, he is sure to imprint his own likeness on it; whereas, in the child, because of matter and heredity, one cannot be sure that it is the father or the mother, rather it may be some more or less desirable ancestor who comes to life again and manifests his or her likeness. The father thinks he finds himself again in his child, but it is the grandfather or the great-grandfather, or the mother-in-law, who appears. There is in the child a terrible unknown which does not exist in the work of art. And it is understandable, not that the artist should love his works more than his children, but at least that he should love them with a love almost as personal and, from a certain point of view, less anxious, and that he says in thinking of them: "Not all of me will die."

ii. Gratuitousness

All these considerations show that art is gratuitous or disinterested as such -- that is to say, that in the production of the work the virtue of art aims only at one thing: the good of the work-to-be-made, beauty to be made to shine in matter, the creating of the thing according to its own laws, independently of all the rest; and accordingly it desires that there be nothing in the work which will escape its regulation, and that it be alone in immediately ruling the work, in moulding it and fashioning it.

There are many ways of failing in this "gratuitousness." One may think, for instance, that good moral intentions make up for the quality of the craft or the inspiration, and suffice to construct a work. Or else one may go so far as to adulterate the work itself, such as the rules and the determined ways of art would have it to be, by forcibly applying to it, in order to rule it, foreign elements -- the desire to edify, or to disedify, not to shock the public, or to create scandal, to have "arrived" in society, or to cut a figure in the bars and cafés as an artist free and rare . . .

You see in what sense one must admit the doctrine of the gratuitousness of art: in the sense, namely, that the virtue of art which the artist uses, for whatever end it may be employed in other respects, aims by itself only at the perfection of the work, and suffers in the work no control which does not pass through it.

But this doctrine of, and the term, "gratuitousness," are often understood in a quite different and much more ambitious sense. They are then made to signify not only what I have just said, but also that art must enjoy in man and among men an absolute independence, that it must tolerate in the artist no human interest nor any superior law, absolutely nothing outside the pure concern for artistic making: which comes to saying that the artist must be an artist only -- and therefore must not be a man. But if there is no man, there is no artist: in devouring the humanity, art has destroyed itself. This is what Baudelaire called The Pagan School: "Absorbed," he wrote, "by the fierce passion for the beautiful, the droll, the pretty, the picturesque -- for there are degrees -- the notions of what is proper and true disappear. The frenzied passion for art is a cancer which eats up everything else. . . . Excessive specialization of a faculty ends in nothing."

It seems to me that this erroneous conception of the gratuitousness of art can assume two special forms.

Under a first form, on the whole in opposition to romanticism, will be found the notion of gratuitousness professed by the Parnassians, then by the Symbolists and Mallarmé, and perhaps also, in a different sphere, by the friends of Max Jacob and Erik Satie (but already some of them would no longer hold to it). The content of the work of art, the matter to be fashioned, the artistic thing, the lyrical and intellectual materials, all this is a constraint and a burden, an impurity that must be eliminated. In short, pure art, art about nothing, by extenuation of the subject. I call this a sin of idealism with respect to the matter of art: in the end, a perfect constructing, with nothing to construct.

After the exasperation of sensibility provoked by impressionism, after so many noisy claims, so many marvels, evocations, swoons, and psychological thrills, this conception of gratuitousness has been a purifying and beneficent phase, because it has reminded us that the main thing in art is the control that the mind imposes upon matter. It is in this sense that Georges Auric very justly observed: "A tight-rope walker and a dancer, these are the two beings that every artist who moves me unites within him. Every new work is a tightrope stretched above an everlasting track. . . . Even today, you can see with what caution a Stravinsky and a Satie have to cross that wire which must be their only way." The fact remains that the theory of gratuitousness, understood in the sense that I have just emphasized -- in a deliberately brutal manner -- is false, because it forgets precisely the very matter which must be artistically ruled and the indispensable part that matter plays.

No doubt, if the matter is almost non-existent, the artist's task will be easier. But art, as has been sufficiently dinned into us, must not seek for facility. It needs opposition and constraint, the constraint of the rules and the opposition of matter. The more obstinate and rebellious the matter, the better will the art that triumphs over it realize its own end, which is to make a dominating intelligibility shine forth in the matter. André Gide put it very well: "Art is always the result of some constraint. To hold that it rises higher the freer it is, is to hold that what keeps the kite from climbing is the string to which it is attached. Kant's dove, which thought it would be able to fly better without the air that resisted its wings, fails to realize that in order for it to fly it needs the resistance of the air against which to lean its wings. . . . Art longs for liberty only in sick periods; it would like to exist easily. Each time it feels itself strong, it seeks for struggle and obstacles. It likes to burst its bonds, and therefore it prefers them tight."

But the doctrine of the gratuitousness of art can give rise to another more specious error, and this time it is Gide himself who undertakes to propose it to us. "The artist," Gide tells us, "is expected to appear after dinner. His function is not to provide food, but intoxication." And he says after Ernest Renan: "To be able to think freely, one must be certain that what one writes will be of no consequence," from which it follows that every thinker who envisages the consequences of what he writes does not think freely. And again, in a dialogue between himself and an imaginary interlocutor:

The interlocutor -- "Are you interested in moral questions?"
Gide - - "What! The very stuff of our books!"
The interlocutor -- "But what is morality, according to you?"
Gide -- "A branch of Aesthetics."

Oscar Wilde had said, pretty much in the same sense but in a more stately formula: "The highest Art rejects the burden of the human spirit."

The point is that the doctrine of gratuitousness, in reaction against exclusively moralist or apologetic or civic preoccupations regarded as "utilitarian," requires now, no longer the extenuation of the matter of art, as was the case a moment ago, but the elimination of any human end pursued. Let the artist take for the matter and stuff of his work whatever ever is most profound, most exalted and most vile, the moral life of man, that heart of man which is "hollow and full of filth" -- and the rarest passions, and the spiritual life itself, nay, the Gospel and sanctity, anything he wishes; but in all of that an absolute prohibition, under pain of committing a sacrilege against art, against pursuing any other end than the pure delight, order, luxury, tranquillity and rapture that the soul must enjoy in the work. It is no longer art in nothing, as in the doctrine of gratuitousness in its first form; it is now art for nothing, for nothing else but itself.

The doctrine of gratuitousness in this second form is singularly specious, because it exploits and distorts something very true concerning the nature of art, and which we must take care not to overlook. It is nevertheless a very pernicious poison, which must in the long run exercise a completely sterilizing effect upon art.

Precisely because, given this or that work-to-be-made, there are strictly determined ways of realizing it, ways that depend on the pure exigencies of the work itself and that brook no liberties, the virtue of art, as I just indicated, does not allow the work to be interfered with or immediately ruled by anything other than itself. It insists that it alone shall touch the work in order to bring it into being. In short, art requires that nothing shall attain the work except through art itself. This is the element of truth in the doctrine of gratuitousness. Woe to the artist who is deficient with respect to this exigency of his art, a jealous and fierce exigency, as are all the exigencies of the intelligence and its virtues. Here again we can find in our art a vestige as it were of the Trinity. The Word, says Saint Augustine, is in some way the art of Almighty God. And it is through the Word that the whole of the divine work was made, omnia per ipsum facta sunt. It is through His Word and His art that God attains, rules and brings into being everything He makes. In the same way it is through his art that the human artist must attain, rule and bring into being all his work.

But does this imply that the work depends on art alone, and not on the entire soul of the artist; that it is made by the art alone, separate, cut off from all the rest in man, and not by man the artist with all the human purposes, desires, and longings, all the human thoughts and beliefs he has in his heart, and with all the higher laws he would have himself obey? Nonsense! It is as though, under the pretext that everything was made per verbum, through the Divine Word, one were to say that the world was not made by the whole undivided Trinity: gratuitously, to be sure -- it is the sole example of perfectly gratuitous art -- and in a manner totally free from the least interested intention, but to an end nevertheless, an end which is not simply the perfection of the work to be achieved, and which is of an order superior to art -- the communication of divine goodness.

The theorists of gratuitousness overlook an elementary distinction; they fail to distinguish between art, which, as such, has no other end than the good of the object to be made, and the artist, who, as a man performing an act, can have all the ends he pleases. And they overlook this common-sense distinction because they fail to take account of a more subtle distinction, the distinction between the "principal agent" and the "instrumental cause," between the workman and the instrument. Through the instrument wielded by the workman there passes an invisible and intangible activity, which causes the instrument to produce an effect nobler than itself and really to produce the whole work, but as subordinate agent. Thus the picture is wholly from the brush and wholly from painter; there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the picture ture that does not come to it from the brush, and there is nothing in it that does not come from the painter.

This distinction plays a role of capital importance in metaphysics; it alone enables us to understand how the free act of the creature is wholly of the creature, as second cause, and, if it is good, wholly of God, as first cause. God activates the will to act according to its own mode, that is to say, freely. The philosophers who do not make this distinction are forced to consider the divine action as inserting into human liberty some kind of foreign element, some kind of rival which would compromise its purity. André Gide makes a similar mistake. He does not see that the virtue of art, with all its perfection and peculiar exigencies, is an instrument in relation to the artist, the principal agent.

The soul of the artist, with all its human fullness, with all that it admires and all that it loves, with all the purposes of a non-artistic order -- human, moral, religious -- that it can pursue, is the principal cause which uses the virtue of art as an instrument; and thus the work is wholly of the soul and the will of the artist as principal cause, and wholly of his art as instrument, without his art losing any of its mastery over the matter or any of its rectitude, purity and ingenuousness -- just as our good acts are wholly from us as second cause and wholly from God as first cause, without on that account losing any of their freedom.

This does not mean that we have here a juxtaposition of two forces each pulling its own way. There is instrumental subordination of the virtue of art to the soul which acts through it. The greater the artist, the more vigorous is his art, not bowed over or bent, certainly, but erect and imperious -- and the more the man succeeds in passing wholly into his work, through his art. Diminish the man in the artist, and you necessarily diminish the art itself, which is something of man. The doctrine of gratuitousness in its second form is another idealist heresy. It is no longer the matter of the work of art, it is the human subject, of whom the virtue of art is a quality, which is here disregarded.

If the artist has not taken sides in the great debate between the angels and men, if he is not convinced that he provides, together with delight, a food and not simply intoxication, his work will always remain deficient and paltry in some respects. The greatest poets, and the most disinterested ones, the most "gratuitous," had something to say to men. Is not this the case with Dante, Cervantes, Racine, Shakespeare, Goethe, Baudelaire, Dostoievsky? Whatever may be the latter's ideology, his heart is Christian; Gide, who could see in him only his own countenance, was strangely mistaken about Dostoievsky. How reasonable -- need it be further remarked from this point of view? -- and how little "immoralist," are the explanations Goethe gives us in Dichtung und Wahrheit as to the origin of Werther! And in Mon coeur mis à nu, what a tragically religious anxiety the dandyism of Baudelaire suddenly reveals to us!

Is not the art of La Fontaine an eminent example of gratuitous art? But as Henri Ghéon observed to Valéry, "if it were not lacking in a grain of spirituality, a touch of Christianity, the art of this maker of apologues would be the art of the apologist, the very type of edifying art."

Well and good, one will say. But suppose that La Fontaine had acquired this grain of spirituality the while remaining La Fontaine, the La Fontaine we know; in exercising his apologist's art, he would never have been consumed by the zeal for souls and the apostolate. "If Jammes and Claudel are Christian artists, it is not because of their manifest and distinctive devotion. The apostolate is never an aesthetic virtues."[170] More generally, does it not seem that the happiest conditions for the artist are conditions of peace and spiritual order within and around him, such that having, we certainly hope, his soul under control and turned towards its last end, he have however in addition to this no other concern than to reveal himself -- such as he is -- in his work, without giving a thought to anything else, without pursuing any particular and determined human end? Was not this precisely how the artists of the Middle Ages worked? Or in our day a Cézanne?

To this objection -- which is not lacking in force, and which concedes the essential -- I have two answers to give. First of all, if it is true that for the workman who in making his work pursues a particular and definite human end -- for example, a Lucretius intending to spread the Epicurean system, a Virgil composing the Georgics to bring man-power back to the land, or even a Wagner seeking to glorify the Teutonic religion -- if it is true, I say, that for such a workman the task is more difficult, the danger of giving way greater, nevertheless this danger is not insurmountable, this task is not impossible, as witness the names I just cited.

Secondly, and more importantly, those who wish to serve through their art the Truth that is Christ, do not pursue a particular human end, they pursue a divine end, an end as universal as God Himself. The more they live their faith, the more their inner life becomes spiritualized, the more deeply they are of the Church -- the more they rise above the human limitations, conventions, opinions, and special interests of such or such a social group; so that, understanding better the pure spirituality and universality of God's action in souls, their art and their thought are purified of all human narrowness, in order to be henceforth directed only towards the boundless Love Who is and acts on earth as in Heaven. This is what those men cannot understand who, ignorant of everything of the Faith or deceived by too many appearances, see in zeal for souls only an effort of human domination, an attempt to serve some commercial or party interest. They do not see that those who engage as Christians, because they are Christians, in the works of the mind, are not practicing a clerical philosophy or a clerical art, or a confessional philosophy or a confessional art. In this sense there is no Catholic art or Catholic philosophy, for Catholicism is not a particular confession, just as it is not a religion: it is the religion, confessing the unique and omnipresent Truth. Yet their art and their philosophy are catholic, that is to say, authentically universal.

May I add that one always serves some master, and that the devil is not the least exacting overlord. In forbidding man to pursue any other end than art itself, we are, whatever we may do, positively assigning to him a last end, a God: Art in person. One binds oneself to a religion, and to a religion much more tyrannical than the true religion. One delivers oneself up to aesthetic clericalism, which is assuredly one of the most pernicious forms of clericalism.

Gide strikes me as being under constant constraint, cribbed, cabined and confined by inexorable conventions, never free, never spontaneous; forever haunted by morality. A moral choice confronts him at every corner of the street, and he is compelled to make a decision: quick, should he escape? Escape through here! What torture!

The artist who consents to be a man, who has no fear of morality, who is not afraid at each moment of losing the flower of his ingenuousness -- he it is that enjoys the true gratuitousness of art. He is what he is, without caring about what he may appear to be; he asserts if he wants to assert; he believes, he loves, he chooses, he gives himself, he follows his bent and his fancy, he recreates and amuses himself, he plays.

iii. Of a Too Human Antimony

Truthfully, I do not believe that it is possible outside of Catholicism to reconcile in man, without diminishing or doing violence to them, the rights of morality and the claims of intellectuality, art or science. Morality as such aims only at the good of the human being, the supreme interests of the Subject who acts; intellectuality as such aims only at the Object -- what it is, if it is a question of knowing it, what it ought to be, if it is a question of making it. What a temptation for poor human nature to be faithful to one only at the expense of the other! It is true, we know, haec oportebat facere, et illa non omittere; but how are the children of Adam to keep the balance?

Outside the Church and her divine life it is natural that moral and religious zeal turn man against the intelligence; and it is natural that zeal for art or science turn man away from the eternal laws. In one camp we have Socrates' judges, Luther, Rousseau, Tolstoy, the Anglo-Saxon pragmatists; in the other, Bruno, Bacon, the great pagans of the Renaissance, and Goethe himself, and Nietzsche.

Catholicism orders our whole life to Truth itself and to subsisting Beauty. It puts into us -- above the moral virtues and the intellectual virtues -- the theological virtues, and through them gives us peace. Et ego si exaltatus fuero, omnia traham ad meipsum. Christ Crucified draws to Him all that is in man; all things are reconciled, but at the height of His heart.

Here is a religion whose moral exigencies are more elevated than those of any other, since the heroism of sanctity can alone fully satisfy them, and which at the same time loves and protects the intelligence more than any other. I say that this is a sign of the divinity of this religion. A superhuman virtue is necessary to assure among men the free play of art and science under the rule of the divine law and the primacy of Charity, and thus to achieve the higher reconciliation of the moral and the intellectual.


Appendix II Some Reflections on Religious Art