The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 25, 2017

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The Treasonous Clerk: Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic, Part VI
James Matthew Wilson - 01/07/10
Immanuel Kant

This is Part VI of a seven-part essay on "Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic." You can read Part V here.

Of Beauty

One can readily see how Jacques Maritain’s reflections on art and Aquinas at once flattered and admonished modern notions on the subject. He rejected out of hand the romantic intuitionism that followed Kant in believing artistic beauty to be that which pleases universally without a concept, which suggested art derived from something other than the intelligence. And yet he believed the romantics had made art conscious of itself and, in so doing, they had awakened it to its spiritual telos. Moreover, he reformulated their ideas of intuition in terms of what he would call “poetic knowledge” and “creative intuition,” both of which he insisted were fundamentally intellectual. In philosophy, he would say, one reasons discursively by means of abstraction toward a knowledge of the truth; in poetry, the artist’s knowledge subsists in the idea of the thing to be made and it is communicated purely in the concrete work he actually makes. Art conveys knowledge without abstraction and so, in some sense, without a concept; even so, it is an intellectual act, more intuitive than the demonstrations of the metaphysician, perhaps, but more concrete and less immediate than the knowledge of the angels.

What was the proper end of this knowledge, or of fine art as a whole? Was it autonomous? A little god in a refined religion of its own? Art drives toward beauty, Maritain would answer, and only in grasping that movement do we discover the way in which art is spiritual and yet not religious, oriented to God but in a merely analogous fashion distinct from theology or metaphysics in both method and telos.

If Maritain seemed to reject yet refashion the anti-intellectualism of the romantics, his theory of art performed a similar gesture in regard to the modernist ideas gaining currency in postwar Europe. The thirst for a realism that cut through the sentiments and fantasies of romantic spirituality—one that affirmed the poet is just a man, and man is just a creature subject to misery and bodily death more often than he is privy to elevating emotions—had led to a proliferation of doctrines of “classicism” and “impersonality.”

These doctrines sometimes took for model the blueprints of the mechanical engineer, wherein the austerity of design seemed to sober up a mind grown bloated on the indulgence of sentimental dreaming. If this cold, dispassionate vision of art as design appeared realistic in the sense of reducing the world to what the positivist and rationalist mind could see with certainty, it was also realistic in another sense. The absolute exigencies of mathematics and mechanics bespoke a changeless order beyond the vicissitudes of quotidian life, at once inaccessible to the human spirit and chastising of it. Biological life is slush; the absolute is hard, numeric.

Maritain’s account of art as work in humility and as intellectual rather than emotional flattered these notions, even as he directed them to unexpected ends. Once again, he would say, art is a virtue of the intellect, and the work of the fine artist is ordered to beauty. Before his audience could sneer at how “Victorian” all this was, he would add: he did not mean the beauty of the aesthetes, the beauty of decadent sensualism, much less the beauty of bourgeois Europe, with its moralistic sentimentalism. The nerve centers and heart strings were too imprecise an instrument for what he had in mind. Beauty for the schoolmen was a metaphysical principle, a transcendental property of being. If one would grasp what is, what exists, what is real, then one had better understand beauty with exactitude.

The historical success of Maritain’s account of beauty, which would launch a thousand masters theses and make the philosophy of beauty the site of neo-Thomism’s widest dissemination in lay and non-Catholic culture in the twentieth century, only confirms its success as philosophy. Although he took as his starting point the fashions and prejudices of his age, the greatest contribution of Art and Scholasticism would be to provide us the foundations for a permanent conception of beauty—one sufficiently clear that we can understand the fine arts and any beautiful thing better through it, and by means of which we can judge the artistic tendencies of any age. In his later writings on art and beauty, Maritain would always insist he approached his work as a philosopher, not a practicing artist; if this appeared the qualification of the inexpert, it was really intended to suggest the lasting, if abstract, character of his observations. His little book may have played the manifesto to its early Parisian readers, but its ultimate audience was man in search of the beatific vision: man, no matter his historical condition, and in search of the permanent.

Following Aquinas, Maritain sets before us three related definitions of beauty. One is first for us: the beautiful is “that which, being seen, pleases: id quod visum placet.” The next defines the essence: Saint Thomas assigned three conditions to beauty:

Integrity, because the intellect is pleased in fullness of Being; proportion, because the intellect is pleased in order and unity; finally, and above all, radiance or clarity, because the intellect is pleased in light and intelligibility . . . splendor formae, said Saint Thomas in his precise metaphysician’s language: for the form, that is to say, the principle which constitutes the proper perfection of all that is, which constitutes and achieves things in their essences and qualities, which is, finally, if one may so put it, the ontological secret that they bear within them, their spiritual being, their operating mystery—the form, indeed, is above all the proper principle of intelligibility, the proper clarity of every thing.

Third and finally, Maritain would syllogistically draw this definition of the essence toward the final cause. If form is the principle of being of any and every thing, and if it is form that constitutes beauty, then beauty must be convertible with being: every thing, insofar as it has being, must have to that extent beauty. Along with unity, goodness, and truth, beauty must be one of the transcendental properties of being—it must name God.

Thomas Aquinas

Each of these three definitions merits inspection. Maritain cannot entirely avoid condescension regarding Aquinas’s first definition. The beautiful pleases, it delights us who see it. In the climate of postwar Europe, this appeared to locate beauty in the subjective experience of the person, idealizing the capacities of the human subject at the expense of “objective” reality. By no coincidence, the wider phenomenon of this sort of idealization—in epistemology, metaphysics, and theology—would be the target of Maritain’s sustained criticism. We cannot understand the visio, as it has come to be called, subjectively, says Maritain. Rather, Aquinas intends us to understand this statement as an affirmation of the ontological reality of beauty: the human mind is fundamentally intellectual or rational, it is therefore fundamentally oriented to that which is intelligible, and what is intelligible par excellence is being. The beautiful pleases us because we are encountering a kind of reality that, as intelligible, is proportioned to our intellects. Or, better: by our very natures, we move toward the reality outside ourselves, to which we are ordered.

More than this, the delight in beauty as ontological—and thus intelligible—tells us something about the particular way a human person knows. Because of his reason, he can come to a knowledge of anything that is intelligible, no matter how abstract, but we tend to call beautiful primarily that which is sensible. Human reason, because embodied, apprehends most naturally sensible or material things. The beautiful insofar as it is concrete is thus so perfectly oriented to our comprehension that it is given to us without effort: the intelligence, here, “does not have to disengage an intelligible from the matter in which it is buried, in order to go over its different attributes step by step; like a stag at the gushing spring, intelligence has nothing to do but drink.”

Far from entertaining those post-Cartesian problems of idea and reality, of mind and body, Maritain suggests that the experience of beauty acts as a proof that the human intellect is an embodied one and effortlessly sees being and beauty in the real. So immediate—indeed, intuitive—is this perception that Maritain views any conceptual delineation of the beautiful as retrospective; we fashion concepts in order to understand the distinct parts of what we already know in seeing. Of the 214 endnotes in the book, one of the longest, the 56th, provides the critical background to Maritain’s conclusions: there, he demolishes and reconstructs Kant’s Critique of Judgment in order to show the superiority of the Schoolmen. If Kant spoke correctly in saying the beautiful is without a concept, his followers misread in believing that beauty stood apart from the intelligence. Rather, beauty is, in a sense, the intellect concretized, form shining on matter. It owes its initially nonconceptual nature to its supra-rational intelligibility.

To the essential account of the extra-mental reality of beauty Maritain turns next: Integrity, proportion, and clarity. Wherever these three qualities are found, according to Aquinas, there is beauty—and, when seen, it pleases. How one defines and prioritizes these three qualities will determine how one understands beauty more generally. Maritain rightly understands integrity as wholeness, the completion of a thing according to its nature. When something is mutilated, lacking what it should possess, we find integrity wanting and find the thing ugly. This is easy enough to concede in terms of natural beauty, as anyone who has seen a severed limb can affirm. But in the fine arts, Maritain quickly affirms, the integrity of the artwork is distinct from what it represents: “if it pleases a futurist to give the lady he is painting only one eye, or a quarter of an eye, no one denies him the right to do this: one asks only—here is the whole problem—that this quarter of an eye be precisely all the eye of this lady needs in the given case.” The habitus of art alone can determine the integrity of the artwork—the standards of a work are internal rather than external to its nature.

Maritain spends little time discussing proportion, as if the intrinsic instability of measuring one thing relative to another discomforted him. And yet he can no more ignore proportion than integrity because both powerfully speak to the metaphysical nature of beauty. When we speak of proportion we are always speaking of form, and the union of form and matter constitutes compound beings in reality. Proportion describes the internal relations of the form to itself: in a material thing, its shape; in an intellectual one, the arrangement of its conceptual or intelligible elements. But proportion also always indicates what Saint Augustine referred to as harmony: the relation of forms relative to one another. Maritain seems to take this aspect of proportion primarily in terms of composition, the arrangement of things relative to one another, rather than in the more expansive sense that Aquinas clearly intended: proportion must be understood in terms of the total number of relations between a thing and everything else, and the degree to which those relations are fitting, or well proportioned. To this we shall return, but the evident reason Maritain pays it little mind is that he transposes much of this aspect of proportion into the third quality of the beautiful: clarity.

Clarity, the splendor of the form, Maritain refers to above all as “radiance,” and treats as by far the central and most capacious quality of the beautiful. It may begin with the material radiance of color, but it primarily describes the attribute we encounter when we discover the inherent intelligibility of things in terms of the relative power of the human intellect but, above all, in terms of the absolute Logos, the creative intelligence,of God. When we detect the radiance of a thing, we are encountering it as a mystery that makes sense: something obscure, because its essence is concealed from us, but also self-revealing, because ordered to being and intellect at once. If integrity and proportion sound sensualist, subjective, and relative in nature, clarity denotes the stark confrontation of the mind with the ontic reality of things as derived from the absolute intellect of God. We delight at once in understanding and uncertainty, in seeing things existing, in seeing their be-ing, and we sense their radiation of the Being Itself whose effect they are: “the deep-seated splendor one glimpses of the soul, of the soul principle of life and animal energy, or principle of spiritual life, of pain and passion . . . [and] there is a still more exalted splendor, the splendor of Grace.” This ontological splendor of beauty stands out as our encounter in concrete terms with being and with Being Itself; in beauty we see what metaphysics can only describe and define by means of the discursive reason.

Jacques Maritain

At the risk of repeating these observations, it is worth quoting Maritain’s lengthy footnote on radiance:

By “radiance of the form” must be understood an ontological splendor which is in one way or another revealed to our mind, not a conceptual clarity. We must avoid all misunderstanding here: the words clarity, intelligibility, light, which we use to characterize the role of “form” at the heart of things, do not necessarily designate something clear and intelligible for us, but rather something clear and luminous in itself, intelligible in itself, and which often remains obscure to our eyes, either because of the matter in which the form in question is buried, or because of the transcendence of the form itself in the things of the spirit. The more substantial and the more profound this secret sense is, the more hidden it is for us; so that, in truth, to say with the Schoolmen that the form is in things the proper principle of intelligibility, is to say at the same time that it is the proper principle of mystery. (There is in fact no mystery where there is nothing to know: mystery exists where there is more to be known than is given to our comprehension.) To define the beautiful by the radiance of the form is in reality to define it by the radiance of a mystery.

In rushing past integrity and proportion to clarity, Maritain suggests his understandable orientation to, even fixation on, one of the most potent insights of the Christian Platonists, of the Schoolmen and indeed of the whole Catholic theological tradition: beauty as a transcendental property of being. Defined immanently, something is a transcendental if it is present in any and every thing regardless of the kind of thing it happens to be. One may not find it very illuminating to be told that “thing” is a transcendental, because every thing is by definition a thing. Nor is it immediately startling to learn that unity is a transcendental: everything that is something is by definition a or one thing and not multiple, even if it is composed of multiple elements or qualities. I know that a book is made of a cover, pages, some thread, and some glue—but taken together these things become a unity to which I refer when I say, “book.”

Even on the side of immanence, the transcendentals do begin to instruct us more profoundly than this. That all things that are are true tells us a great deal: that beings, in their very being, are real and that the substance the intellect drinks, truth, is also the stuff of reality. Good as a transcendental tells us even more: everything, insofar as it exists, is good. It may be a greater or lesser good according to the degree of its nature, and so we sense an intelligibility to the order of things. Moreover, we detect an internal ordering to things, their nature; a thing is a good thing when it is as its nature orders it to be (as it should be when fulfilling itself, its telos). Thus, something is “evil” or “bad” only in terms of it being a defective or perverted good; we understand all things in terms of a basic positive affirmation of being of which evil is a no-thing, a negation. Extending this observation to the beautiful comes naturally, although it also tends to cause us to conclude, as does Maritain, that it is just a kind of good: we know most goods because our will, our appetite, knows rest when they come into our possession, while the beautiful allays our appetite on sight—as soon as it is possessed by the intellect through the senses.

As much as Maritain emphasizes the transcendentals in their immanence, he hedges his account of them quite closely in his endnotes, conceding that in “the things of this world . . . truth, beauty, goodness, etc., are aspects of being distinct according to their formal reason, and what is true simpliciter (absolutely speaking) may be good or beautiful only secundum quid (in a certain relation).” Thus each of these attributes “command distinct spheres of human activity, of which it would be foolish to deny a priori the possible conflicts, on the pretext that the transcendentals are indissolubly bound to one another.” This prismatic, immanent disunity of the transcendentals may, in a sense, make the world sad, bespeaking its fallen and fragmented state. And this sadness may explain why Maritain’s treatise throws down the gauntlet on the reality of beauty: the positivism and utilitarianism of the age has a firm, if perverse, conception of what is true and what is good respectively. True things are the evident end of the reason, and good things of appetite or will, but “empirically speaking” there did not seem to be much basis for talk of beauty except as a loose, imperfect adjective for certain unverifiable sentiments a peculiarly sensitive form of clever animal might sometimes feel.

Maritain wishes to drive us beyond the affirmations we can make based merely upon the immanent surfaces of things. If truth, goodness, and beauty in things are relative and imperfectly perceived, his realist metaphysics nonetheless drives us to the certainty of beings. Further, the perception of beings leads the intellect to the principle of Being, and the transcendental reality of Being Itself who is God. We relative beings are only analogous to God as Being Itself, and so, if the transcendentals are immanently convertible, so the unity, goodness, truth, and beauty of things are also analogues to God as the super-substantial eminent realization of these properties. He is the transcendent or absolute transcendental. In brief, “God is beautiful. . . . He is beautiful through Himself and in Himself, beautiful absolutely.” “Thus Beauty is one of the divine names.”

Maritain’s career can be understood primarily in terms of metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophies of art and beauty. That is, he tried to reorient his age to recognize that it perceived being, and in perceiving being it perceived truth. Parallel to this, he tried to show that we perceive beauty and in perceiving it, once again, our mind flashes upon being and truth. Taken together, all that we see, with the senses and with the light of the intellect, is an analogue of God and leads us to Him. Because beauty “belongs to the transcendental and metaphysical order,” Maritain writes, “it tends of itself to draw the soul beyond the created.” The quintessential poet of modernity, Baudelaire, had seen as much, apprehending the “theological quality and tyrannical spirituality of beauty.”

The analogy we make between relative beings and Being Itself, beautiful things and Beauty Itself, affirms the fundamental Platonic insight to which the Schoolmen, for all their fidelity to the moderate realism of Aristotle, clung: the beautiful reveals not simply our creaturely analogy to God, but our existential participation in Him. The clarity of the beautiful does not show forth a likeness in the sense of a comparison (a strict formulation of analogy), but rather confronts our senses and intellectual vision with the presence of God in things and the participation of things in God. The discursive process of abstraction, which may gradually lead us by deduction to a knowledge of God, though particularly proportioned to the human reason, is far more mediated and far less adequate than this encounter with God in Beauty. We see Him under the mode of Beauty.

When Maritain speaks of art as ordered to beauty, therefore, we cannot object to the quaintness of this claim and marshal forth the myriad “ugly” artworks of the last century, much less the ugliness of historical atrocity. For Maritain does not mean that artists make pretty things. He means that the virtue of art is, in the case of the fine arts, ordered to the making of what is real: in the artwork’s participation in being, it participates in an order of absolute truth—one which is given to us not by the mediation of reasoning but by the direct, concrete participation of the thing in Beauty Itself. This is, again, “tyrannical.” Should we stop anywhere short of beauty, we have stopped short of what is real: we have foiled the natural orientation of our intellects, settling for half truths only because beauty is so difficult.

Click here to read the seventh and final part of this essay.

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