The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

The Treasonous Clerk: Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic, Part V
James Matthew Wilson - 01/04/10
Jacques Maritain

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

Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (1920; 1935) constitutes one of the French neo-Thomist philosopher’s briefest and most austere works, and yet belying the serviceable prose and apparent modesty of scope is a wide-ranging series of interventions on nearly every significant philosophical question of Maritain’s—or any—day. In speaking of beauty, Maritain sought to guide the intellectual life of an entire age. This can make the short treatise and the essays later appended to it difficult reading: one cannot fully appreciate the significance of Maritain’s claims if one does not also sense the positions to which he responds.

Added to this, Maritain sent his little book off into the intellectual circles of Paris in 1920 knowing quite well that its identity—or rather, its literary genre—would seem more than a little ambiguous. Was it, as its extensive footnotes suggested, an academic treatise somehow escaped from the under-siege and well-guarded corridors of official Ecclesiastical theology? Was it, conversely, in that age of avant-garde movements, yet one more manifesto exploding on the Left Bank in the years after Symbolism, Futurism, and Cubism and just before the emergence of the Surrealists? Historical philosophy or explosive manifesto? Naturally, what it was would shape how its words must be read, but Maritain’s genius left this, too, ambiguous.

Art and Scholasticism has therefore lived multiple lives, speaking to discontinuous audiences—telling them, telling us, that if we would know what is real, what is true, what is good, we must discover all in the radiance of the Beautiful.

In method of argument, Maritain’s small book reads much like the sundry theses on the thought of Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholasticism that issued from the Catholic academy and press in the first half the twentieth century. The questions of the Schoolmen were not precisely those we ask in modern times, and so the careful scholar must sift through the Summae and Commentaries in search of the rare, often isolated, passages out of which some clear theory might be constructed. Maritain’s small book assembles roughly forty references to the Summa Theologica, and nearly as many to the minor works of Aquinas, Albert the Great, or John of Saint Thomas. What he reports to us calls into question some of what the modern world has presumed about art and beauty, while putting much of it upon entirely new foundations: Maritain affirms and modifies what artists from Baudelaire onward suggested by equipping them with Thomist-realist arguments. This act of affirmation does not simply provide a Scholastic scaffold in support of modern notions—it draws them in new directions, as if to show us in the most gentle and unassuming manner possible that modern aesthetic theory, when it works itself out, is roughly that of Aquinas. The modern artist, in turn, when he thinks through what he already believes, will awake to find himself standing at the threshold of the Church.

The suavity of this argument led to multiple conversions in France in the 1920s, and in the English-speaking world in subsequent decades. To the literati, Art and Scholasticism read like a manifesto concealing an apologetic. To the neo-Thomist philosophers and theologians of Maritain’s and subsequent generations, it would appear as an enduring contribution to the revival of Scholasticism—inciting more extensive and historically sensitive work on medieval aesthetics even as it retained the kind of academic authority for which few works could hope. The book sat on converts’ shelves, but also appears in the footnotes of medieval scholarship to this day. Again, the treatise told us at once what the modern world had forgotten and yet also what it already knew but did not understand.

Of Art

Maritain’s method follows the rudiments of Scholastic practice, distinguishing the smallest possible parts of any given argument with the intention of uniting them as an understood whole. His first such distinction in the treatise would be between the virtue of art and the transcendental of Beauty. Since Kant, we have tended to think of “art” as the fine arts exclusively, and to interpret beauty primarily, almost exclusively, in terms of the fine arts; consequently, we have misunderstood both.

The virtue of art is a practical rather than a speculative one, ordered to action rather than knowledge, to outward reification rather than the interior end of the intellect. As such, art can best be understood in contrast from prudence. The practical, moral virtue of prudence is that by which a person acts suitably in a given situation, applying a general moral principle in a particular event. The prudent man knows how to do what is right here and now. Art is a practical virtue, but an intellectual rather than a moral one, ordered exclusively to making, the “undeviating determination of works to be made.” If prudence proceeds from certain abstract laws to contingent actions whose consequences may vary radically, art is ordered to the realization of a definite idea in matter; prudence adapts to circumstance, art adheres strictly to the idea of the thing to be made.

Art and Scholasticism

Here, Maritain suggests to us the limited truth of modern notions of aesthetic autonomy. In itself, the virtue of art has no end but the thing made; everything else is extrinsic to it. Indeed, the artist in position of this virtue “will need a certain heroism in order to keep himself always on the straight path of Doing [prudence], and in order not to sacrifice his immortal substance to the devouring idol that he has in his soul.” The artist qua artist has no end but the thing to be made, but there is no such thing as the artist who is not first and always a man. Maritain clearly wants us to think of those great painters and poets who wasted away their being so obsessed were they with realizing their spiritual vision. But we should think no less of the carpenter or watch maker in his workshop, holing himself up in the practical simplicity of his craft. Thus, while we would speak falsely in suggesting that artistic work has any intrinsic moral or instrumental purpose, we would also speak falsely to suppose a man can live strictly as an artist without losing his humanity—and even his soul. Thus, the artist, or artisan, has an intrinsic obligation to the thing he would make, but that thing may require other considerations beyond its being well made. To what use would a new invention be put? we ask of the useful arts. Our question is far more complicated with the “fine arts,” whose thing made is not something useful but something ordered to Beauty Itself. According to Maritain, the Greeks subordinated the fine arts to reason, humanizing it by refusing to surrender it entirely to its own interior impulse; he says nothing of the many human and cultic uses to which they also subordinated it, but perhaps these are implied. The medievals similarly subordinated art and beauty to the virtue of faith—a matter to which we shall return.

If Maritain grants with qualifications the modern notion of art as autonomous and as having a self-absorbing and undeviating telos for the work made, he steers a more careful course between two other modern misconceptions. Above all, romantic and post-romantic aesthetics often reduce—or “elevate”—art to a kind of excretion, whether as the leaves on the trees or something more visceral. Conversely, in Maritain’s day, self-styled neo-classicists held up Racine as the model of art as an ornamental exercise of the reason, or wit (l’esprit), of perfect method devoid of subjective, emotional, or spiritual interest. Maritain, here and in all his aesthetic writings, suggests that art has rightly become autonomous because it has become self-conscious and spiritualized—and that the discovery of this truth belongs to the Romantics. While the end of the fine arts in beauty will speak to this most powerfully, in the early pages of his treatise he concerns himself primarily with establishing art as an intellectual rather than moral virtue. If it is eminently practical in having its end as a work made, artistic work is nonetheless “the properly human work, in contradistinction to the work of a beast or the work of a machine. . . . When work becomes inhuman or sub-human, because its artistic character is effaced and matter gains the upper hand over man, it is natural that civilization tends to communism and to a productivism forgetful of the true ends of the human being.”

The work that most befits man as a rational animal is the intellectual one of art, in which the idea impresses itself upon matter, subordinating if not dominating it. It is worth our pausing to note that one hears an anthropology of human dignity in work here that Maritain’s friend Yves Simon, the English artist Eric Gill, the Welsh poet David Jones, and Pope John Paul II—among many others—would subsequently develop. Art, even fine art, is a kind of work and not itself, as the romantics might have it, an effervescence of oracular inspiration. But rather than legitimizing art in an age given over to utilitarian and pragmatic—much less communistic materialist—concerns, Maritain seeks to demonstrate the dignity of artistic work as intellectual; in the art of logic, it even crosses over from the practical to the speculative and gets taken up into the contemplative life of the philosophers and theologians. He will elsewhere suggest that the fine arts similarly approximate to this super-elevation—that they, indeed, form an analogue to the super-elevation of prayer made possible by the Holy Spirit. As if expanding Joseph Pieper’s defense of leisure and contemplation in a world of “total work,” Maritain thus aligns art properly understood with a society ordered to dignified work, but also seeks to raise “true making” to the ranks of leisure and contemplation.

However, Maritain primarily wishes to defend the intellectual nature of art from modern artists and aestheticians. Man does not reduce himself to a beast of animal impulses to engage in “creative” work, shedding his reason like so many mind-forged manacles. Nor does he rightly reduce the exercise of his intellect to a series of categorical methods and mechanical practices, as Descartes and modern rationalists attempted to do with every previously distinct human activity. At best, this reduces the intellect to the capacities of human reason, but at worst it reduces even that reason to the positivist and utilitarian ideal of the machine.

Maritain turns to Aristotle and Aquinas alike for the vocabulary to save his intellectual vision of art from emotivist and mechanical reductions. Art, he says, is a habitus of the practical intellect, and a habitus is the disposition of a person that is perfective of that person’s nature. We acquire it “through exercise and use,” but it “attests the activity of the spirit” and resides in the “intelligence or the will.” One can be taught to obey a slavish method, but habitus can only be imparted by apprenticeship, by the kind of personal practice that gradually elevated the soul to accomplish by its own inner direction the making in matter of an idea already in the mind. Through practice, the intellect becomes connatural to the determining of a work. Thus, the virtue of art is truly intellectual, gained only through the perfection of some aspect of the mind. The habitus of the carpenter might mislead us, however, into believing art more rationalistic than it is. We see that he has a particular end in mind—a good house—and that the principles of a better or worse house may be adjusted by an explicit and predictable method to accord with what use we expect the house to serve. But if this is, in truth, inadequate to the genius of the carpenter, how much more it is to that of the fine arts, where the object to be made cannot be judged immediately in terms of its instrumental value in serving an end outside itself. The end of the fine arts, after all, is the making of a thing whose end is not an extrinsic function but an immanent beauty. As such, the habitus of the fine artist obeys rules connatural to himself, but these rules are neither as evident nor readily evaluable as are those of the arts in general. Maritain may have been thinking of Pascal in fashioning this notion. Maritain’s neo-Thomist philosophy follows in Pascal’s track as an apologetics of the reasonableness of Christian faith grounds in a sense of the intuition and sense of beauty as a gateway to grace. In any case, one cannot read Maritain on habitus without hearing an echo of Pascal on poetic beauty:

As we speak of poetical beauty, so ought we to speak of mathematical beauty and medical beauty. But we do not do so; and the reason is that we know well what is the object of mathematics, and that it consists in proofs, and what is the object of medicine, and that it consists in healing. But we do not know in what grace consists, which is the object of poetry. We do not know the natural model which we ought to imitate . . .

Derived from a model, but not from one anyone but the artist may know in advance, habitus may appear esoteric and exclusive in its direction: the modern world wants efficiency and uniformity and so “method is for all” but “habitus is only for some.” We cannot hope to memorize the rules of art and then make good art, but nor can we rest on the assumption that some inspiration, some will not our own, is the source of that virtue—the romantic doctrines of natural ability, emotional intuition, and spontaneity are wrong, because they ignore the essentially intellectual source of art. The intellect of the artist rather than his kidney conforms to a higher rule internal to the particular work and its particular beauty.

Thus, Maritain insists upon the humility of even the fine arts as work, but he would spiritualize and intellectualize work itself. He grants it a self-directed autonomy, but he elsewhere shows that this autonomy is always situate among the complete way of life of an individual man and a human community. Perhaps surprisingly, given Maritain’s reputation as a disciple of medieval Schoolman Thomas Aquinas, it is only because of the unity of all these attributes that he reserves a special place for the sacred artisans of the Middle Ages:

In the powerfully social structure of medieval civilization, the artist had only the rank of artisan, and every kind of anarchical development was forbidden his individualism, because a natural social discipline imposed on him from the outside certain limiting conditions. He did not work for the rich and fashionable and for the merchants, but for the faithful; it was his mission to house their prayers, to instruct their intelligences, to delight their souls and their eyes. Matchless epoch, in which an ingenious people was formed in beauty without even realizing it, just as the perfect religious ought to pray without knowing that he is praying; in which Doctors and image-makers lovingly taught the poor, and the poor delighted in their teaching, because they were all of the same royal race, born of water and the Spirit!
Man created more beautiful things in those days, and he adored himself less. The blessed humility in which the artist was placed exalted his strength and his freedom

But then came the Renaissance, the relocation of the end of art in the exaltation of the individual genius, the pretensions of human making to divine creativity. While one hears the notes of a certain romantic medievalism welling up, one hears also the craving for humility, for spiritual discipline and metaphysical realism that saturated post–World War I France. The soldiers dead in the trenches had suffered a similar “natural social discipline” not for the sake of merchant or banker—that is, that bourgeois monstrosity, the laïc Third Republic—but for the patria, the French nation; all they wanted was a civilization worthy of that bodily and spiritual sacrifice. As Stephen Schloesser has brilliantly shown in his book on Maritain, Jazz Age Catholicism (2005), passages like this one speak not of an age lost, but of an age that must yet come to be if only for the sake of the recently buried. A revaluation of the nature of art as intellectual virtue and human work as a habitus, at once rational yet above bourgeois positivist formulae, addressed the needs of the age even as it set down permanent philosophical truths. It justified the proliferating, esoteric methods of modern art even as it recalled artists to an intellectual discipline they had explicitly eschewed. Once again, Art and Scholasticism shuffled with agility and ambiguity between manifesto of the moment and perennial philosophy.

Click here to continue on to Part VI.

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