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Grace, Necessity and Imagination: Catholic Philosophy and the Twentieth Century Artist - Lecture 1: Modernism and the Scholastic Revival

Thursday 20th January 2005

Clark Lectures, Trinity College, Cambridge. A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.


While we are used to the annual ritual controversies around the Turner Prize, and to a modest level of background noise about various acquisitions in the Tate Modern, it would be difficult to claim that serious debate about the nature of visual and plastic art was a common thing in our intellectual life. As to the verbal arts, poetry, fiction and drama, we (the reasonably educated reader) are fairly familiar with the broad brush disputes over interpretation generated by postmodernist criticism; we are aware of debates around the significance of theory for the critical appreciation of specific works, around concepts of authorial intention and authority, narrative unity and narrative perspective. We have become used to suspicions about how texts encode patterns of power, often by what they don't say; we can recite the mantras of a certain kind of theory which insists that there is nothing outside the text. But it is unusual to find sustained theoretical reflection on what the process of artistic composition entails and what it assumes. Discouraged from large scale speculation about metaphysics, theories of art have shied away from thinking about exactly what kind of work creative composition is, and what kind of reality it claims to show or make. Practitioners of visual or verbal art will often write about what they think they are doing; and Heaney or Hill on poetry and Josef Herman's journals on painting offer a wealth of material for the theorist; yet I sometimes sense an embarrassment among theorists when confronted with such material.

These lectures will be looking back to a particular moment in twentieth century philosophy when there was a sustained attempt to provide a comprehensive theory of artistic labour on the basis of a very ambitious religious metaphysic. It sounds an unpromising beginning in some ways, a potently ideological ground for interpretation; but it proved a scheme that made sense to a number of practising artists, and I want to examine briefly what it was that made it so sympathetic to them, and to ask whether there are clues there to a more robust contemporary aesthetic. And one of the serious underlying questions raised by looking at this scheme is whether there is an unavoidably theological element to all artistic labour. That issue is one I shall try to tackle in the last of these lectures – aware that it suggests an agenda rather more ample than the time available in this context can contain.

Jacques Maritain was one of the central figures of the French Catholic revival at the beginning of the twentieth century. A convert to Catholic Christianity as a young adult, married to an exceptionally gifted woman of Russian Jewish family, he was close to many of the leading figures in the world of the creative arts over several decades. But his main intellectual project was the revival of the thought of Thomas Aquinas as the foundation for a contemporary system of political and ethical theory as well as for a religious metaphysic; and from quite early in his career he also set about the construction of a comprehensive aesthetic, a task which came to notable fruition in the fifties, with the publication of his Mellon Lectures on Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. The revulsion of a great deal of Catholic feeling against Thomism in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and Maritain's own vocal and acerbic criticisms of post-conciliar developments, meant that his monumental system rapidly came to be seen as a museum piece. What is more, the legacy of his political thought proved deeply ambiguous: he was understood as having provided a rationale for Christian Democrat politics, in Europe and in Latin America, a politics devoted to the frustration of open socialism and a sharp demarcation between the morality of the individual and the necessarily compromised morality of the state. This is a crassly one-sided reading of Maritain's own political priorities, but it contributed to his work being regarded with hostility by many Catholic thinkers of the last quarter of the twentieth century, and eventually to a simple and widespread neglect. The appearance of a full-scale biography in French and a recent and very readable survey by Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame have begun to do something to restore his reputation. But many aspects of his work still await proper critical appreciation. Chief among these, I want to argue, is his aesthetics – not least because of his proximity to some of the most significant currents in what might be generally called literary modernism in the early twentieth century, understanding 'modernism' here as essentially that approach to art which concentrates on the fabric, inner and outer, of the work made rather than any supposed external reference, representational or theoretical.

What Maritain wrote about art reflects a fundamental theme in all his work. His fullest treatise on metaphysics and epistemology has the title, Distinguer pour unir, 'Distinguishing so as to unite'. He is concerned to clarify the proper sphere of every philosophical discipline and to resist the kind of theological tyranny which assumes that the data of revelation can be brought in as a direct solution to the problems of specific discourses. At one level, this is an acknowledgement of the proper distinction between grace and nature: God makes a world in which created processes have their own integrity, so that they do not need God's constant direct intervention to be themselves. At a deeper level, it assumes a unity between grace and nature: the integrity of a created process will, if pursued honestly and systematically, be open to God's purposes. This formulation conceals one of the bitterest debates of twentieth century Catholic theology, the controversy which blazed from the thirties to the fifties over the definition of the 'natural' and the 'supernatural'; Maritain stood, in political terms, very much alongside those who argued that if grace were really to be God's free gift, the distinction between the natural order of creation and the added dimension of grace had to be absolutely clear. But – without going into the formidable complexities of this question – it would be wrong to think of him as defending a static idea of human activities with goals that are intrinsically unrelated to God. His concern is to suggest how apparently unrelated goals can be understood coherently, so as to avoid that trivialising of human agency which occurs when theological judgements are invoked at the wrong level.

Hence Maritain can say, in his first and most influential essay on aesthetics in general, that art is not of itself either grounded in or aimed at moral probity. It is a 'virtue of the practical intellect' – that is, of the mind focused not on knowledge as such but on action. And the practical intellect works in two ways: it may be oriented to doing, to the right use of freedom for the sake of human good, or to making, to the production of some specific outcome in the material world. Virtuous making aims not at the good of humanity but at the good of what is made. Maritain, with conscious mischief, quotes Wilde: 'The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose'. As he says in another early essay, art 'is, in a way, an inhuman virtue'; its goals are 'extra-human'. But this statement on its own is misleading: art produces beauty, which is what forms in the observer a reaction combining knowledge and delight. Maritain quotes Aquinas's definition of beauty as id quod visum placet, 'that which pleases when seen': he argues that Aquinas's view of beauty is not at all Platonist, since what pleases will vary according to circumstance. What matters is what this work requires; a feature may be in itself jarring or even terrible, but may still be 'what pleases' in its context. Beauty is not, therefore, a single transcendent object or source of radiance. It is a kind of good, but not a kind of truth – that is, it provides satisfaction, joy, for the human subject, but does not tell you anything. Beauty, we might paraphrase, is a relation between work and observer in which the observer's will as well as intellect is engaged, a relation in which what is present to the mind is sensed as desirable, as a source of pleasure. But what Maritain is, I think cautioning against is any suggestion that the sensation of being in the presence of the desirable gives you any information about how the world actually is. Given that the human will is spectacularly fallible and self-deceiving, a judgement of beauty cannot as such be morally or metaphysically illuminating.

Yet it is not completely without resonance with truth. The delight of the subject is in the recognition of what Aquinas calls splendor formae, 'splendour of form', a sense of the work achieved as giving itself to the observer in an 'overflow' of presence, what Maritain later calls 'radiance'. This object is there for me, for my delight; but it is so because it is not there solely for me, not designed so as to fit my specifications for being pleased. Maritain is not always wholly clear about this; but his emphasis on the gratuity of the artwork, its essentially disinterested character, implies that the awareness of beauty is always a recognition of what is more than functional in a work, and thus is some kind of relation with an aspect of reality otherwise unknown. We shall be returning to this theme later. But I suspect here that Maritain, in his eagerness to distinguish between knowledge and delight and thus to warn against an aesthetic reduction of morality (experienced delight as defining true good) has seriously overstated the point and obscured something of significance for his overall argument.

What he is clear about, though, is that the production of beauty cannot be a goal for the artist. If the artist sets out to please, he or she will compromise the good of the thing made. If it is well and honestly made, it will 'tend' towards beauty – presumably because it will be transparent to what is always present in the real, that is the overflow of presence which generates joy. In the Mellon Lectures, Maritain spells this out a little more fully, noting that contemporary art is confused about beauty: either there is a cult of the beautiful for its own sake, independent of a clear-headed sense of a work's integrity, or there is a replacement of beauty by an appeal to a work's fidelity to the artist's subjective integrity – personal honesty doing duty for formal splendour. Thus the great problems of contemporary art are emotionalism and intellectualism: in a highly functionalist culture, the notion of gratuitous beauty becomes deeply problematic, so that a work is judged by its success in stimulating specific feelings or by its capacity to state what is in the artist's mind.

All this helps to explain why Maritain claims in his earlier work that art is more 'intellectual' than prudence – prudence, which is the virtue of practical intellect oriented towards moral virtue, the human good. Art is not about the will – though it unquestionably works on the will. In its actual execution, art does not require good dispositions of the will (poisoners write good prose), nor does it aim to produce good dispositions of the will or indeed any particular dispositions of the will. It does not aim at delight or the desire of the good. It seeks the good of this bit of work. And the artist as artist is not called on to love God or the world or humanity, but to love what he or she is doing. In a rather extended sense, the activity of the artist does have a serious moral character simply because it pushes aside the ego and the desire of the artist as individual. Art is fundamentally opposed to the will to power as it is to the cult of personality. But in the nature of the case, this happens only when it is not a conscious goal: the will cannot be engaged to will its own banishment. The artist exercises intellect with such detachment that the effect is a sort of image of sanctity, a contemplative absorption in what is truly there. And this needs to be said clearly, not to exalt the status of the artist to that of the saint, but precisely to counter any such idea, any 'messianism' about the artist's role, any slippage towards what the later Maritain calls the magical fallacy of which artists may be victims – that is, the notion that the artist's proper calling is to change the world according to his or her vision.

Yet the artist's work is inescapably a claim about reality. It is not, that is to say, a new world depending on the play of an individual psyche any more than it is the expression of a specific project of the artist's will. 'Poetry is ontology', Maritain asserts in his essay on 'The Frontiers of Poetry', it has to do with our knowledge of being itself. Any poetic utterance, any visible or tangible object made by art, is already a metaphysical statement. The argument seems to be roughly this: art is not a matter of deciding to create this or that pattern, because that would reduce it to an act of will; but if it is more to do with intelligence than will, it is bound to be exercised in relation to what is actual, since intelligence, in Maritain's philosophical scheme, is necessarily oriented towards being. The practical intellect is a way of 'coping' with what is actually there – that's what makes it practical. Art therefore shows what is real in some sense; it shows something other than its own labour of creation. 'The normal climate of art is intelligence and knowledge', as Maritain wrote in the Mellon Lectures; and earlier he had spoken of the 'antinomy' of all art as a negotiating of the tension between an 'essential reality' and the actual facts of the world: art seeks to reshape the data of the world so as to make their fundamental structure and relation visible. Thus the artist does set out to change the world, but to change it into itself, if the paradox be allowed.

This is why art can never be simply imitative. When there is a trend towards the imitative, there will inevitably be a reaction in the direction of conceptualism: cubism emerges from the reaction against what Maritain calls the 'theatrical' mistakes of nineteenth century realism and impressionism. Properly, art 'spreads over [things] a secret which it first discovered in them, in their invisible substance or in their endless exchanges and correspondences'. But again, when the artist becomes so absorbed in those structures as to lose touch with the actuality of objects, he or she is inevitably frustrated: God alone sees and knows structures in themselves by his eternal 'ideas' of the world; but for finite mind and imagination, there is always the link with actual perception of finite objects. The artist struggling for perfect abstract expression is trying to imitate God's self-sufficiency; the surrealist struggling to lay out the movement of thought or language as such, independent of the act of intelligible communication, is likewise engaged in a 'promethean' enterprise. I suspect that Maritain would not have wanted to be understood as condemning abstract art unreservedly; after all, the 'abstract' still works with the concrete relations of colour and physical shape, and to read, say, Malevich on the nature of visual art is to find something not by any means alien to some of Maritain's concerns. But the warning is more directed to the self-understanding of the abstract artist: whatever this created object is, it is not something directly rooted in or related to the structures of intelligible reality in a way that bypasses the given material world. The artist only reflects the thoughts of God as they are embodied in this actual environment.

In 'Frontiers of Poetry', Maritain traces this particular modernist temptation, this artistic 'sin of the angels', as he puts it, to the cultural moment in which the artist becomes fully self-conscious – the Renaissance. The more the artist is aware of laying bare the invisible, the more there may grow a passion to express in the work all that the artist's mind conceives. This may be, as we have seen, a matter of the perception of abstract structure; but it may equally be, in the absence of a clear sense of any externally given reality, intellectual or material, an urgency to express the individual self without reserve. Maritain speaks, in a striking phrase, of Rimbaud's 'eucharistic passion': the inevitable failure to allay this passion for total self-embodiment, for the transubstantiation of the self into words, leads to blasphemy and despair. Mallarmean pure poetry leads to an aesthetic crisis. It is an artistic moment of truth, in that the artist has to decide whether the end of the process is simple and invariable frustration or a contemplative orientation towards what is never going to be contained, the world in the eyes of God. Again, this is a question to which we shall be returning. The mature Maritain, in the Mellon Lectures, speaks of finite beauty or finishedness in the work being always incomplete at some level, 'limping' like the biblical Jacob, from the encounter with what cannot be named; achieved art always has 'that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite'.

Gradually the nature of art's metaphysical claim comes more fully into focus. Art challenges the finality of appearance here and now, the actual 'conditions of existence', not in order to destroy but to ground, amplify, fulfil. It aims at 'transcendental realism'. Without this basis, it becomes either the transcription of a particular psychic agenda or a conceptual system set up in rivalry to the actuality that the artist faces. Both errors simplify the complex relations of labour and transformation that issue in finished or 'beautiful' work (granted the flexibility of what beauty means here). Because of its character as an act of intellect rather than will, art aims always at the finished work, not at the stimulating of particular felt response: it speaks to intelligence, inviting intelligence to recognise its truth. It demands – in an extended but still exact sense – contemplation, the intellect being shaped by the impress of truth in such a way that the impress of truth on the artistic mind or imagination is continued through the work (but only through the work, not through an idea that can be abstracted from the work or through the artist's gloss on their own production). And in all these ways, the work not only challenges appearances; it challenges pre-existing assumptions about knowledge itself. It makes claims about being but also about how being is adequately known. In the light of this, we need to look at what Maritain has to say about the actual intellectual process that is artistic composition.


The earlier Maritain is fairly sketchy about these specifics, though there are hints; the developed doctrine is to be found in the Mellon Lectures. Here he begins with the broad assertion that the poetic (by implication the artistic in general) represents the communion between the inner life of the objects of the world and the human self; it is a level of intellection at which the conventional bounds between world and subject are breached (so that it can be described as a purified form of magic). Because it transgresses the ordinary bounds of conscious intellectual activity, its roots must be located in the preconscious life of the intellect – a central concept for the lectures.

What this means is spelled out in the third and fourth lectures particularly. Every human subject is in touch with the 'illuminating intellect', the reflection of God's formative mental activity within our own: below the surface of human mental agency, Maritain is saying, lies a kind of participatory awareness, a contact not yet expressed in word or concept, that resonates with the patterns of God's action in the created world. 'Spiritual forms', concepts, intelligible patterns in our apprehending of the world, are the result of the intellectual action of God drawing and moulding our mental action so as to generate coherent images that encode or even 'embody' the rhythms of God's working. This is not simply a registering of some world of impressions outside the subject: we have to take the language of 'impression' absolutely seriously and think about the self as showing the reality it encounters by the effect upon it of the agency of an other. To be aware of the self is to be aware of something that bears the marks of otherness, not of a pristine independent subjectivity. My intellection is – in the Germanic phrase – 'always already' addressed, impressed, illuminated; but therefore also acting upon, processing and transforming raw data. There is never a confrontation between those two mythological entities of modern epistemology – the innocent receptacle of the disinterested mind and the uninterpreted data of external reality. The mind is itself already an agency with a 'shape', a tendency to respond thus and not otherwise; it makes patterns of what it confronts according to the patterning it has received in its primordial contact with God's agency. The artist's knowledge is a kind of self-knowledge. And, as Maritain elaborates in the first of the Mellon Lectures, ultimately an art concentrating on things (as in the pre-modern world or the Orient) can't help but reveal the creative self, and an art concentrated on the self (as in western modernity) can't help but reveal the depth of things. There is a 'cunning of reason' in the creative process, we might say; and Maritain is more optimistic here than in his earlier work about how even a deeply individualistic and anti-transcendental art cannot completely frustrate some kind of openness to unseen structures.

But this in turn means that the way in which the developed conscious mind maps the world is only an aspect of a deeper and more mysterious relationship between mind and world. The relations between a conceptualised bit of the material environment and the conscious conceptual structures which tell you as an intellectual subject how to approach, understand and find your way around it are not the only relationships in which the elements in that environment are involved. In one of the most significant phrases of this discussion, Maritain speaks of how 'things are not only what they are', how they 'give more than they have'. Hence, of course, the uselessness of ordinary realism: to represent what is there in what he has called the 'theatrical' mode, to reproduce a world in a way that takes for granted where its boundary lines are drawn by conceptual mapping, is to fail radically in the artistic task, which is to open up knowledge otherwise unavailable. This is the context in which Maritain denies so forcefully that a product of art is the embodiment of an artist's idea.

As we shall see in other connections, this entails the possibility of what can be quite dramatic strategies in 'challenging appearances'; and it gives further substance to Maritain's careful qualifications about the sorts of beauty appropriate to different works. To make present the underlying structures and relations apprehended may involve a degree of imaginative violence to surface harmonies. The danger for art is not in the production of the shocking or the jarring, but in the pursuit of what is shocking as an exercise of the artistic will; a complex discernment is required here. The deliberate cultivation of what jars is as much a folly, artistically, as the deliberate striving for beauty. The issue is always and only about the integrity of the work. The artist first listens and looks for the pulse or rhythm that is not evident; but she cannot do any sort of job if she refuses to work with such pulses.

Maritain's own word is 'pulsions', a notion he discusses in the last two of the lectures, and whose definition clearly causes him some trouble. He wants to argue that what lies at the root of specifically poetic labour is what he calls a 'musical stir', an intuition of something like rhythm. And this 'intuitive pulsion' is what is most essential to poetry. Poetry has regularly worked with the music of actual sounds, the patterning of words in rhyme or metre, but modern poetry does not assume that this is necessary. Instead, modern poetry pushes us back towards the deeper 'pulsions' – which seem, from the examples Maritain gives (from Baudelaire and, a little strangely, given his attention to strictly verbal music, Hopkins), to be something like units of imaginative sense, clusters of feeling or even 'knots' of imagery and cross-reference which can never be captured simply in the music of sounds. Perhaps the haiku would be a paradigm of what is at the centre of composition thus understood.

What he seems to be saying is that the poetic process is first a kind of apprehending of the environment that blurs conventional boundaries of perception – not to dissolve the actuality that is there but to bring out relations and dimensions that ordinary rational naming and analysing fail to represent. Perhaps more than this, it is a sense of objects as it were carrying with them a charge of feeling which links them to other objects. Thus Proust's generative moment might be a paradigm of one aspect of this 'musical' apprehension. It is the level of awareness at which metaphor is inescapable, the level at which my sense of an object and its intrinsic life are indistinguishable. That is why poetry can be said to have roots in magical and mythological consciousness. The contemporary poet is, in a more self-aware fashion, recreating that consciousness, in deliberate transgression of contemporary canons of rational description.

It is interesting that Maritain speaks consistently of 'music' in this context, but refuses to identify poetic music with patterns of sounds. He is, I think, proposing an analogy between music as the development of intrinsic relations and proportions in the world of sound, and poetry as the laying bare of relations and proportions in the ensemble of what is perceived over and above (or below) the register in which we talk of self-contained entities. It is all to do with things 'being more than they are'. Metaphor implies that diverse, sometimes very diverse, items in the perceptual field can be related as if they were on the same 'frequency': something about the life of this object in action shares the same style of action as is seen in something different. Or, in an older and more technical idiom, metaphor suggests participation between different agencies. Once again, there is a metaphysical point being indirectly made (scholastic thought insists that knowing is always a form of participation in the active intelligible life of an object, reproducing itself in the life of the subject; this is simply to take the pattern to a level unfamiliar to classical scholastic thought). And the point can be translated into talking about the visual arts in some very interesting ways, as we shall see in the next of these lectures.

This is why, incidentally, Maritain can insist that the surface meaning of a poem (or, presumably, any product of art) may be accessible and clear or the opposite, without this affecting its clarity as a work. The obscurity or indeterminacy of a poem at the intellectual level can indeed be a strength, since it becomes free to signify more to the reader. Maritain refers to Eliot's Ash Wednesday as an instance of poetic clarity – in a way that Eliot himself would have happily endorsed. When asked by an undergraduate what he meant by 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree', he famously replied, 'I mean, "Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree"'. The signification of the words is neither conceptual nor representational; it is the positing of a world in which these words 'catch' and establish certain relations or resonances.


Just in case this appears too much of an essay in scholastic epistemology gone slightly off the rails, it may be worth noting in comparison some of what recent analytic writers and practitioners have had to say about the poetic process. In a paper on 'Wordless words: poetry and the symmetry of being', Michael Maltby, a clinical psychologist, has outlined a theoretical perspective on poetic awareness that strikingly echoes some of Maritain's scheme. He is dissatisfied with the kind of psychoanalytic tradition of interpretation that sees artistic activity as essentially a matter of the 'economics' of the psyche – the utilising of repressed material. From Freud onwards, there has been something of an analytic orthodoxy, variously expressed, on this. The formation of the self in and through language requires the imposition of order, so that certain forms of consciousness – what Kristeva calls the 'semiotic' as opposed to the 'symbolic' – are denied. Art (especially in verbal form) restores the semiotic by disrupting the order of habitual consciousness. 'Semiotic' here refers to a process of communication by signs that is not yet reduced to regularity and stability; what 'counts' in this stage is something more fluid. So the return of the repressed in art recovers 'metaphor, metonymy and musicality' as ways of accessing that fluid, timeless mode of knowing in which we do not have to generalise or universalise but only to enter into the resonance of the moment (Maltby, p.54).

But this takes us only so far. It misses out on the artist's labour to shape, from the buried material of 'semiotic' awareness, an intelligible product; and it makes art ultimately functional, a release of tension, rather than an action undertaken for its own sake – or, better, as a deliberate attempt to display the reality that the intelligence as a whole encounters. Maltby turns to the very sophisticated scheme proposed by another analytic theorist, Ignacio Matte-Blanco, for an alternative. In this, preconscious/subconscious thought is characterised as 'symmetric': objects present themselves in certain 'sets' that are not the same as those we use in ordinary practical discrimination (where we need to know what the differences are between objects so that we can act appropriately and successfully in relation to them). The language of cause and effect does not routinely apply in this context, and conventional assumptions about boundaries and exclusions in what we say about the world are absent. A perceiving mind that operated solely in a symmetric way would be pathological, dysfunctional. But this is often the result of consciousness's efforts to do without the symmetric, to deny or refuse the knowledge that is available at this level. In other words, thinking that is completely asymmetric, using a logic of exclusions and regular causalities, is as 'abnormal' as thinking that is completely symmetrical. Neither can live in the other's absence.

Poetry is a fusion of symmetric and asymmetric. It depends on the possibility of establishing perceptions of identity in the world that do not depend on stable verbal definition. 'Identities can be established in terms of sound, image, or pattern of movement. Identities established at that level can, in turn, be differentiated in terms below a level of verbal statement.' (63) Maltby's example is Auden's 'Night Mail' as an enactment of perception working below the level of statement. I am not sure if this is the best or most resourceful example, as it does not go very much beyond a reproduction of a particular ordered set of impressions (imitating the rhythm of the train). But the point is clear enough; and a richer example might be, perhaps, Rilke's Duino Elegies, with their symphonic movements of emotional tone, working at a far more fundamental level than any verbal argument; or, as suggested earlier, and on a very different scale from Rilke's massive edifices, the haiku. And this prompts some thoughts on what a translator of poetry might be about and whether it is absolutely true that poetry perishes in translation: if a translator catches the music not of the words, which is impossible to reproduce, but of the 'symmetric' complexes of image and feeling, what emerges is still poetry. Christopher Logue's extraordinary renditions of Homer are a case in point here.

It should be clear that this is not a digression from our main enterprise of elucidating Maritain. He predictably avoids the language of the subconscious; but his 'preconscious' in fact works in much the same way. The analogy of music is powerfully present in both the neo-scholastic and the analytic discussions, but in both it refers to something other than the mere sound of the words. Both end up with a view of poetry which sees it as a work of intelligence, a practice of knowing, that precariously straddles the boundaries of two sorts of mental activity. Both agree in seeing it as something more than an intensified representation on the one hand and a Dionysiac self- expression on the other. If it is indeed the return of the repressed, this should not be taken as simply an act of release or of sublimation which has no implications for questions of truth.

So with this in mind, we can begin to draw together some of the essentials of Maritain's aesthetic. Much of the argument has been about poetry, but its applicability to visual art is not difficult to explain. The leading themes are these:

(i) Art is an action of the intelligence and thus makes claims about how things are.
(ii) As such, it invites contemplation; that is, it sets out to create something that can be absorbed by intelligence, rather than a tool for use in a project larger than itself.
(iii) Thus the canons for understanding art must relate to the integrity of what is being produced, not to goals extrinsic to this process of labour.
(iv) When art engages the will by its own integrity and inner coherence, we speak of its beauty; but beauty cannot be sought as something in itself, independent of what this work demands.
(v) By engaging us in an unforeseen pattern of coherence or integrity, art uncovers relations and resonances in the field of perception that 'ordinary' seeing and experiencing obscure or even deny.
(vi) Thus art in one sense 'dispossesses' us of our habitual perception and restores to reality a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our control. It makes the world strange.
(vii) So, finally, it opens up the dimension in which 'things are more than they are', 'give more than they have'. Maritain is circumspect in spelling out the implication of this, but it is pretty clear that what this means is that art necessarily relates in some way to 'the sacred', to energies and activities that are wholly outside the scope of representation and instrumental reason.

From all these also, we can draw a clear picture of what Maritain believes fails as art. Realism is a regular target for his polemic; so is edification. Art does not seek to reproduce items of ordinary consciousness; it is bound to the actuality of its own material medium and seeks to make something that is in accord with that medium, so that it cannot properly try to overcome its own matter. Trompe l'oeil is not the purpose of art. In this, incidentally, Maritain's efforts to show that Aristotle's idea of art as mimesis are wholly compatible with his own scheme are none too successful. Equally, art as propaganda, designed to persuade those who see and hear of a message that can be separated from the actual work, is a nonsense. This emphatically does not mean that art makes no claims relating to truth or goodness. Nor does it mean that the artist as such is devoid of metaphysical conviction. The artist produces what his habits of perception permit, and those habits are moral and metaphysical as well as narrowly perceptual.

Maritain is far from arguing that there are no moral questions to be asked of artistic production. A bad man may produce fine work; but there is a precariousness in this. The ineptitude of a person's moral perception is a factor that can easily spill over into other ineptitudes. A bad man whose badness takes the shape of self-centred exploitation of his material to advance his personality is a bad artist. And that habit of self-centredness is unlikely to be simply a matter of artistic practice, but connected with or rooted in other moral failures. What Maritain is saying is, I think, that in our total response to the artistic product, the engagement of our will in recognising beauty means that we are inevitably caught up at some point in a judgement of whether the world that the work sets before us is desirable. This does not determine our judgement of how the work works, so to speak, its integrity and resonance. But it is tied in with judgements of truth when located in the pattern of a life overall – which is more than aesthetics. The mistake Maritain is concerned to counter is not a link between art and the good, but a reduction of the former to the latter, so that good art is simply the production of material designed to make us desire the good. Bad men make good things; but good men also make bad things, works that are intrinsically dishonest and empty, because they do not keep their eyes on the good of the work. Distinguer pour unir once again; we only grasp the way in which art and morality connect when we know exactly why and how they are not the same. And both are damaged when we fail to do this.

Maritain's reflections on art are, I have suggested, one of the most abidingly interesting and fresh aspects of his complex system. But the plausibility of any aesthetic has a lot to do with whether practitioners can recognise what is being talked about as the sort of thing they actually do. One of the most striking features of the reception of Maritain's thinking is the enthusiasm displayed by working artists for his ideas. It would be intriguing to trace that reception among artists who had little or no theological commitment; but his work was clearly most liberating for those who had to struggle against assumptions about religious art that were essentially hostile to the very idea of art. In the next two lectures, I shall be looking at two of these in particular, David Jones and Flannery O'Connor – a poet and draughtsman, and a writer of fiction. For both, Maritain was of decisive significance. But they also suggest why this account of the nature of art itself has some apologetic interest; and the final lecture will address aspects of this. For if things 'give more than they have' in the artist's world, what exactly can be said about that redundancy and excess of gift that does not sooner or later have to connect with a picture of divine poiesis?

© Rowan Williams 2005 

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