Is art for the good of itself?


David Jones, “Crucifixion and the Eucharist” (1925-26)

For leisure, I am reading Rowan Williams’ work on theological aestheticsGrace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. Exploring “the relationship between Christian thought and the practice of the arts,” the former Archbishop of Canterbury draws upon the neo-scholastic (or Thomist) philosophy of Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) and two Catholic artists impacted by it: the Welsh poet and painter, David Jones (1895-1974), and the American novelist, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). I am mulling over Maritain’s central and controversial argument that “art is not of itself either grounded in or aimed at moral probity” (10).  Here are some other iterations of that argument:

  • “Virtuous making aims not at the good of humanity but at the good of what is made” (11).
  • “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” (15).
  • Maritain opposes any slippage towards “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” (16).
  • “The mistake that 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—even when they have a sound conception of what is good for the sort of beings we are. Distinguer pour unir [‘distinguishing so as to unite’] 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” (40-41).

Williams pulls together “the essentials of Maritain’s aesthetic”:

(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. (36-38)

Question: Is the goal of the artist to make a good work, to produce beauty, or to improve humanity?


8 thoughts on “Is art for the good of itself?

  1. Pingback: Art is obedient to the creative gratuity in the world | Bensonian

  2. It is interesting reading this after having recently finished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which the main character, Stephen Dedalus, forsakes God and Christianity/Catholicism, and accepts the god of Art and its religion.
    I think the purpose of art is a complicated subject. Yet, however multifaceted this subject is, I do think that it is all ultimately pointed towards “the sacred.”
    How would you answer the final question of this post?

    • Before reading the work, I used to think art is for beauty or moral improvement rather than for the good of itself. But this view, I’ve learned, assumes what Maritain calls the magical fallacy: “the artist’s proper calling is to change the world according to his or her vision.” Is this true? And is it even possible? Theologically speaking, only God can change the world. Does he change the world through artists? No, the Father elects his Son, Jesus Christ, to change the world by sacrifice–not art. Is Dostoevsky wrong to say that beauty saves the world? It all depends on his conception of beauty. If he means the beauty created by artists, then we must reject a blasphemous apotheosis of the artist. If he means the beauty embodied in the Crucified Christ, which is a scandal to the world, then his claim squares with orthodoxy. I am now persuaded by the modest claim that art is for the good of itself, which humbles the vocation of the artist, over the grandiose claim that artists are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Percy Bysshe Shelley once said famously. He, like James Joyce, was an atheist: without God, the artist becomes either a surrogate priest, whose art has Eucharistic power to change the world, or, even worse, a god who creates the world.

  3. My answer to your question is related to what you have been quoting from Williams’ book. I think that anything is good insofar as it participates in God (“the sacred”). Thus, art is good insofar as it participates in the divine. A work of art does not need to be explicitly Christian to participate in God. It can show beauty (for God is ultimately beautiful) in its language, or it can represent well the true emotion of a character or writer (for communication itself began with God, and in addition, God himself is Truth).

    I read your other post and I found it interesting. I have not left a comment on it because I felt it a little to over my had to posit any opinions of my own.

    • Your comment relates to my second blog post, “Art is obedient to the creative gratuity in the world.” Notice the similarity between what you said (“art is good insofar as it participates in the divine”) and what Williams said (“Art has an ‘ontology’ implicit in it”). I do not think it is even possible for there to be art outside of being precisely because God is the source of all being. Setting aside the ontological character of art, I am still interested in hearing your thoughts about its telos: Is art chiefly for the good of itself, beauty, or moral improvement? Let me clear: Williams acknowledges that art may be associated with beauty and moral improvement but is for the good of itself. I have italicized the words “with” to emphasize the concomitant value of art and “for” to emphasize the teleological ambition of art. This is a distinction with a difference, and Williams thinks much theorizing about aesthetics goes astray when they are identified or confused.

  4. I think the ultimate goal of an artist is to produce quality work. Even unconverted artists partially respond to their divine calling to produce art by producing it at all. But art cannot be beautiful unless the artist is in touch with the divine order of the universe. If the artist is in touch with this sacred order, their art will be beautiful (some non-Christians are unknowingly in touch with it, while many Christians are not). This is why art has experienced on obvious degredation since the Enlightenment. When we try to “kill” God, we end up killing art as well.

    • Conor: If you think “the ultimate goal of an artist is to produce quality work,” then you are in agreement with Maritain about the telos of art, which is the for the good of itself. Where you seem to part company with Maritain is in whether good art can be produced by bad men. You say “no,” assuming that artists must be in touch with the divine order of the universe. He says “yes” (even poisoners write good prose), and the examples in history are abundant. Percy Bysshe Shelley, to take just one example, wrote beautiful poems even though he was an atheist and libertine.

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