For leisure, I am reading Rowan Williams’ work on theological aesthetics, Grace 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?