The work of the French philosopher, Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), was the fruit of two lifetimes, his own and his wife Raïssa’s, who was herself a poet. To their Roman Catholic conversion during their university years they brought the heady combination of his French Protestant background and her Russian emigré status. Left adrift by the fashionable fin de siècle relativism, these two intense students met one day in the Jardin des Plantes to make a pact that if they had not found a “meaning for the word ‘truth’ ” within a year, they would put an end to both their lives (Julie Kernan, Our Friend, Jacques Maritain, Doubleday, 1975, p. 25).
Fortunately, during that year they found some answers, not just in the lectures of the philosopher Bergson, but also in the novels of Leon Bloy and the poetry of Charles Péguy. Drawn into Bloy’s fervent circle of believers, the Maritains formed lifelong friendships with Georges Rouault, Marc Chagall, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Claudel, and Jean Cocteau.
In the midst of such artistic ferment, Maritain, who originally intended to become a biologist, felt the need to sort out and clarify definitions of art and beauty, thus providing a means of escape for those minds of his period bogged down in what he called “sensual slush.” He wrote Art and Scholasticism in 1930 to set to rights the “immense intellectual disorder inherited from the nineteenth century” and to find “once more the spiritual conditions of honest work” (Scribners, 1962, p. 4).
Despite its ostensibly libertine attitude, Maritain found the modern world secretly inimical to art. “And now the modern world,” says Maritain, sounding much like his pessimistic Protestant counterpart, Jacques Ellul, “which had promised the artist everything, soon will scarcely leave him the bare means of subsistence. Founded on the two unnatural principles of the fecundity of money and the finality of the useful, multiplying needs and servitude without the possibility of there ever being a limit, destroying the leisure of the soul … and imposing on man the panting of the machine and the accelerated movement of matter, the system of nothing but the earth is imprinting on human activity a truly inhuman mode and a diabolical direction, for the final end of all this frenzy is to prevent man from resembling God …” (pp. 36–7).
Indeed, though Maritain was struck with the label of humanism, a term out of favor in evangelical circles today, the philosopher himself preferred the more precise term personalism: “the criterion by which all policies are judged is that of the worth of the human person.” He insists that his is “the humanism of the Incarnation, whereby the creature should be truly respected in his connection with God and because he is totally dependent on him” (True Humanism, Scribners, 1938, p. 65). Because God became man in Jesus Christ we can then take the making and doing of man with the highest seriousness instead of seeing them as the antics of clever animals.
Having established the awesome importance of human activity. Maritain then brings to bear the great weight of the Western world’s most austere philosophical system, medieval scholasticism, upon this uniquely human act of art. First of all, art is practical; it produces: “wherever we find art we find some productive operation to be contrived, some work to be made” (Art and Scholasticism, p. 6). Thinking beautiful thoughts is not art. The ability to appreciate a spectacular sunset is no indication of creative capacities. Art is first of all work, work that results in some tangible or visible or audible product.
But not all work is art. Although all work can and should be dedicated to God, as Paul advised the Colossians, art is work of a special kind. It is work that results in a work, and whose undeviating concern is the good of the work itself, not its producer. The architecture of the European cathedrals was not in the slightest concerned with the health and welfare of the stone masons or the wood-carvers who labored long and dangerously to build them. Art has a life of its own, a powerful and easily perverted life, but one that must necessarily be kept free from the prudential concerns of the artist. Charles Dickens knew this frightening fact when he wrote “I hold my inventive faculty on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands upon me and sometimes for months together put everything else away from me” (Wolf Mankowitz, Dickens of London, Macmillan, 1976, p. 245).
This powerful compulsion to create does not possess everyone equally, however, a fact that the insistent egalitarianism of the modern world resents. Therefore, in the place of true art, we seek to substitute method, “an ensemble of formulas and processes that work of themselves and serve the mind as orthopedic and mechanical armature.” Thus drama degenerates into the formula of TV situation comedy and the methodical violence of calculated cops and robbers. Today, Maritain observes, “it cannot be admitted that access to the highest activities depend on a virtue that some possess and others do not; consequently beautiful things must be made easy” (Art and Scholasticism, p. 40).
With the introduction of beauty into the issue, we come upon another difficult question, one that plagues us today, so assaulted as we are by works whose object seems to be horror rather than beauty. What is the relationship of art to beauty anyway? Maritain uses Aquinas’s deceptively simple definition of the beautiful—“that which, being seen, pleases” (p. 23). But if the fine arts are meant to produce works that delight the spirit by delighting the senses, why is there so much “ugly art” in the modern world? Or if not downright ugly, then totally incomprehensible. The answer is the artist’s revenge.
As an artist breathes in the essentials of our age, primarily those having to do with the absence of values, of incoherence and meaninglessness, he exhales a blast of rage back upon it. For his vocation demands balance, harmony, proportion, integrity in his works. Yet these are the very qualities denied him by his environment. So he launches a bitter attack upon his world through his art and then often lapses into silence. Unless, of course, the artist finds his very aggressiveness profitable, in which case he joins his enemy by cashing in on his own rage.
“The dismissal of beauty,” Maritain warns us, “is quite a dangerous thing—if not for art, which cannot in reality divorce beauty, at least for humanity. For as Thomas Aquinas puts it, man cannot live without delectation, and when the spiritual delectations are lacking, he passes to the carnal ones” (Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Meridian Books, 1955, p. 146).
Unfortunately, Christians by and large have responded to this frustrated rage in the same manner as the secular world. They have gone off in a huff to console themselves with the merely pretty and decorative. They choose mass-produced paintings that will match the color of their drapes, and stick up cute aphorisms on the kitchen wall, not because these are works well done but because they are blandly inoffensive. Having been assaulted by at least two generations of enraged artists, they feel perfectly justified in demanding nothing more than amiable mediocrity in art.
That sort of response is of course on a personal level. On a corporate level, Christians have felt somewhat uneasy with this complaisant, harmless sort of art. Clinging desperately to values considered archaic or benighted by their surrounding culture, the notion still gnaws at them that there should be some sort of identifiably “Christian art.”
Maritain too asserts that there is indeed a “Christian art,” but certainly not in the sense that one speaks of Byzantine or Gothic art. Rather it is “the art of redeemed humanity.… Everything belongs to it, the sacred as well as the profane. It is at home wherever the ingenuity and the joy of man extend. Symphony or ballet, film or novel, landscape or still-life, puppet-show libretto or opera, it can just as well appear in any of these as in stained-glass windows and statues of the churches.… If you want to make a Christian work, then be Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work, into which your heart will pass; do not try to ‘make Christian’ ” (Art and Scholasticism, p. 65).
The good work. The work well made. That is Maritain’s proposed aesthetic foundation upon which all else may be built. No moralizing need intrude upon it simply because there is no good that opposes God. The craftsman’s works, those that are for some useful purpose, are bound not only to be well made but also to serve their purpose well. But the artist’s works are free to be purposefully useless, made only for play and delight.
Such aesthetic undergirding allows us to feel a compassion for artists, struggling unsheltered by grace against the same buffeting of the spirit that we are. It gives us insight into the suicides, the alcoholism, the addictions, and all other wounds artists suffer in our society. It frees us from the demands that art drudge away at teaching us a lesson. It frees us from being bullied into accepting inadequate artistic criteria of secular critics. It frees us from meekly submitting to shoddy work that trades upon its Christian context.
But it also makes a demand on Christians, and not merely the artists among us. It demands that we give serious attention to the art, both secular and sacred, that surrounds us. The Protestant tradition, for centuries chary of the intoxicating errors of art and the potential seductiveness of beauty, must now acknowledge the abundance of the grace that redeems all appropriately human activity. Otherwise, as Maritain concludes, “every time he finds in a Christian environment a contempt for intelligence or art, that is to say, for truth and beauty, which are divine names, we may be sure the devil scores a point” (p. 220).
Virginia Stem Owens practices the art of fine writing from her home in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
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