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Jacques Maritain – the morals of the artist

August 7, 2014

“[I]n contradistinction to prudence, which is also a perfection of the practical intellect, art is concerned with the good of the work, not with the good of man. The ancients took pleasure in laying stress on this difference, in their thoroughgoing comparison of art and prudence. If only he contrives a good piece of woodwork or jewelwork, the fact of a craftsman’s being spiteful or debauched is immaterial, just as it is immaterial for a geometer to be a jealous or wicked man, if only his demonstrations provide us with geometrical truth. As Thomas Aquinas put it, art, in this respect, resembles the virtues of the speculative intellect: it causes man to act in a right way, not with regard to the use of man’s own free will, and to the rightness of the human will, but with regard to the rightness of a particular power. The good that art pursues is not the good of the human will but the good of the very artifact. Thus, art does not require, as a necessary precondition, that the will or the appetite should be undeviating with respect to its own nature and its own – human or moral – ends and dynamism, or in the line of human destiny. Oscar Wilde was but a good Thomist when he wrote: ‘The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.’ …

As I observed at the beginning, the prime obligation of philosophy is to bring out and circumscribe the nature or essence of the given thing, taken in itself, which it considers: for instance the nature or essence of art taken in itself or in its own basic and constitutive requirements. Yet the trouble is that in actual existence we do not deal with essences taken in themselves, but with essences embodied in concrete reality. Art in itself pertains to a sphere separate from, and independent of, the sphere of morality. It breaks into human life and human affairs like a moon prince or a mermaid into a custom office or a congregation; it will always make trouble and arouse suspicion. But art exists in a human being – the artist. As a result, though the fact of a man’s being a poisoner is nothing against his prose, the fact of a man’s being a drug addict can be, in the long run, something harmful to his prose. Baudelaire himself has warned us against the exclusive passion for art, which progressively destroys the human subject and finally – through an indirect repercussion, owing to material or subjective causality – destroys art itself: for once a man is through, his art is through also.

But things are still more complicated, because of the fact that the artist is aware of this kind of impact of his own moral life on his art, and therefore is tempted, when he totally yields to his cherished demon, to develop, for the sake of his art, a peculiar morality and peculiar moral standards of his own, directed to the good of the work, not of his soul. Then he will endeavor to taste all the fruits and silts of the earth, and will make curiosity or recklessness in any new moral experiment or vampiric singularity his supreme moral virtue, in order to feed his art. And the undertaking will finally prove to be a miscalculation, for in this adventure he will warp in a more subtle manner – and in a manner more closely connected with the sphere of creativity – that general temperament of thought and sensibility, and that general relationship of the sense and the intellect to reality, which are the human ambiance of the activity of art.

Yet he can still remain an artist – even a great artist, however injured in some respects: the fact is that his very being has been offered in self-sacrifice to the all-devouring glory of art; – well, to the glory of this world also, and to our own delights, and to the spiritual welfare of mankind. For St. Teresa of Avila said that without poetry life would not be tolerable – even for the contemplatives. We do not have to judge him. God will work it out with him, somehow or other.”

(from Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry [1953])

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