Dates: 1882-1973

Nationality: French

Jacques Maritain (November 18, 1882 – April, 28 1973) was a French Catholic philosopher. Raised as a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism in 1906. An author of more than 60 books, he helped to revive St. Thomas Aquinas for modern times and is a prominent drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pope Paul VI presented his “Message to Men of Thought and of Science” at the close of Vatican II to Maritain, his long-time friend and mentor. Maritain’s interest and works spanned many aspects of philosophy, including aesthetics, political theory, the philosophy of science, metaphysics, education, liturgy and ecclesiology.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Jacques Maritain’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 December 2010, 09:17 UTC, <en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jacques_Maritain&oldid=400824878>

Maritain had a long-standing interest in art and the arts. From one of his earliest books, Art et Scolastique [Art and Scholasticism] (1920), through work addressing the painter Georges Rouault and the author, Jean Cocteau [e.g., Art and Faith: Letters Between Jacques Maritain and Jean Cocteau], to Frontières de la Poésie [Art and Poetry] (1935), Situation de la Poésie [The Situation of Poetry] (1938), Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953) and The Responsibility of the Artist (1960), one finds sustained attention given to the topic. This is no surprise. Maritain’s wife, Raïssa, was a poet, and Maritain counted among his friends and acquaintances the artists, Marc Changall and Georges Rouault, the authors Georges Bernanos, Jean Cocteau, and Julien Green, and the composer Arthur Lourie.

The focus of Maritain’s writing is not aesthetic theory or even aesthetic experience, but art and the nature of beauty. Maritain sought to engage the world of the contemporary arts, but he was also critical of much of the aesthetics that was implied by it; he proposed to uncover principles of art at a time at which talk of such principles had already become somewhat suspect. His familiarity with the arts made his work relevant and accessible to those who engaged in them, and although his early work drew from his knowledge of western art, in his later work he also wrote about that found in Asian and Indian cultures.

A distinctive feature of Maritain’s discussion of art is his account of what art is. For Maritain, art is “a virtue of the practical intellect that aims at making” (Art and Scholasticism, p. 13; Creative Intuition, p. 49); it is, then, a virtue that is found in artisans and artists alike. The virtue or “habitus” of art, Maritain writes, is not simply an “interior growth of spontaneous life,” but has an intellectual character and involves cultivation and practice. As a characteristic of the practical intellect, art is not a speculative or a theoretical activity; it aims not just at knowing, but at doing. Finally, Maritain writes that the ‘making’ at which art aims is something that is demanded by the end of the activity itself, not the particular interest of the artist.

On Maritain’s view, what distinguishes the fine arts from the work of artisans is that the fine arts are primarily concerned with beauty — i.e., “that which upon being seen pleases” (Art and Scholasticism, p. 23; Creative Intuition, p. 160); this classical view, again adapted from Aquinas, runs counter to some of the principal trends in aesthetics and art since the eighteenth century. Maritain insisted, however, that his view of the place of beauty in art was more consistent with the nature of artistic activity. Even though a work of art is an end in itself, the general end of art is beauty. Thus, since art is a virtue that aims at making, to be an artist requires aiming at making beautiful things (Art and Scholasticism, p. 33).

Beauty can be found in nature as well as in art. While beauty affects human beings through the senses, and while the awareness of beauty does not involve abstraction (as does knowledge in the sciences), nevertheless, beauty is an object of the intellect. Maritain, following Aquinas, says that beauty “delights the understanding”; the appreciation of art, on the part of the spectator, then, involves awakening the intelligence.

Art has both subjective and objective dimensions. The activity of artistic creation is clearly something that is carried out by a subject. Moreover, Maritain acknowledges that beauty is analogical — just as ‘good’ is; just as each thing is good in its own way, so each thing is beautiful in its own way. Still, beauty is not something purely subjective or relative. Beauty — and, by extension, art — is something that involves integrity, proportion, and splendor or clarity, which are objective qualities. More broadly, art has a relation to the world; it can be a response to the world, but its expression is also determined by the world and by the work itself. (This also serves to put the ambitions and pretensions of the artist into perspective.) Finally, beauty and art have a connection to the spiritual and spiritual experience (Creative Intuition, p. 178). As a creative activity, it is ultimately dependent upon (and Maritain says that it is “ordained to”) the creator and, therefore, it has a relation to the divine and to the transcendentals of goodness, truth, and unity.

A second key feature of Maritain’s views on art is his discussion of art in relation to freedom; his views here not only reflect his metaphysics, but bear on his political philosophy. Artistic activity is, for Maritain, part of the basic drive in humans to create and make. It requires freedom — and, thus, the artist must be free. For Maritain, freedom is a fundamental characteristic of the human person. But this freedom is not absolute. Maritain reminds his readers that freedom is not license to do whatever one chooses. Freedom in all its forms is ultimately subject to truth and, for the artist, it is also subject to “the spiritual conditions of honest work” (Art and Scholasticism, p. 4). Maritain would say that artistic activity is analogous to divine free creative activity (see his letters to Cocteau); “the highest natural resemblance to God’s activity” (Art and Faith, p. 89).

While Maritain rejects the subordination of the artist to politics and to religious authority, he also denies that artists are answerable only to themselves. The creative self, he writes, “dies to itself in order to live in [its] work” (Creative Intuition, p. 144). Moreover, Maritain writes that art ‘perfects’ the artist; that by engaging in this activity there is “a perfecting of the spirit” (Art and Scholasticism, p. 62). The freedom that Maritain ascribes to artists, then, is not a lawless freedom.

A third distinctive feature of Maritain’s philosophy of art is his account of artistic (or what he sometimes calls ‘poetic’) knowledge. Maritain notes the focus on the awareness of the self as characteristic of art from the time of the German romantics, and recognises its value so far as it challenges the emphasis on reason and mechanical technique. This artistic knowledge is an instance of what Maritain calls, in general, knowledge though connaturality; it is a kind of ‘creative intuition’ that arises out of “the free creativity of the spirit” (Creative Intuition, p. 112; Natural Law, p. 18). Maritain also describes it as a “grasping, by the poet, of his own subjectivity in order to create” (Creative Intuition, p. 113). Maritain places this knowledge at the level of the preconscious intellect. It is non-conceptual, non-rational, and “obscure” (Creative Intuition, p. 18; see Natural Law, p. 18). Nor is it, as much knowledge is, a knowledge of essences. Nevertheless, it is still connected to “intellectual act”. It is a knowledge of reality — of a “concrete reality” — albeit one that “tends and extends to the infinite” (Creative Intuition, p. 126). This kind of knowledge lies at the basis, not only of artistic activity, but also moral and mystical experience.

Maritain’s views on art had a significant influence on a number of artists, writers, and composers of his time, not only on his interlocutors. The American writer, Flannery O’Connor; regarded Art and Scholasticism as the book that she “cut [her] aesthetic teeth on” (O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 1979, p. 216). While certainly no longer central in contemporary debate in aesthetics, Maritain’s views continue to have a broad audience.

Sweet, William, “Jacques Maritain”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/maritain/>

Comments are closed.