The Responsibility of the Artist

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I had previously reported reading a book by Jacques Maritain titled Art and Morality In fact, that is a single chapter of a larger work titled The Responsibility of the Artist which is available through the Maritain Center.

I share a brief reflection based on part of the text.

from The Responsibility of the Artist
Jacques Maritain

Artistic value and moral value belong to two different realms. Artistic value relates to the work, moral value to man. The sins of men can be the subject-matter of a work of art, from them art can draw aesthetic beauty -- otherwise there would be no novelists. The experience of moral evil can even contribute to feed the virtue of art -- I mean by accident, not as a necessary requirement of art. The sensuality of Wagner is so sublimated by the operation of his music that Tristan calls forth no less than an image of the pure essence of love. The fact remains that if Wagner had not fallen in love with Matilda Wesendonck, we would probably not have had Tristan. The world would doubtless be none the worse for it -- Bayreuth is not the Heavenly Jerusalem. Yet thus does art avail itself of anything, even of sin. It behaves like a god; it thinks only of its own glory. The painter may damn himself, painting does not care a straw, if the fire where he burns bakes a beautiful piece of pottery. The fact matters to the painter, however, because the painter is not the art of painting, nor is he merely a painter. He is also a man, and he is a man before being a painter.

The last lines of this are the most stirring and dreadful. God will not judge us on fine writing or persuasive reasoning. He will judge us on right thinking, believing, acting on the truth, and ultimately right living that stems from these. Art, as fine and as consoling as it can be, does not save us. That is done by Christ alone, who can begin to be known by art, but who ultimately is known by Himself entirely. He makes Himself known through the power of the Holy Spirit to the person who, through whatever means, becomes aware of Him and seeks Him in fullness of heart and mind.

from The Responsibility of the Artist

Any man who, in a primary act of freedom deep enough to engage his whole personality, chooses to do the good for the sake of the good, chooses God, knowingly or unknowingly, as his supreme good; he loves God more than himself, even if he has no conceptual knowledge of God.

Praise God! I do not need a complete conceptual understanding of God, or even a particularly good one, in order to truly love God in my actions. True, more of these actions are inspired in greater love based on knowledge--but it isn't knowing that is the key--it is ultimately loving. Even if you do not know why you are obedient, obedience to the law of love is love of God.

(Interestingly the passage directly above comes after a demonstration of the "good love" Antigone demonstrates toward her brothers and toward her people through the rebellious act she commits.)

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Do you agree with Maritain that from the sins of men art can draw aesthetic beauty?

Dear Tom,

It depends on how you mean that. I think it most certainly true if the art concerns the sins of men (as what art does not). That is that part of the Aesthetics of Pride and Prejudice comes from the subject matter.

However if by that question you mean do sinful actions of the artist add to the aesthetics of the art, I would find Maritain's example of Tristan persuasive, but not compelling. I also look to Baudelaire who wrote some exceedingly bad poetry from a moral standpoint which is, perhaps in part by virtue of its subject matter, compelling lovely. I also think of various Odalesques, Majas, and other nudes which treating the matter of seductive women produce resounding Aesthetic achievements.

I have to give this a great deal more consideration and play out its ramifications before I could really agree. And it may be in the end that I decide I do not know enough to intelligently agree or disagree--that all of my opinions are based merely on anecdotal evidence.




A lot of this is what Fellini was exploring in 8 1/2. For Guido, his alter-ego character, his personal life had driven him to artistic paralysis. He longed to create a True film, but found that he was living in a tangle of lies of his own creation, thus making it impossible.

How much of this was strictly autobiographical on the part of Fellini? I don't know, and I doubt that Fellini knew. Certainly several of Fellini's own pet obsessions made their way into the film (how many of his films had a character like Saraghina?), not to mention things like his own feelings of being stung by Church criticism of La Dolce Vita.

Sin is a form of madness, and, Romantic notions aside, madness tends to be more of a hindrance to the creation of art. Van Gogh was a great artist in spite of his madness. In fact, he was only able to get anything done when he was relatively free of his demons.

The struggle with demons (even in those struggles we lose) might be the genesis of great art (you have read The Hunger, right?), but that is a function of the good overcoming the bad, even if the only good to win in the struggle of our fallen nature is artistic.

I loved the line "Bayreuth is not the Heavenly Jerusalem." It wasn't then and it still isn't today! But Wagner is a great example (as are Black Sabbath, Pablo Picasso, Gesualdo, David, etc.) to use in this.

Dear Erik

You make some fine points in trying to formulate the argument. But take a look once again at "madness." It is largely because of madness that Goya is as effective and interesting as he is--and El Greco is only a little behind in this category.

And look at the opposite side of the argument. Does tremendous faith always yield a superior aesthetic? Would you rather sit through Salieri's Falstaff or Mozart's Die Zauberflote.

So I don't really know. I do know, however, that most truly great art comes out of a tremendous struggle of the artist. Either interior or exterior. Much of the success of art deals with struggle and resolution. It's one of the reasons that I readily acquiesce that my very favorite school of poets isn't particularly successful. Imagists don't often record a struggle. Where is the struggle in Mallarm$eacute;'s "Faun" or Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre?"

But I digress and several delectable guava pastries await me--the alarm beckons.



I would not call Goya mad. He depicted madness, but it was from observing more than actual experience. Certainly he had a touch of depression, no doubt egged on by deafness and whatever disease it was that caused the deafness (my semi-educated opinion is spinal meningitis, but the record is vague - Hughes sheds no light on the matter beyond what I already knew).

The problem is that an artist is called to truth. Mozart, through his superior craft, was better able to express truth without getting in the way (if he were to get in the way, we would be stuck with the narcissistic ramblings of a confused freemason). Salieri, though much more pious, lacked Mozart's craftsmanship (although he was no hack, in spite of popular misconception).

A great example is Lou Harrison. Silly, silly philosophies, compounded by a life of sodomy. But when he was good (which was often), something came out in his music that transcended his relativism, his sodomy, his utterly idiotic world view.

The struggle in Apres midi d'un faun (a magnificent poem, by the way), is not so much in a personal Rime of the Ancient Marriner way, but rather in a "how the $%#^ do you express music in words?" There is one stanza in particular (the one about Sicilian marshes or something, it is too late for me to look it up, sorry), that achieves that beautifully.

But, that is beside the point. The struggle does not have to be manifest in the work. Craftsmanship and practice are the keys to making the difficult look easy (Mozart comes to mind again).

Anyway, too much pork and wine tonight to really give a good argument, but if you are in Berkeley, be sure to go to the restaurant named "Le Bateau Ivre." A fitting tribute to a great poem.

Dear Erik,

"Saturn Eating His Children" is a clear indication of the depths to which Goya went in his depression. Untreated clinical depression gives rise to episodes of psychosis, occasionally permanent. Hughes aside, all of the analysis of Goya's art and documents available from the time suggest that he experienced these episodes. And toward the end of his life may have lived them more-or-less continuously. But that too is beside the point. I think my point largely concurred with your own in the second post. When the artist can get out of the way, his personal life little matters.

Tom's question however was of a different matter--does sin inform the aesthetic of art? And that is a really touch question that I'm not completely certain that Maritain answers in the positive. I'll have to talk with Tom about it more.

Thanks for the note and I would visit Le Bateau Ivre--though frankly Northern California is on no agenda for trips ever (not exactly convention central). Perhaps fate will intervene.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 14, 2004 8:51 AM.

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