A small gem of a book that artists should have on their shelves is Jacques Maritain’s The Responsibility of the Artist. Together with Jacques Barzun’s The Use and Abuse of Art, it is all anyone needs to think or talk about the artist’s ultimate purpose.
Dover keeps Barzun in print. Sadly, it does not do the same for Maritain. But scout around for a used copy. (First published in 1960, there exists also a 1972 edition.
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) Neglect is owed, most likely, to Maritain’s dual ambition: the pursuit of scholarship and the pursuit of sanctity. The latter is not a fashionable quest. It does not sell books. Quality of mind, however, still holds its place in the roster of reasons to read Maritain. And there remains great timeliness in his discussion of what is meant by an artist’s responsibility as an artist to others and to himself. Call it the ethics of art.
In a scant four chapters, he combines commentary on aesthetics with moral philosophy, emphasizing the second. He uses the word artist and poet interchangeably to indicate those dedicated to any kind of creative art. One of the best known passages comes in the first chapter, “Art and Morality”:
Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work.
That means that the all the crackpot world-improving installations, all the art-on-the-barricades, all save-the-whales and deliver-us-from-climate-charge art projects are as nothing if they are not good art. If they declare themselves as artworks, then they must submit to judgment on aesthetic grounds. Their artistic value cannot be redeemed or enhanced by the artist’s “message,” however sincerely held. Maritain insists on the distinction between artistic value and moral value. They belong to different realms:
Artistic value relates to the work, moral value to the 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—by accident, not as a necessary requirement of art.
He uses the married Wagner’s possible affair—whether it was ever consummated is in contention—with another man’s wife to illustrate his point:
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 Mathilde 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. . . . The painter may damn himself, painting does not care a straw, if the fire where he burns bakes a beautiful piece of pottery.
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The fact matters to the painter, however, because:
He is also a man, and he is a man before being a painter.
It was on the basis of this distinction that Maritain defended the brothel scenes of Georges Rouault against unflattering, negative criticism. He understood Rouault’s coarse, inelegant prostitutes as signs of the human condition, fallen and joyless. Rouault’s painted filles de joie, as the French call their whores, are part of the melancholy masque in which we all participate.
Every subject is suitable for art. Nothing within man’s experience stands outside the boundaries of art. What matters is what the artist makes of it:
Art does not reside in an angelic mind. It resides in a soul which animates a living body . . . and makes the rational animal a naturally social animal. Art is, therefore, basically dependent upon everything which the human community, spiritual tradition and history transmit to the body and mind of man. By its human subject and its human roots, art belongs to a time and a country.
Art belongs to a time and a country. That line is critical. It is at the heart of every contemporary artist’s dilemma. How to be of one’s time without succumbing to it? How to convey the nature of one’s time yet simultaneously create timeless work? There is no pat, easy answer to that. Only one thing can be said with certainty: that enduring art can only be made by artists aware of the nature of their time. That necessary wakefulness is no small thing to achieve. Acquaintance with Maritain offers a place to start.
© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey