The Responsibility of the Artist

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.


Mathilde Wesendonck (1850) by Karl Sohn,


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.


George Rouault, Prostitute at Her Mirror

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


  1. I am re-reading Art and Scholasticism. In moments of total concentration his concepts and logic come through with amazing clarity. For me he has become an indispensable mentor, shedding his even, patient, and completely unprejudiced light.

    I will definitely look for a copy of Responsibility of the Artist. Thanks for writing about it.

  2. You picked the more difficult book, Izy. Or, to be precise, the text that penetrates more specifically into a religious confession. Art and Scholasticism contains a chapter “Christian Art.” In it there is one sentence that I love: “The whole soul of the artist affects and controls his work, but it should only affect and control it by the artistic habit. Art will suffer no division here. . . . A Christian work will have the artist, as artist, free.

    How lovely to hear Maritain referred to as a mentor. Flannery O”Connor considered him one. But no visual artist, to my knowledge, (certainly no contemporary one) says the same. Thank you.

  3. The first reading of Art & Scholasticism was very difficult for me. On second reading I found that intense concentration helped. I turned to Maritain somewhat out of anxiety because I found that I was in a very small company being artist AND Christian. I was also bothered by the suspicion many fellow Christians exhibited for art, especially Modern Art. What he says (as in your quote) was already in my heart, I just didn’t know if it was valid, nor how to articulate it. I find much solace in his thought, which obviously has roots in theology.

    By the way, I found an online version of Responsibility of the Artist at Notre Dame’s site:

  4. Yes, Mark, it is wonderful. Thank you. Perhaps that quote belongs to–or derives from–Jacques Barzun. He insisted that, to be of one’s time (as an artist) requires wakeful attention to the nature of one’s time. It is for just such comments that Barzun is necessary reading.

  5. Good work, Mark, thank you. Double thank you, really. So, it was Maritain, not Barzun, that you were referring to earlier. Your clarification makes clear Barzun’s own acquaintance with Maritain. Which brings us back to my original recommendation of the two of them as the basis for serious reflection on the arts. It is a small circle, granted, but the only one that counts. Over time.

  6. “Only one thing can be said with certainty: that enduring art can only be made by artists aware of the nature of their time.”

    If I may be the gadfly, I believe there is inconsistency in your philosophy of the artist. Here artists are required to take the bird’s eye view of their cultural moment and the trajectory of history itself. On other occasions, the notion that artists are seers or prophets is flatly repudiated (as a fallacy), even though the traditional role of a prophet – at least in the biblical sense – is to call out widespread moral failures of the present, a role in addition to but independent of the job of historical forecasting. It seems that even here, the notion of “enduring art” requires a mighty grasp of future contingencies.

  7. Whoa, Sam! To be aware of the nature of one’s time, is hardly synonymous with seeking to be a seer or a prophet. But I understand your demurral. The inconsistency you point to derives, I think, from the uses of the world art. I am largely concerned with visual art; more precisely, gallery and museum art. Maritain’s use of the term is much broader, more attuned to literature. And it is in literature that “the nature of one’s time” fills its role to the fullest. Still, I like to quote him on “art” because thoughtful painters—and painting is my primary concern—can find much nourishment.

    Besides, nothing in these postings suggests that “enduring art” is plotted in advance. All the phrase means is that only that art that, somehow,
    retains the power of communication across time can endure, can earn the attention of future generation. It exists in the realm of aspiration, not
    prediction or calculation.

  8. I tend to see and read visual art as a message in a bottle in an ocean of time. That is to say, an artist can only hope the bottle and it’s message will endure over time and have significance for the those who might find the bottle—provided they have the capacities to appreciate and, to some degree, comprehend its import culturally.

  9. Thanks for the response, Maureen. When I get some time, I will better explain the question I am asking.

  10. Well, if you struggle to go along with Thomas Aquinas (as I do), then Jacques is unlikely to float your boat (?)
    I think your point is well made on all the ‘art and…’ but didn’t all that start out as a welcome correction to late modernism and Greenbergian ‘medium specificity’? When I was an art student, 30 years ago I also read Ettienne Gilson, (even less fashionable than Maritain, even then) and rather foolishly took him seriously …only to find myself tracing a line to Greenberg that was a cul de sac that I got stuck in for ages.

  11. A welcome correction, Andy, is welcome however it was triggered. (“Medium specificity” is a quaint term these days, no?.)

    Most welcome to me is your disengagement from Etienne Gilson. You were right to do it. He took Aquinas’ metaphysics of being and over-egged the pudding when it came to painting. His lyricisms on behalf of abstraction were very much of their time–and have done some damage since. Theologians–especially liberal Protestant ones–took their cue and have been seeking a locus for theology in, yes, a Greenbergian cul de sac. (Tillich, Dillenberger and a host of lesser names bored with the Creed have made a sacramental–if not quite a sacrament–out of art. Too much time in the Hamptons, perhaps.) Still, Gilson’s Painting and Reality, read in careful doses, has some very good things to say. And to argue with. The chapter “Painters and the Talking World” is as pertinent as ever. (Though, writing in 1957, he did not foresee the Greenbergian juggernaut.)

    Who now reads Gilson? It’s a pleasure to e-meet someone who did.

  12. It was a pleasure to read him at the time, though i wouldn’t find it so now. I remember taking ‘Painting and Reality’ home with me in the holidays and reading from it every day, sitting on the floor in my mum’s lounge. A nice memory you brought back for me.
    I was also very keen on Rouault in those days, and then having not seen his work for ages, walking onto the top floor of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and suddenly being met with a wall of his prints I was just bowled over by the colour. They were beautiful!
    Also, I noticed a piece on Rouault on a wordpress site from Edinburgh recently that connects to some of the themes being discussed here today maybe it is of interest:

  13. My follow up…

    The premise of Artist as Seer is artists have no special insight into the world. They are only different in their technical or optical abilities. This is true in the sense that artists are not somehow gifted with elite cognitive faculties denied to others, especially when being an artist amounts to calling one’s self an artist or buying an MFA. Artists are not divine prophets.

    At the same time, the ethical responsibilities of the artist advocated here include an awareness of the nature of one’s times. The nature of this requisite awareness isn’t fully fleshed out, but by your example we have Rouault painting prostitutes as a sign of the human condition. (It contains an implicit moral critique of bourgeois’ view of themselves and prostitutes alike. It is not merely a work of technical ability or pleasant affirmations of the human form –it’s not titled Woman at Her Mirror – but a work that brings disturbing social truths to the fore.) This is a prophetic act.

    When the prophet Hosea married a prostitute to symbolize Israel’s infidelity, it’s function was a moral corrective. The same when Jesus challenged the Pharisees to cast the first stone. They are prophetic acts, though not divine ones. (The notion of predicting the future is somewhat beside the point in this discussion because the art world is generally interested in NOW, not Nostradamus. Likewise, the art world hardly talks about “timeless art” for future generations – much less archival materials. There is plenty of art on global politics and ecology, but emphasis is on present ills.)

    The awareness of the present you are calling for certainly goes beyond what bankers use in setting interest rates. There is not much blogging along the lines of the “identity” of the banker (other than which ones should be in jail right now) in the way you take on the identity of the artist. Masons don’t lose sleep over not knowing what their job actually is or how they should relate to society and other people. I think when you castigate artists who assume they are anything other than craftspeople there is some oversimplification and equivocation happening. You want art to communicate something but what is to be communicated becomes more ambiguous as you stress the point that artists have nothing special to say.

    These are all conceptual issues and I have no answer for them. I just see Christians – and I criticize as one – attempt to exchange the perceived self-indulgence of the “contemporary artist” for something else called a “calling” or some such pious duty that expresses “truth” or “beauty” to a fallen world. I think this is an even swap on conceit.

    Does that make sense?

  14. We share, Sam, a distaste for the pretentious business of the “identity of the artist.” Studio Matters engages it for the purpose of debunking it.

    As to having a grasp on the nature of one’s time, again, there are distinctions to be made between the visual artist (who lapses readily into politics) and the literary one who works with language. (Think of Iris Murdoch. At the center of her novels is a concern for good and evil that requires words and the dramatic situations a novel provides.)

    That word “calling” is misused for the priesthood no less than for artists. In the early Church, individuals were, indeed, literally called to serve as priests. (“Hey, Ambrose, we need you. You too, Augustine. Don’t worry about the details. We’ll fix them.”) Contemporary priests are not called, neither are artists. At the same time, though, there a few people in every generation gifted with high talent. Whether they use it well or poorly depends on them. But there remains that Gospel call (let’s use the word here for the sake of argument) not to hide one’s light under a bushel. Some humility is required to assess the size and nature of one’s talent. That is the hard part.

    As to truth, the old Latin dictum holds: Humilitas est veritas.

  15. Thanks for the response, Maureen. I better understand the distinctions you are making.

    I think Christians in the visual arts have a rough time of it, as there is no Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor for them.

    I did not know there was once a literal “calling” but it makes sense. Once upon a time that was a great job offer.

    Indeed, taking account of one’s creative abilities and figuring out what to do with them is no easy task. All that time in the studio to produce nothing of utilitarian value, with no buyers on hand, feels absurdly self-indulgent. But to walk away from a talent feels worse.

  16. Think of Gertrude Stein’s discussions of “identity” and “entity” though, and the distinction becomes critical … and thank you for posting Georges Rouault … he is unfairly passed-over all to often!

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