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Do artists have moral responsibility?

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 02, 2015

I revisited parts of the Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain's wonderful book The Responsibility of the Artist (which you can read at Notre Dame's Maritain Center) a few days ago. There are so many wonderful and inspiring insights I could share, but based on having read it three or four times, here is how I would sum it up:

Maritain wants to find out what is the relationship, if any, between art and morality (or prudence, as he calls it). (He is to a degree responding to aesthetes like Andre Gide and Oscar Wilde who thought life should be subservient to art.)

He concludes that art is not directly subservient to prudence, because the direct purpose of the "habit" of art is the good of the thing made, not the moral good of human beings. But insofar as the artist is a human being first before being an artist, art is indirectly subservient to prudence.

The artist, as artist, has to obey his artistic sense. The artist, as man, has to obey prudence. But this can result in a problem, because what if his artistic sense conflicts with his moral sense? No immediate solution to this dilemma is possible at the level of artistic activity because he would have to betray one or the other.

The only way for the artist to avoid moral corruption in his work while remaining faithful to his artistic sense is for him, in the words of the novelist Mauriac, to "purify the source" (i.e. himself) and then he can hope that his artistic sense, too, will be morally pure.

You can also read Maritain's much longer work, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, right here at CatholicCulture.org.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Langton7139 - Nov. 04, 2015 8:59 PM ET USA

    There is also this to consider: "Art" follows the money. So much of our present culture is influenced by advertising and the best and brightest have (arguably) been seduced by this world. I suspect many of our best young artists and "creative types" are now captured by soap powder and video games. What they produce is often clever, but rarely edifying. And the products often mimics the goods of the Church - think about certain cola ads and you will know what I mean.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Nov. 03, 2015 7:02 PM ET USA

    Philosophers tend to overcomplicate. Artists have a moral responsibility period. A goodly chunk of todays' "culture" is due to artists either ignoring moral responsibility or sounding off with one that is morally irresponsible. It is incumbent on the artist to ask the hard questions of his artistic sense and, depending on the answers, ask how things can be changed; if that's "purifying the source", great.