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Catholic Culture Solidarity

An Essay on Art

by Jacques Maritain


This essay is Appendix 1 taken from Art and Scholasticism and Other Essays by Jacques Maritain. It was written in 1922, and later incorporated into the book.

Larger Work

Art and Scholasticism with Other Essays

Publisher & Date

St. Dominic's Press, Ditchling, Sussex, 1947


We are told by philosophers that the essence of art is not the performance of a moral act, but the making of some thing, some work, some object, with a view not to the human good of the agent, but to the requirements and proper good of the work to be done, by using means of realisation predetermined by the nature of the work in question.

Art so appears as something in itself outside the line of human conduct, something very nearly inhuman, whose requirements are nevertheless absolute, for, needless to say, there are not two ways of making an object well, of realising well the work conceived; there is only one, and it must not be missed.

Philosophers go on to say that this constructive activity is principally and above all an intellectual activity. Art is a virtue of the mind, a virtue of the practical mind, and may be described as the peculiar virtue of the working reasons.

But, it may be objected, if art is merely an intellectual virtue of construction, whence come the dignity and prestige it enjoys among mankind? Why does this branch of our activity attract so much human energy? Why has the poet at all times and among all nations been admired equally with the sage?

The answer may in the first place be given that to create, to produce something intellectually, to manufacture an object rationally constructed, is a very considerable achievement in the world: in itself, for man, a way of imitating God. And here I mean art in general, as the Ancients understood it, the virtue of the artisan.

But where especially the maker of works becomes an imitator of God, where the virtue of art attains the nobility of absolute and self-sufficient things, is in that group of arts which by itself constitutes a whole spiritual world, namely the Fine Arts.

Two things are here to be considered. On the one hand, whatever be the nature and the ends in usefulness of the art under consideration, by its object it participates in something superhuman: for its object is the creation of beauty. Is not beauty a transcendental, a property of being, one of the Divine attributes? "The being of all things derives from the Divine Beauty," says St. Thomas. In that respect, then, the artist imitates God, Who created the world by communicating to it a likeness of His beauty.

"The architect, by the disposition he knows, Buildeth the structure of stone like a filter in the waters of the Radiance of God, And giveth the whole building its sheen as to a pearl."

On the other hand, to create a work of beauty is to create a work resplendent with the glitter or the brilliance, the mystery of a form, in the metaphysical sense of the word, a radiance of intelligibility and truth, an irradiation of the primal effulgence. And the artist no doubt perceives this form in the world of creation, whether interior or exterior: he does not discover it complete in the sole contemplation of his creative mind, for he is not, like God, the cause of things. It is his eye and his mind that have perceived and disengaged it, and it must itself be alive within him, have assumed human life in him, live in his intelligence with an intellectual life and in his heart and flesh with a sensitive life, for him to be able to impart it to matter in the work he is doing.

The work so bears the stamp of the artist; it is the offspring of his soul and mind.

In this respect also human art imitates God: it realises in the intellectual order, that is to say in the naturally most exalted order a leave out of account the order of charity which is above it, being supernatural), it realises in action one of the fundamental aspects of the ontological resemblance of our soul to God.

It is indeed the ardent desire, the earnest prayer of the mind, taken in its pure state, to beget a living creature in its own likeness. And every mind utters a word: "To be fruitful enough to manifest what one has in oneself is a considerable perfection, pertaining essentially to the intellectual nature" [196]. Hence in the world of pure spirits, where there is no generation, there is the spiritual production of the mental word, in which the Angel coming to know his own nature reveals himself to himself, and by means of which he manifests what he knows to any other pure spirit he chooses. This mental word, to be sure, this spiritual utterance, remains A quality of the subject: it is not a substance, but a symbol. In creatures, the mind cannot succeed in producing in facsimile of nature another self, a subsisting person, it does not, properly speaking, engender; it makes an utterance, and that utterance is not an offspring. But this is owing to the essentially defective condition of the creature; the Mind itself, considered in its pure state, in its pure formal line, seeks to engender, to produce in self-knowledge something which shall not be a mere likeness, a symbol, an idea of the thing known, but the thing known itself existing for itself.

The Mind, the subsisting Mind, can fully realise in God alone, in the pure Act alone, the fundamental exigencies of its nature and give birth to another self at once substantial and personal, to a Word which shall be truly a Son. In the Holy Trinity alone do we see the coincidence of two functions which everywhere else are separate, the utterance of the Word and the generation of the Son, the Mind ending in a subsisting goal, in which the integrity of its own nature becomes substantially merged.

Well! We too, feeble though our mind be (it is on the lowest rung of spirits), ought to share in the nature of mind. For this reason the mind, despite the manifold defects peculiar to our species, strives to engender in us, is anxious to produce, not only the inner Word, the idea remaining inside us, but a work at once material and spiritual, like ourselves, with something of our soul over and above.

This requirement of the mind explains the presence of artists in our midst.

And you see that to establish fully the dignity and nobility of art, we have found it necessary to go back as far as the mystery of the Trinity.

It must, however, be carefully observed that our works of art are very far from being truly described as our children. They are inanimate things, they do not proceed from us in similitudinem naturae, they are the product of an artificial manufacture, not of a natural generation.

But be it observed that accidentally and in a certain relation, there is in the work of art something better answering the exigencies of the idea of generation : the great artist, I mean, is sure to put himself really into his work, is sure to stamp it with his own likeness, whereas in the case of a child, because of matter and heredity, it is not certainly the father or the mother, but any more or less desirable ancestor, who can come to life again and show his likeness. The father thinks he is himself again in his child; but it is the grandfather or the great-grandfather, the mother-in-law, who appears. There is in the child a fearful element of the unknown which is absent from the work of art. And it is understandable not that an artist should be more in love with his work than with his children, but that he should love them with a love almost as personal and from one point of view less anxious, and say when he thinks of them: "Not all of me will die."


Considerations such as these show that art, as such, is gratuitous or disinterested. That is to say, that in the actual production of the work the virtue of art has only one object, the good of the work to be done; to make matter resplendent with beauty, to create a thing in accordance with the laws of its being, independently of anything die. At the same time its desire is that there shall be nothing in the work eluding its control, that it alone shall regulate the work directly, handle and shape it.

There are many ways of failing to attain this "gratuitousness." A man may think, for example, that excellent moral intentions may make up for deficiencies in the quality of the craft or the inspiration, and are sufficient for the construction of a work. Or a man might go so far as to alter the work itself as the rules and the determined ways of art required it to be, by the forcible application, to control it, of alien elements—a desire to edify or to disedify, not to outrage the public, or to provoke a scandal, to have "arrived" in society, or to cut a figure in bars and cafés as an artist free and rare. . . .

You see what meaning has to be given to the theory of the gratuitousness of art: that the virtue of art which the artist uses, whatever other end it may serve, shall by itself aim only at the perfection of the work and suffer no control over the work which does not come through it.

But this doctrine and the word "gratuitousness" are often understood in a quite different and much more ambitious sense. They are made to mean not only what I have just said but also that art ought to enjoy in man and among men an absolute independence, that it ought to tolerate no human interest or any superior law in the artist, absolutely nothing outside the sole concern of artistic manufacture; which comes to saying that the man who is also an artist ought to be an artist only—and therefore ought not to be a man. But if there is no man there can be no artist: by devouring humanity, art destroys itself. This was what Baudelaire termed The Pagan School. "Absorbed," he wrote, "by the fierce passion for whatever is beautiful, comic, pretty or picturesque, for there are degrees, the ideas of what is right and true disappear. The frenzied passion for art is a cancer which eats up everything else. . . . Excessive specialisation of a faculty ends in nothing."

It seems to me that this erroneous conception of the gratuitousness of art can assume two special forms.

There is first, rather through opposition to romanticism, the idea of gratuitousness proclaimed by the Parnassians, then by the Symbolists and Mallarmé, and perhaps also, in a different sphere, by Max Jacob, Erik Satie and their school (some of them have since abandoned such a position). The content of the work of art, the material to be shaped, the artistic thing, the lyrical and intellectual stuff, are all an irksome burden, an impurity to be got rid of. Pure art, in short, involves nothing, the subject being completely whittled away. I call that a sin of idealism in relation to the matter of art: pushed to the extreme, a perfect building, with nothing to build.

After the exasperation of sensibility provoked by impressionism, after that din of noisy claims, those wonders, evocations, swoons and psychological shivers, such an idea of gratuitousness may have been a purifying and beneficent phase in serving to remind us that the essential in art is the control imposed by mind upon matter. In this sense Georges Auriac has very appositely observed: "A tight-rope walker and a dancer are the two creatures combined in every artist who moves me. Every new work is a tight-rope stretched above an everlasting track. . . . Even to-day, you can realise how very cautiously artists like Stravinsky and Satie have to cross the wire which is to be their only way." Nevertheless the theory of gratuitousness, understood in the crude meaning I have deliberately given to it, is false, precisely because it leaves out of account the very matter of artistic control and the indispensable part it plays.

No doubt, if there is next to no matter, the work of the .artist will more easily succeed. But art, as has been sufficiently dinned into our ears, ought not to be on the look out for what is easy. It must have opposition and constraint, the constraint of rules and the opposition of matter. The more obstinate and rebellious the matter, the better will art, by its success in mastering it, realise its own end, which is to make matter resplendent with a dominating intelligibility. This has been well expressed by Andre Gide: "Art is always the result of some constraint. To think that it rises higher in proportion as it is free, is to think that what keeps the kite from climbing the sky is the string to which it is attached. Kant's dove, which thought it would be able to fly better without that wind keeping its wings back, fails to realise that for it to be able to fly at all, it needs the resistance of the air on which to lean its wings. . . . Art longs for liberty only in times of sickness: it would like to exist easily. Whenever it feels itself strong, it looks for struggle and obstacles. It likes to burst its bonds and therefore prefers them tight."

But the theory of the gratuitousness of art can give rise to another more specious error, and it is Gide himself this time who suggests it. "The artist," we are told, "is asked in only after dinner. Ills task is to provide not food, but intoxication." And he adopts Renan's remark: "To be able to think freely, a man must be certain that no consequences will follow whatever he writes," whence it follows that every thinker taking into account the consequences of his writings does riot think freely. "Are you interested in moral questions?" he makes an imaginary interlocutor ask him. "What!" he replies, "the very stuff of my books!" "Then what is morality; according to you?" "A branch of Aesthetics." Oscar Wilde had remarked pretty much in the same sense but with greater dignity of expression: "The highest Art rejects the burden of the human spirit."

That is to say, the theory of gratuitousness, in reaction against exclusively moralist or apologetic or civic preoccupations considered as "utilitarian," now no longer requires the matter of art to be whittled away, but the elimination of every human end pursued. Let the artist take for stuff and substance of his work whatever is most profound, most exalted and most vile, the moral life of man, the heart of man "hollow and full of filth"—and the rarest passions and the life of the spirit itself; nay, the Gospel and sanctity, everything; but with it all an absolute prohibition, upon pain of committing a sacrilege against art, against pursuing any other end than the pure delight, order, riches, tranquillity and rapture, which the soul ought to savour in the work. This is no longer art on nothing as in the theory of gratuitousness in its first form; but art for nothing, for nothing but art's sake.

The theory of gratuitousness, in this second guise, is singularly specious, because it exploits and distorts a very real truth touching the intimate nature of art which we should be careful not to misconceive. It is nevertheless a very noxious poison, which must in the long run exercise a completely sterilising effect upon art.

Precisely because, given a work of a certain kind to be done, there are strictly determined ways of realising it, depending upon the pure exigencies of the work itself and brooking no liberties, the virtue of art, as I have just mentioned, will not have the work interfered with and directly controlled by anything other than itself; it insists that it alone shall touch the work and keep contact with it to bring it into being. In short, art requires that nothing shall attain the work but through itself as intermediary. This is the element of truth in the theory of gratuitousness. Woe to the artist who fails to meet this insistence of his art, a jealous, fierce insistence, like every insistence of the mind and its virtues. Here again we can discover in our art as it were a trace of the Blessed Trinity. The Word, says St. Augustine, is in a way the art of Almighty God. And by the Word the whole divine work was done, omnia per ipsum facta sunt. It is through His Word and His art that God attains, controls and realises, everything He does. And in the same way it is through his art that the human artist ought to attain, control and realise, all his work.

But does that prove that the work depends on the art alone, and not on the whole soul of the artist; that it is made by the art alone, separate, cut off from all the rest in man, and not by man the artist with every human will and every human thought he has in his heart, every election he makes, every end he pursues, every higher law which he would have himself obey? Far from it! It is as though, on the pretext that everything has been created by the Word, we were to say that the world, having been created per Verbum, had not been created by the whole undivided Trinity. Gratuitously no doubt, and the only instance of absolutely gratuitous art, absolutely free from the least interested intention. But to an end nevertheless, an end which was not simply the perfection of the work to be achieved; an end which was of an order superior to the art—the communication of the divine Goodness.

The theorists of gratuitousness omit an elementary distinction, omit to distinguish the art, which, as such, has no other end than the good of the thing to be made, from the artist, who, as working man, can have as many ends as he pleases. And they omit this commonsense distinction because they fail to take into account a more subtle distinction, the distinction between the "principal agent" and the "instrumental cause," between the workman and the instrument. An invisible and intangible activity is transmitted through the instrument wielded by the worker, making the instrument produce a nobler effect than itself and really produce the whole work, but in a subordinate capacity. So the picture is wholly of the brush and wholly of the painter; there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in it but proceeds from the brush, and nothing in it but proceeds from the painter.

This distinction plays a capital part in metaphysics; it alone enables one to understand how the free act of the creature is wholly of the creature as a secondary cause, and, if it is a good act, wholly of God as a primary cause: God makes the will do it in the will's own way, that is to say freely. Philosophers who do not admit this distinction are forced to consider the divine action as interfering to interpolate some alien element or other into human liberty, some rival element which would mar its purity. Andre Gide makes a similar mistake. He does not see that the virtue of art, with all its perfection and peculiar exigencies, is an instrument in relation to the artist, the principal agent. The soul of the artist with all its human fullness, with every object of its love and worship, all the intentions, human, moral and religious, outside the artistic order which it can pursue, is the principal cause, using the virtue of art as an instrument; and so the work is wholly of the soul and the will of the artist as principal cause, and wholly of his art as instrument, without the artist losing a little of his mastery over matter and his integrity, his purity and ingenuousness—just as our good acts are wholly ours secondarily and wholly God's primarily, without on that account being any the less free.

This does not mean a juxtaposition of two forces each pulling a different way. The virtue of art is instrumentally subordinate to the soul which acts by means of it. The greater the artist, the more vigorous his art, neither stooping nor bent, but erect and imperious, the more successful will the man be in passing completely into his work by means of his art. Diminish the man in the artist, you necessarily diminish the art itself, which is of the man. The theory of gratuitousness in its second guise is another idealist heresy. It misconceives not the matter of the work of art, but the human subject of whom the virtue of art is a quality.

If the artist has not taken sides in the great debate between angels and men, if he is not convinced that his contribution, while including pleasure, is nourishment and not intoxication only, his work will always remain in some aspects defective and mean. The greatest poets, and the most disinterested, the most "gratuitous," had some message for mankind. Is it not the case of Dante, Cervantes, Racine, Shakespeare, Goethe, Baudelaire and Dostoievsky ? Whatever Dostoievsky's doctrine may be, his heart is Christian: Gide, who could discern in him only his own features, has sadly erred in regard to Dostoievsky. How reasonable, may it be once more observed from this point of view, how little "immoralist," are Goethe's explanations in Dichtung und Wahrheit of the origin of Werther! And what a tragically religious anxiety under his mask of dandyism Baudelaire reveals in Mon coeur mis a nu!

Is not the art of La Fontaine an eminent example of gratuitous art? But as Henri Ghéon observed to Valéry: "if there were not lacking to it a grain of spirituality, a tinge of Christianity, the art of such a fabulist would be the art of the apologist, the type of edifying art."

True, it may be said. But supposing La Fontaine had acquired this grain of spirituality without ceasing to be La Fontaine, the La Fontaine we know; in exercising his apologist's art he would never have been consumed by a zeal for souls and the apostolate. "If Jammes and Claudel are Christian artists, it is not because of their intense and distinctive devotion. The apostolate is never an esthetic virtue" [197]. More generally, does it not teem that the happiest conditions for the artist are conditions of peace and spiritual order in and around him, that having his soul in order and orientated towards its last end, he should thereafter have no other anxiety than to do his job well and set himself free—such as he is—in his work, without another thought, without pursuing any particular and predetermined human end? Was that not exactly how the artists of the Middle Ages went to work? And in our time a Cezanne?

To such an objection—which is not lacking in force and concedes the essential—I have two answers to make. In the first place, if it be true that the task is more difficult, the danger of giving way greater, for the worker who pursues in his work a particular and predetermined end of a human sort—a Lucretius eager to spread the philosophy of Epicurus, a Virgil undertaking the Georgics to bring labour back to the land, or a Wagner intent on the glorification of the Teutonic religion—the danger nevertheless is not insurmountable, the task not impossible, as witness the names just quoted.

In the second place, and most important of all, those who by their art desire to serve the Truth which is Christ are not pursuing a particular human end but a divine end, an end as universal as God Himself. The more they live their faith, the more spiritual their inner life becomes, the more deeply rooted they are in the Church, the higher do they rise above human limitations and the conventions, opinions, and special interests of particular social groups; so that, with a fuller understanding of the pure spirituality and universality of the action of God in their souls, their art and their thoughts are purged of all human narrowness, to be thenceforth concentrated upon the boundless Love which is and acts on earth as in Heaven. This is what men who are utterly ignorant of the Faith or deceived by an excess of appearances are incapable of understanding; in zeal for souls they see merely a human effort at domination, an attempt to serve the interest of some sect or clique. They cannot see that those who take part as Christians, because they are Christians, in the works of the mind, are not engaged in clerical philosophy or clerical art, or in confessional philosophy or confessional art. There is in this sense no Catholic philosophy or Catholic art, for Catholicism is not a particular statement of faith any more than it is a religion: it is the religion, confessing the only omnipresent Truth. Yet their art and philosophy are Catholic, that is to say genuinely universal.

I would add that man always serves some master and that the devil is not the least exacting overlord. In forbidding man to pursue any other end than art itself, you are, whatever you may do, positively appointing a last end for him, a god: Art in person. You are binding him to a religion much more tyrannical than the true religion. You are delivering him up to esthetic clericalism, assuredly the most pernicious of all forms of clericalism.

A man like Gide seems to me to be living under a perpetual constraint, cribbed, cabined and confined by inexorable conventions, never free, never spontaneous: for ever haunted by morality. A moral choice confronts him at every corner of the street, and he will be compelled to make an election: quick, he must escape, escape far away! What torture!

Only the artist who consents to be a man, who is not afraid of morality, who is not every moment terrified of losing the flower of his ingenuousness, enjoys the real gratuitousness of art. He is what he is, careless of what he may appear to be; he affirms if he wants to affirm, he believes, loves, chooses, gives himself, follows his inclination and his fancy, recreates and amuses himself, enjoys himself playing.


Truth to tell, I believe it to be impossible outside Catholicism to reconcile in man, without diminishing or forcing them, the rights of morality and the claims of intellectuality, art or science. Morality as such aims only at the good of the human being, the supreme interests of the acting Subject; Intellectuality as such aims only at the Object, its nature, if it is to be known, what it ought to be, if it is to be made. What a temptation for poor human nature to be faithful to one only at the expense of the other! True, we know, haec oportebat facere, et illa non omittere; but how shall the children of Adam keep the balance? Outside the Church and its divine life it is natural that moral and religious zeal should turn man against the mind, and it is natural that zeal for art and science should turn man away from the eternal laws. Socrates's judges, Luther, Rousseau, Tolstoi, and the Anglo-Saxon pragmatists, are in one camp: in the other Bruno, Bacon, the great pagans of the Renaissance, Goethe himself, and Nietzsche.

Catholicism orders our whole life to Truth itself and subsisting Beauty. In us it places the theological virtues above the moral and intellectual virtues and, through them, gives us peace. Et ego si exaltatus fuero, omnia traham ad meipsum. Christ crucified draws to Himself everything there is in man: all things are reconciled, but at the height of His heart. Here is a religion whose moral exigencies are more elevated than those of any other, inasmuch as only the heroism of sanctity can fully satisfy them, and which at the same time more than any other admires and protects the mind. I say it is a sign of the divine origin of that religion. A superhuman virtue is necessary to secure the free play of art and science among men under the supremacy of the divine law and the primacy of Charity and so to realize the higher reconciliation of the moral and the intellectual.




196. John of St. Thomas, Curs. Theol., q. xxvii, disp. 12, a. 6, § 21 (Vives, t. iv). On the other hands according to Plotinus, generation is a mark of indigence (ἔνδεια). "Anyone who has no desire to engender is the more completely self-sufficient in beauty: the desire to produce beauty proceeds from the absence of self-sufficiency and from the hope of obtaining greater satisfaction by producing and engendering in beauty" (Enneades, iii, 5, 1, 46-9, περὶ ὲρῶτος). This aspect of indigence bound to transitive activity is the price we have to pay for our condition of material beings, but does not essentially affect (therein lies the error of the neo-Platonic metaphysics) the engendering fecundity itself, which in the immanent activity peculiar to life is above all superabundance—particularly as a more exalted, more immaterial form of life is here involved.

197. Max Jacob, Art poétique.

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