Do saints make the best art? Do sinners stand a chance, or is their life doomed to creating ugliness after ugliness? Following the thought of Romano Guardini that we explored last week, the prospects seem dim.
The solution isn’t quite so easy, though, particularly because there are literally thousands of examples of great artists who were far from saintly in their daily lives. We must be careful to not identify the creator too closely with the thing created, for each work of art has a life of its own, and God brings all sorts of good results out of mixed beginnings.
Jacques Maritain, in his lecture, “The Responsibility of the the Artist,” insists that art is a work that has its independent virtues, famously stating, “A man may be a great artist and be a bad man.”
He goes on, “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.” Maritain is a good Thomist and recruits the Angelic Doctor to his defense, “What does Thomas Aquinas state? ‘The kind of good,’ he says, ‘which art pursues is not the good of the human will or appetite [or the good of man], but the good of the very works done or artifacts. And consequently art does not presuppose straightness of the appetite [in the line of the human good].’”
How can this be? Is it not the case that from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks? What strange world is this in which a Caravaggio might be both a murderer and also the greatest artist of his generation? How is it that Beethoven can write a beautiful violin concerto and then go home to abuse his family?
The work itself is judged on its own merits, its own intrinsic form and harmony. A work of art may possess these in spite of the flaws of the creator, or perhaps may possess them in virtue of a sinful artist struggling with that selfsame vice and seeking redemption. Perhaps this form of art we might refer to as cruciform, showing the face of Christ in the agony of redemption. It is dark and conflicted, perhaps not superficially saintly but a necessary stepping stone on the path to sainthood? Either way, we don’t judge by the signature at the bottom of the canvas, only by the quality of the work. Maritain writes,
“Art is a virtue — that is, an innerly developed, undeviating strength — Art is a virtue of the Practical Intellect, that particular virtue of the Practical Intellect which deals with the creation of objects to be made. But, in contradistinction to Prudence, which is also a perfection of the Practical Intellect, Art is concerned with the good of the work, not with the good of man…If a craftsman contrives a good piece of woodwork or jewelry, the fact of his being spiteful or debauched is immaterial, just as it is immaterial for a geometer to be a jealous or wicked man, if his demonstrations provide us with geometrical truth.”
Here is a shocking insight. We think we know what it means to claim a work of art that is beautiful is also true and good – but we really don’t.
Do we even know what the adjective “good” means when applied to art? Maritain shows how the word good must be equivocal, writing,
Well, the fact of a human action being good or bad constitutes its intrinsic moral value. This notion of moral value has nothing to do with that of aesthetic or artistic value. Virtue is spiritually beautiful, and the Greeks had a single word, kalokagathos, beautiful-and-good, to designate the moral good. But this intrinsic beauty or nobility of the good moral action does not relate to a work to be made, it relates to the exercise of human freedom. Furthermore it is not good as a means to an end, it is good in itself — what the ancients called bonum honestum, good as right, the quality of an act good for the sake of good. Here we are not confronted with “a good state of affairs,” meaning an advantageous or useful state of affairs, we are confronted with that goodness, beauty or nobility which comes to a human act from its conformity with reason, and which is an end in itself, a good in itself.
In other words, the goodness of art comes from conformity to the principles of the intellect, not the moral goodness of its creator. There is, in Maritain’s mind, no connection between saintliness and goodness in art, because the word “good” is being used in two different ways.
There’s a remedy in this for our current state of hero worship and our assumption that movie stars and musicians, because they make good art, are also good people. Maritain writes, “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.” A great artist may be clueless at life, and we don’t need to love everything about a person to appreciate their art. By all accounts, a number of great artists were terrible people to be around, but the connection of their personality to their art has in many ways faded over time. We do artists no favors by worshiping them for their talents, and artists do themselves no favors by obsessing over the thing made and ignoring the state of their soul. Each may be beautiful in its own way, but the beauty of the soul shines far brighter.
Maritain’s definition of goodness in art also runs counter to the current mania for the cult of personality that becomes attached to a work of art. By this I mean that Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi suddenly achieves the value of half a billion dollars not because the painting has changed (although it was restored) but because the attribution changed. It is now a genuine Leonardo and not a product of his workshop. Perhaps this is a function of the rarity of a Da Vinci. In reality, though, it is his life and his story to which the value is being attached. In either case, the value has nothing to do with the painting.
This current requirement to know and judge the artist’s life story is problematic. A painting is valuable if produced by, say, an artist who was a homeless drug addict who lost an eye in the war. The same painting is not valuable if, instead, it was made by a well-adujsted suburban lad who studied at the local community college. The story behind the art becomes the source of value and not the work itself. But if the goodness of the work must stand on its own merits regardless of the morality or the more popular anti-morality of transgressiveness, of the artist, the vacuity of our current system of assigning value is suddenly revealed to be a bit of a grift.
All of this said, though, I’m going to go ahead and equivocate. Maritain talks about, “Art in the artist, in the soul and creative dynamism of the artist, or as a particular energy, or vital power, which we have to consider in itself or to disengage in its nature, but which exists within man.” In Art and Scholasticism, he discusses how art takes on the shape of the soul of the artist, writing, “In his work the great artist is sure to put himself really, he is sure to imprint his own likeness on it.” The work made has freedom from its creator, but it is nevertheless true offspring.
In the end, art is intertwined with its creator. Although it is certainly true that good children come from bad parents all the time, its genetics continues to have a familial obligation with its creator. Van Gogh painted this way because this was happening to him at the time and this was his state of mind. In the midst of his experience, even if he was no saint, perhaps he was able to speak truly, but that truth is somehow wrapped up in his personal horizon. He painted what he saw from his own particular vantage point. In this regard, the signature at the bottom of the painting does matter.
Did Van Gogh become a better painter as he became more saintly through suffering? Is holiness merely a primer for good art but not entirely necessary?
For Maritain, a significant precursor is missing if we merely judge by the holiness of the artist. The thing made is an intellectual statement and must be judged as such. He writes, “If the artist has not taken sides in the great debate between the angels and men, if he is not convinced that he provides, together with delight, a food and not simply intoxication, his work will always remain deficient and paltry in some respects.” In other words, the art cannot simply be a sentimental piece of piety that only works at a surface level in terms of beauty. It must offer truth.
Well! We too, weak though our intelligence may be (it is on the lowest rung of the ladder of spirits), must participate in the nature of the intelligence. This is why, in spite of all the deficiencies peculiar to our kind, the intelligence endeavors to engender in us, it seeks to produce: and not only the interior word, the idea which remains within us, but a work at once material and spiritual, like ourselves, and in which superabounds something of our soul.
It is because of this exigency of the intelligence that there are artists among us.
The particular form of intelligence he has in mind, though, is quite specific.
And you see that to establish fully the dignity and the nobility of art, it was necessary for us to ascend to the mystery of the Trinity itself.
In what sense does an art need to be true?
[Do we even know what “truth” means in relation to art? Spoiler alert: we do not]