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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Art and the Limits of Invention

Last time in our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies devoted to Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, we were thinking of Maritain’s notion of art as a habitus of the practical intellect, and the fact that a habitus is an acquired characteristic of the mind that is “stable and permanent,” even rigid. I ended that discussion with this question: how are we to square these thoughts about the rigidity of art as habitus with the inventive, playful side of art—and of the artist like Picasso who seems to want to destroy all “requirements”?

To which a reader responded with this interesting train of thought:

my first instinct was to call back the Chesterton quote you referenced in a previous post, about art consisting of limitations. But this seems inappropriate, as the limiting rigidity of “rules” and techniques of the habitus can ostensibly be unfulfilled/broken and still result in great art, as in the case of Picasso. Might perfection of the artist’s powers (the habitus) consist of acquiring a degree of playfulness with certain rules but not others (think of “forced playtime” like recess in grade school), or the willingness to go there, the knowledge of the possibility of playfulness? Or, at the very least, might it consist of the a priori practical achievement of technique and rules (“strenuous effort and great application”) before setting them aside, as in the case of Picasso? My hunch is no for both—it doesn't seem as if Maritain’s definition of art as habitus leaves that much room. Then again, we are talking about perfection when talking about the habitus—my guess is that to tolerate any deviation from rules and requirements is to be imperfect—to still have work to do to achieve the habitus. But can’t very few artists be said to be perfect then?”

I want to offer one or two thoughts by way of response:

First, I think Maritain would want to say that, yes, while the habitus of art is in a sense stable and permanent and rigid, that doesn’t mean that the activity of the habitus consists entirely in a rigid adherence to a set of rules, leaving no room for playfulness and inventiveness. No virtue, in fact—whether it be moral, intellectual, artistic, or athletic—consists in the purely formulaic application of a set of rules.

This doesn’t mean that rules have no place in virtuous activity. In the moral sphere, the Ten Commandments are a set of rules necessary for the exercise of moral virtue. When it comes to thinking philosophically, there are rules of logic that must be obeyed if intellectual virtue is to take root. And so it is when it comes to art. There are rules—or a better word in the case of art, principles—that must be adhered to if the habitus of art is to flourish. A writer, for example, who doesn’t know the basic principles of plot construction has no hope of acquiring the habitus of a storyteller.

But here’s the rub: virtue includes, but remains always more than, rule-following. Turn to a sporting example. Every player who steps on a soccer field is required to obey the rules—or else he will be penalized, perhaps even ejected from the game. Every player, that is, must keep the ball within the boundaries of play, obey the offside rule, refrain from tackling an opposing player studs up, etc. But such rule-following, while included in the exercise of soccer virtue, is far from the sum total of it. Otherwise, the weekend duffer would be just as good as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. What makes a Messi or a Ronaldo is an ability that goes beyond the rules. Watch some YouTube clips of Messi and Ronaldo in action, and what you see are players following rules, but much more importantly players delighting us with activity that cannot be encapsulated by rules. There are no rules for the way in which Messi slices up defenses. He himself will say he acts upon the instinct of the moment. Messi’s is activity that is playful and inventive. One might say, artistic.

But what of Maritain’s point that the habitus of art, as with other habitus, is stable and permanent and rigid? I take it Maritain means this: once someone has acquired the habitus of art, then one possesses an intellectual characteristic that is not easily removed, and that is intransigent in the pursuit of its goals. So it is with Messi and Ronaldo’s soccer-playing virtue. It is certainly not easily removed. And it is also relentless in its pursuit of excellence. Maritain speaks of the artist’s irritability—“all that deviates from the straight line of their object galls them.” Isn’t this irritability what we see in great athletes? They show irritation when anything gets in the way of the “straight line of their object”—even, sometimes, the incompetence of their own teammates. Such irritability is also on display in great artists. I once saw Pinchas Zukerman conduct the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. When we the audience mistakenly applauded in the silence between the movements of a piece, he held up his hand and shook it for silence (without turning around). Clearly he was irritated with his musically ignorant audience getting in the way of the performance.

So let’s distinguish between the content of the artistic habitus—a content which involves rule-following but which also admits to all manner of playfulness and inventiveness—and the manner of being of the habitus, which is to be stable and permanent and, in a sense, rigid. Art, one might say, is rigid in its inventiveness.

A second point I will merely touch on. Just as we saw in the example of playing soccer, playfulness and inventiveness in art only make sense within the boundaries of rule-following. If a writer discards all the principles of plot construction, then we can rightfully question whether what he tells us are stories (they might better be called character sketches, anecdotes, creative writing exercises). Which means there are limits to playfulness and inventiveness—such that we can legitimately question whether a work of art undermines the habitus of art, and thus disqualifies itself from being a work of art. For if everything an artist makes counts as a work of the art he is practicing, then the whole notion of habitus has no application.

Habitus means perfection. Meaning some works display it, others display it imperfectly, and still others display it not at all.

The notion of habitus is the beginning of criticism.  


  1. And, as Maritain points out, "the artist is a ruler who uses rules according to his ends; it is as senseless to conceive of him as the slave of the rules as to consider the worker the slave of his tools."

  2. I hit "submit" too quickly...

    He goes on to explain that in some "higher moments" of genius, the artist acts "not against the rules, but outside or above them, in conformity with a higher rule and a more hidden order."

    It seems to me that Maritain here concedes the subjective nature of art to the extent that there must be the possibility that we will sometimes have difficulty discerning between that which is not art and that which "conforms with the higher rule."

    But this also comes back to the idea (if I am understanding Maritain,) that the rule is for the art, not for the artist.

    As in your sports analogy, it's like those moments that we watch the great athletes drive to the basket, run through tacklers to the end zone, or make a spectacular double play, and we think "how on earth did he do that?"

    All the players follow the same "rules" in the game; some follow a higher order.

  3. Daniel and Tim - These quotes/insights clarify a lot - thanks for taking the time to explain.

    "Not against the rules, but outside or above them in conformity with a higher rule" seems to be key. Then again, as you say, there will be some difficulty in discerning when this is the case if this higher rule is hidden; for, surely, much of modern art (for anyone who has strolled through MOMA) is against most if not all rules to its own detriment - clearly lacking the habitus and genius of the artist, and not conforming to some higher and hidden order.

  4. Thanks Tim and Matthew for these insightful thoughts. I don't claim to have the definitive answer to your questions. I agree with Maritain and I think with both of you that the consummate artist in moments of "higher genius" will "conform to a higher rule and a hidden order." When writers, for example, play with non-linear plot (pick your example: Christopher Nolan's film Memento, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, etc.), they are "breaking" with traditional forms of plot construction, but also are arguably conforming to the basic principle that the point of the story is a human agent attempting to achieve some goal that either he/she will successfully achieve or not, and that it is ACCIDENTAL whether the attempt is depicted in chronological order. OK. But then there's Matthew's question: where is the line? how do we distinguish higher genius from clever mish-mash? We'd have to get down to cases, but I think in the passage Tim quotes Maritain lays down a useful principle: going "beyond" the rules, as it were, must in some sense be of service to the rule. Artistic inventiveness, in other words, must manifest a hidden order within the principle of the art--or else it fails to be true inventiveness. To clarify this line is what art criticism is all about.