Last week in our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies, we started thinking about art as a function of the practical, as opposed to the speculative, mind.
This week let’s refine this definition of art by thinking through the distinction between making and doing—as Jacques Maritain does in Chapter III of Art and Scholasticism.
The practical mind is that aspect of our mind that deals with some work or action (p. 6*). But consider the difference between cutting a short film on iMovie and bringing dinner to some new neighbors or to a family with a new baby. There’s a fundamental difference between these two expressions of the practical mind that will help us understand the nature of art.
In making dinner for a family, we are performing a moral action, specifically, an act of the virtue of generosity. It is an exercise of our freedom in which we willingly choose the good, the good both of our neighbor and of ourselves (it’s good for us, too, that we help our neighbor).
But when it comes to cutting a short film on iMovie, the focus is more on a product—a thing that we want our actions to bring into being. This product is, of course, the finished film.
Let’s follow Maritain and St. Thomas Aquinas in calling moral action doing, and creative action making. Because it is a making, art is concerned with whatever it takes to bring an excellent product into being, whether it be a short film or an automobile.
Hold on, you might be thinking. Isn’t the person making dinner for the neighbor making something? And what if the person cutting the short film on iMovie wants it to be part of a birthday celebration, or simply hopes that it will enrich the lives of everyone who sees it—isn’t he then doing something with his movie?
Well, the actual cooking involved in making dinner for a neighbor is a making as we are using that term. Cooking, after all, is an art. But when the cook takes that product and offers it as gift to a neighbor, then the meal is wrapped up in an act of generosity.
Similarly, when a movie is offered as part of a birthday celebration, or as an enrichment of the culture, the movie then is wrapped up in an act of generosity.
So doing and making can complement one another in the practical order, but the distinction between them remains.
“Making,” writes Maritain, “is ordered to this or that particular end, taken in itself and self-sufficing, not to the common end of human life; and it relates to the good or to the proper perfection, not of the man making, but of the work produced” (p. 8).
These last lines can be confusing. Maritain seems to be saying this: in cutting a short film on iMovie, the maker is not concerned with achieving moral perfection (i.e., “the common end of human life”). The iMovie director is not focused on exercising his freedom in order to achieve the good of his neighbor and himself. He simply wants to make a good movie.
Maritian goes on: “Art, which rules Making and not Doing, stands therefore outside the human sphere; it has an end, rules, values, which are not those of man, but those of the work to be produced. This work is everything for Art; there is for Art but one law—the exigencies and the good of the work” (p. 9).
These lines are rather startling. Maritain seems to be saying that art is in a totally different sphere from the sphere of doing good, “the human sphere,” the sphere in which we choose the good of our neighbor and ourselves. And indeed, later in Art and Scholasticism Maritain will quote approvingly Oscar Wilde’s epigram: “A man’s being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.”
The point seems to be that, while a work of art, like a meal or a movie, can be wrapped up in an act of generosity, this is not what makes it a work of art.
Think about it: you might show your short film to your grandparents as part of their 50th wedding anniversary. And in doing so, you would be doing something generous, kind, loving.
But the movie itself could, as it were, stink on ice.
And the neighbors in sitting down to your meal might praise your generosity to the skies, even while they gag on your hot dog & noodle hot dish.
What makes a work of art good is distinct from that which makes human beings good as moral agents.
“Hence the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothingl it delivers one from the human; it establishes the artifex—artist or artisan—in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing ceases at the door of every workshop” (p. 9).
But does art have no relation to the moral life? In accepting the distinction between making and doing, do we also have to accept that art has no intrinsic connection to the development of our own (moral) good and that of our neighbor?
Maritain himself will return to these questions later in Art and Scholasticism. As will we later in the summer.
Meanwhile, what strikes you about this distinction between making and doing?
* Page numbers refer to Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974).