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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.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Christianity and Harry Potter

For those still mulling over the relationship of the Harry Potter books to Christianity, see this interview with J.K. Rowling from back in 2007, recently brought to my attention by my friend, John O’Callaghan. The interview, with MTV News of all outlets, confirms the decisive importance for an understanding of the entire series of the scene in Godric’s Hollow from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—a confirmation that vindicates O’Callaghan in a point he’s been stressing for years (see here).  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Art as a Living and Spiritual Armor

Here in the fourth installment of our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies, I want to take up one of the chief themes in Chapter IV of Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism—the idea that art is, as St. Thomas Aquinas and other medieval scholars put it, a habitus of the practical intellect.

In our previous discussions we’ve defined art as an activity of the mind in its practical mode, concerned with making something rather than with doing something in the moral sense. In Chapter IV Maritain adds another layer to this definition: art is a virtue of the practical intellect. And what is a virtue? Generally speaking, it is a habitus.   

Bringing in Latin doesn’t seem to help much. But it wouldn’t help, either, to try the most obvious translation of habitus: the English word “habit.” And that is because, as Maritain says, the word “habit” has to do with “mechanical bent and routine,” with activity that “resides in the nerve centers” (p. 11*). But habitus is anything but mechanical bent and routine. It is free, intelligent activity that resides in the spirit rather than the nervous system, springing as it does from the intellect or the will.

So with Maritain we’ll stick with the untranslated word habitus. In defining habitus (the plural in Latin is spelled the same), Maritain says that they are “essentially stable dispositions perfecting in the line of its own nature the subject in which they exist” (p. 10).

Or, more simply, a habitus is a perfection of a power of the soul.

Even now we are in the midst of trying to acquire a certain habitus—a habitus of the speculative mind (see our first session). We are each of us exercising, as it were, the power of our speculative mind, giving it a work-out, so that we might bring that power to perfection in the achievement of philosophical wisdom. The achievement of that perfection just is a habitus. There are physical habitus that we might be born with—beauty and strength, for example—but an intellectual habitus, whether of the speculative or practical mind, is an acquired achievement, presupposing strenuous effort and great application.

“The man who possesses a habitus, Maritain writes, “has within him a quality which nothing can pay for or replace; others are naked, he is armed with steel: but it is a case of a living and spiritual armor” (p. 11).

Art is thus a habitus, or virtue, of the practical mind. It is our mind being brought to perfection in the making of certain sorts of artifacts. Maritain likens the habitus of art to armor because a habitus is something stable and permanent. Interestingly, what makes the habitus of art so stable and permanent are the requirements of the art in practice—“the object” of the artistic activity, as Maritain puts it at the bottom of p. 11. What does this mean?

Think about learning how to draw. In that activity you put your practical mind to work, seeking to achieve a perfection of its power. But in any quest for perfection there are demands to be met. One doesn’t just take out one’s pencil and produce masterpieces. There are rules to be learned—or if not hard-and-fast rules, at least principles, as well as techniques to be trained in by masters, as well as “tricks of the trade” and “secrets” that can only be learned through much trial and error. In other words, the art of drawing has certain stable requirements—requirements that must be learned, as Picasso learned them, before one can start playing with and even breaking them.

So what happens as we learn how to draw is that the power of our practical mind is shaped (“specified” as Maritain puts it) by the requirements of the art. And because these requirements are stable and permanent, so is the resultant habitus of art stable and permanent.

In elaborating upon this point Maritain says rather forcefully, “Hence the force and rigidity of habitus; hence their irritability—all that deviates from the straight line of their object [the requirements of the art] galls them; hence their intransigence—what concession could they admit of? They are fixed in an absolute; hence their inconvenience in the social order. Men of the world, polished on all sides, do not like the man of habitus, with his asperities.”

Yet—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”? 

* 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).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Magic & Misfires: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

The Magic

1.   Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort was the highlight of the final film and one of the highlights of the entire series. Rowling herself is to be congratulated for giving in the books what might have been a rather boring two-dimensional figure of evil incarnate three very robust dimensions. And in terms of his serpentine look, his chilling voice, and the sinuous movements of his arms and fingers, Fiennes brought Voldemort to life with astonishing brio.  
2.   The film takes us as quickly as it can to the Battle of Hogwarts (along the way sacrificing one or two important bits of backstory—see below), but it successfully makes this a compelling climactic sequence.
3.   Although the violence shown is not bloody, the film follows the book in showing the cost of bravery in the deaths of Fred, Lupin, Tonks, etc.  
4.   Alan Rickman, with his voice as deep, rich and melancholic as a viola da gamba, did a marvelous job throughout the eight films in portraying Severus Snape, and this last film’s depiction of his final revelation and death were  worthy of this Dickensian character. Though Snape’s devotion to Lily Potter years after her marriage to another man is, after all, rather unseemly, Snape’s moral ambiguity nonetheless makes him a richly compelling character. Kudos to Rowling for keeping a global audience in suspense for years about Snape’s loyalties.  
5.   A nod of general appreciation to Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, who did a remarkable job over a great number of years in bringing the three chief protagonists to life and making their characters’ transitions from childhood to adulthood utterly believable. I might have liked to have seen a more ungainly Harry Potter, someone more along the lines, at least in look, of Matthew Lewis (who played Neville Longbottom). But Radcliffe certainly grew into the role, and in the end made a persuasive Potter.
6.   Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith): “I’ve always wanted to use that spell.”
7.   A nod to Helena Bonham Carter, and the scene at Gringotts in which she spot-on plays Hermione disguised as her character, Bellatrix LeStrange, under the influence of Polyjuice Potion.  

The Misfires

1.   Cutting out the backstory on Dumbledore’s involvement in the accidental killing of his sister, Ariana. Inexplicable. Unacceptable. Dumbledore’s character cannot be understood without this part of his history.
2.   A lack of visual inventiveness on the part of the director, David Yates. One of the things that made Deathly Hallows, Part 1 so interesting was the freshness of the cinematography—e.g., the use of Cinéma vérité technique—but none of that freshness was on display in this film (Cinéma vérité, for example, would have worked quite nicely in the Battle of Hogwarts sequence.)
3.   Connected to this last point is the fact that some of the most important scenes failed to exploit all their emotional potential. Harry should have said a “final” goodbye to Ron before going to his certain death. The scene between Harry and Dumbledore at King’s Cross was—except for the portrayal of that bit of Voldemort’s soul—visually and emotionally pedestrian. The final scenes in which we say goodbye to our heroes also lack the emotional punch one would expect after eight films. As compared to the closing scenes of the film version of The Return of the King (the third installement of The Lord of the Rings), Deathly Hallows, Part 2, goes out, if not with a whimper, then not with a bang, either.
4.   Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore. I’ve liked Michael Gambon in everything else I’ve seen him do, but I’ve disliked pretty much every decision he’s made in playing Dumbledore—including in this final film. One sorely misses the twinkling eye of Richard Harris’s Dumbledore, his composure, his soft, raspy voice redolent of wisdom and serenity.
5.   Of all the films, this film exerts itself the least in helping the audience along with Rowling’s at times very complicated backstory (understandable to a point, in that a goodly part of the galaxy has been consumed with that backstory for four years). When it comes to Horcruxes, those a little fuzzy on the details will be okay. But when it comes to the Deathly Hallows, forget it. Best to re-read portions of the seventh book, or watch again Deathly Hallows, Part 1, before embarking on this final film.

But it would be churlish to bid farewell to the original run of the Harry Potter franchise without congratulating all the filmmakers, and above all J.K. Rowling herself, for giving so many of us so many years of enjoyment with this truly enchanting story. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why Harry

As the last installment of the Harry Potter film franchise opens today, it is worth summing up why the books and films have been so wildly successful. There are many reasons, some having to do with the marketing mechanisms of global pop-media culture. But I believe the deepest reasons are these:

5. Their irresistible picture of intimate, loyal friendship.

4. Their equally irresistible picture of a tight-knit community of families and friends working for the common good.

3. Their whimsical, charming, and innocent humor, a particularly British sense of humor more potent to the reader and viewer than any depictions of magic.

2. Because they draw upon an archetypal story that moves the human spirit like no other: that of a small, humble person summoning up great courage in order to overcome a seemingly invincible evil. It is a story in one sense as old as the world, but in another as fresh as evening air after rain. Christianity, of course, takes the story to its greatest possible achievement, simply because it tells us that the story is true. Somewhere in The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton writes that the human heart above all desires “romance” (understood as adventure, including the adventure of love), and “truth,” and what Christianity offers is the most captivating of all combinations: a true romance. Harry Potter is captivating because it is a shadow and an image—imperfect, yes, but still remarkably enchanting—of the one True Romance. (For more on this point, see here.)

1. Because the books and movies argue compellingly for the central value of the Christian story: sacrifice. Isn’t it interesting that so many people around the world, especially so many young people, will flock to movie theaters in the coming hours and stand in line in order to watch a story about a young man   willing to lay down his life for his friends?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What We See at the Movies

In this the third in our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies, let’s focus on the theme on which Maritain ends Chapter II of Art and Scholasticism: that art is essentially an activity of reason.

In the final paragraph of the chapter Maritain writes:

The work of art has been thought before being made, it has been kneaded and prepared, formed, brooded over, ripened in a mind before passing into matter. And in matter it will always retain the color and savor of the spirit. Its formal element, what constitutes its species and makes it what it is, is its being ruled by the intellect. If this formal element diminishes ever so little, to the same extent the reality of art vanishes.

Matter? Formal element? Let’s bring these abstract terms to life with some examples.

In talking about art in the passage quoted, Maritain employs the metaphor of bread-making. Art must be “kneaded and prepared.” But in art the kneading and preparing of the dough is done not by the hands, but the mind. In a work of art the mind takes thought and “en-forms” some matter with it. In bread-making itself, the thought involved can be summed up by the word “recipe.” In the writing of a symphony, thought is expressed in the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, etc., en-forming sound.

Thought is the formal or “shaping” element of art. Matter is the “stuff” out of which the work is made. Hence Maritain defines art using St. Thomas Aquinas’s Latin phrase: recta ratio factibilium: “right reason about things to be made.”     

I want to try and make these thoughts even more vivid by applying them to an interesting discussion in this morning’s New York Times by film critic Manohla Dargis, in which Dargis reflects upon the ways in which habits of cognition and visual perception affect the ways in which we see movies. There are many fascinating items in Dargis’s piece about the ways in which our attention is shaped and how that shaping affects the way in which we watch movies. But I’ll just focus on that part of Dargis’s piece in which she considers a comment by film theorist David Bordwell:  

As Mr. Bordwell recently wrote on his blog,, “perceptually, films are illusions, not reality; cognitively, they are not the blooming, buzzing confusion of life but rather simplified ensembles of elements, designed to be understood.” Both the real world and earlier movies we’ve seen teach us how to look at films: we look at movies and understand them through their norms.

We see movies, says Dargis, based upon habits attained by our history of movie-watching and by our experience of “the real world.” These two sources provide the “norms” of our movie-going experience.

For most us, our history of movie-watching is filled predominantly with popular films out of Hollywood and the distinctive ways in which those films depict action, are cut, make use of dialogue, close-ups, music, and the like. This helps explains why in watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, we don’t notice the pirate who in the one scene left his shades on—because our perceptual habits have us focused on Johnny Depp’s face.

The deep grooves of our cognitive habits also help explain why we become slightly weary when films such as The Tree of Life and Into Great Silence don’t move at the pace or make use of dialogue in the ways in which Hollywood films do. As Dargis quotes Bordwell: “Narrative is our ultimate top-down strategy in watching a movie…specifically, I think, classical narrative principles.” In other words, what we look for first in watching a movie, at least those of us who consume a steady diet of Hollywood cinema, is plot. We want to see a hero desiring a clear goal and encountering ever-greater obstacles in the pursuit of it.

To bring this back round to Maritain: when it comes to movie-watching, all of this perceptual and cognitive shaping is owed, on the one hand, to the thought of those artists who make the film, principally the writer and the director. It is these film artists who seek to “say” something by cutting a scene at just this point, or by adding a line of dialogue here, or, as Hitchcock did in the famous scene from North by Northwest, by eschewing music for an entire scene and relying only on ambient sound. In all of these decisions the artist’s reason is “kneading” the “dough” of his art, exerting “right reason upon things to be made.”

Chesterton once said: “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” In this typical bit of Chestertonian hyperbole we find a unique expression of the definition of art. Art does consist of limitation, if by limitation we understand the myriad decisions by which the artist en-forms stuff with thought.  

Recall, however, that our movie-watching history is only one source of the habits we bring into the living room or theater. The other source is our experience of life itself. While it is true that when the house lights go down we tend to look for plot above all else, this expectation is not merely due to all the plot-driven Hollywood movies we’ve seen in our lives. It’s also due to what we know about human beings. Life itself is plot-driven. The narrative structure of human existence is not something filmmakers have invented and wired into our consciousness. It is there wherever a human being exists.

For what else is it to be a human being than to be an agent on the hunt for happiness? 

This insight that life is narrative is the deepest source of “right reason” when it comes to storytelling of all kinds. And to paraphrase Maritain, if this formal element of the art of storytelling diminishes ever so little, to the same extent the reality of the art vanishes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On Judging Books By Their Covers

It’s something we’ve been warned not to do: judge a book by its cover. But the other day, while passing by the Young Adult section at one of the local chain bookstores, it struck me that there might be a virtue in the superficial judgment—in particular when what one finds on the surface is so uniformly disturbing.

What did I take from the covers of those books, written for mostly girls, I suspect, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen? Admittedly, I can only give impressions:

a book with the title Beastly, because “love is a beast”…scantily-clad teenage girls…a book with the title, Party…vampires (of course)…werewolves, too…a book by the former tween starlet Hilary Duff called Elixir, about a girl who finds a magical “soulmate for life and death”…a book with the title, Girl Parts…an entire display for a series entitled Pretty Little Liars…dystopian fantasy…Anthony Horowitz’s mini-Bond Alex Rider…Last SacrificeBlood Promise

The effect of even a pass-by was oppressive. The unalleviated sordidness of cover after cover caused me to suspect a plot. And not merely a plot involving copycat authors and their publishers looking for a ride on the Transylvania gravy train. But a much more significant plot, a murder mystery, in fact, in which the first corpse is the spirit of our young people.

What I found on those covers was in one sense pedestrian and unsurprising: the allure of sex, the first thrills of naughtiness, day-dreams of power. But I also found something far more significant and far more troubling: a desperate yearning—with the emphasis upon desperate—for a love that will transcend death, no matter that a pact be made with a devil in order to achieve it.   

The human heart longs for a love that is true, for a “soulmate for life and death.” This is what our nature craves. What is sad is that our young people are being offered trash literature that can’t satisfy this natural desire. It can’t even qualify as junk food. It’s poison, pure and simple.

No doubt I missed something more substantial on those shelves in my superficial glance. You can’t always judge a book by its cover. But when many books have more or less the same twisted cover, it is best to do as I did—and pass by.  

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Couple of Yankee Doodle Dandies

For readers of High Concepts outside of the United States, today, the Fourth of July, is our Independence Day. Which has set me to thinking: what are my favorite Fourth of July movies?

On my shortlist would be Frank Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, as well as the 2008 HBO mini-series John Adams, adapted from the best-selling biography by David McCullough. John Adams is directed by Tom Hooper and stars Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. 

But after watching yesterday—I admit, shamefacedly, for the first time—Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, I have a new favorite. Released in 1942, Yankee Doodle Dandy is the story of American actor, singer, dancer, composer, lyricist, and Broadway impresario, George M. Cohan. I also must admit that I knew nothing about Cohan before seeing this film, not even that Cohan was the composer of such American popular standards as “She’s A Grand Old Flag,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Over There.”

Both Cohan and Cagney are American treasures. Here's a picture of Cohan...

After watching the movie I had fun looking up Cohan's and Cagney's Catholic connections—which, if you’re interested, you can learn about here (Cohan’s 1942 New York Times obituary), and here (a web-page from St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church, Cagney’s parish church in New York).

What are the favorite Fourth of July movies on your list?

God Bless, America!


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Making and Doing

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).