Maritain on art: a summary and synthesis

Over the past two years I have studied Maritain’s aesthetics with great enjoyment. I even taught an art history course and used it as a chance to find out whether Maritain’s theory can help students in a practical way. (The answer was, “Yes!”) When I turn to others who have written on aesthetics, like Gilson, they seem clumsy in comparison. Unfortunately, many interpreters of Maritain also seem clumsy to me, so it might be helpful to others if I set out what I took away at least from Maritain’s major work, Creative Intuition.

What follows is not only a summary but also an interpretation of Creative Intuition. I aim to set down what he meant, but I spell out some ideas that he left implicit and others that may have remained implicit in his own understanding. Maritain had in mind a theory with many parts that make up a system, but he never wrote a summary chapter to bring all the parts into explicit relation, and as a result I think he never asked himself some questions that inevitably occur to the reader. Here is an outline, according to me.

What is poetic knowledge?

The foundation of Maritain’s entire theory is the realization that there is a preconscious life of the intellect. We have always known this, even if we never said it that way: two thousand years of Aristotelianism has said that the agent intellect shines on the phantasms proffered by the imagination, actuates their intelligibility, and as a result produces a concept. But we are aware of none of this—the shining, the actuation, the production—until the concept itself stands forth in our minds. When it comes to epistemology, Modernity’s error was to say that our knowing is only knowing if we grasp the roots of our knowing; Maritain joins the tradition of the perennial philosophy when he says that the roots of our knowing lie below the soil.

But Maritain innovates within the tradition in two ways. First, he distinguishes this preconscious life of the intellect from the “unconscious” explored by modern psychology. The “unconscious” is a life of our biological organism, unillumined by the intellect, and it results from marvelous but mechanical processes. For example, in our sleep our brains go back over the day’s memories and sort them into permanent storage locations, attempting to place related memories together. In the process, the brain itself creates new associations that sometimes set the stage for key insights upon our awakening. This is helpful, but it is not itself an action of the spirit, as is the creation of concepts.

Second, Maritain points out that there must be more going on in the intellect’s preconscious life than the formation of concepts. For example, we sometimes will something quite vigorously, but only later become aware that we were willing it: this is an action of the spirit. To take another example, we sometimes find ourselves instantly angry over some injustice, and we never waver in our response, but when we are questioned it takes a lot of effort to make explicit for ourselves what about the event prompted our anger. It turns out on examination that we had an insight into the event that remained unconscious until the anger itself erupted into our awareness. Not only that, but our reason judged the anger appropriate without our ever entering into a process of deliberation about it. In other words, the light of the intellect shines not only on the imagination, but also on our emotional reactions to what the imagination presents. This happens spontaneously, without our even knowing it.

The result is a parallelism: just as we have a preconscious shining of intellectual light on imagination, so we have a preconscious shining of the intellect on emotion. And just as the intellectually illumined imagination is the seed of a concept, so the intellectually illumined emotion is the seed of—of what? What does this seed become as it germinates?

The imagination is cognitive by its nature, while by their nature the emotions are motive. Phantasms are a principle of knowledge, while emotion is a principle of motion. So the intellectually illumined emotion within us must be a principle of motion of some kind, and if it is a principle of motion then it is also a principle of rest: anger moves us to right the wrong, and rests in justice; thirst for money leads us to seek wealth to rest in the possession of money; loneliness moves us to seek company and to rest in friendship. So the intellectually illumined emotion within us becomes a new principle of motion and of rest, which according to Aristotle’s definition of “nature” would mean that we have acquired a kind of new nature.

While this is not directly a principle of cognition, it does lead to a kind of knowledge that Maritain—following Aquinas—calls knowledge by “connaturality”. The example Aquinas gives is the good man who cannot explain what a virtue is or why this or that is virtuous, but he does the virtuous spontaneously and so can consult his own interior movements to say infallibly what is just and what unjust. Maritain extends this beyond the realm of the moral. To take a silly example, suppose I have emotions in response to a tree: I am moved by the tree, by its dark hollows and billowy boughs. The intellectually illumined emotion then becomes in me a kind of tree nature: I do not know the tree, but interiorly I move the way it moves, I zig when it zigs and zag when it zags. One cannot ask a tree whether it likes the breeze because trees do not talk; but I can tell you, because I do talk, and I have become the tree.

This intellectually illumined emotion, this “new nature,” is what Maritain calls poetic intuition. It is “poetic” (from poesis) because it is motive—making/doing—by nature; it is “intuition” because it leads to a cognition with no accompanying reasoning process. It is, as Maritain titles his book, “creative intuition”.

Once the poetic intuition is present in the soul, even though we are not aware of it, it begins to have effects that we might (or might not) consciously notice. A certain memory sticks with us, because this new principle of motion within us renders it attractive. Distant ideas become associated in our minds, because this new principle of motion steers the one to the other. Eventually, the intuition has gathered around itself a host of imaginations, concepts, emotions, associations, and so on. Itself unseen, it causes us to see a host of things no longer as a heap but as a constellation. In this way, poetic intuition resembles the concept itself, which is not an object of our knowledge but a that-through-which-we-know. Similarly, the poetic intuition is not something we can simply bring before our mind to contemplate, but it is that-through-which we become aware of something. Specifically, it is that-through-which we become aware that these things are not just things, but a thing, a constellation.

Because poetic intuition is essentially motive, making/doing, Maritain argues that its own dynamism is that it leads eventually to the making of something. Of course, it doesn’t have to: most of us have too many intuitions to pursue them all, and many of us lack the technical skills to make anything anyway, and a depressing majority of people remain numbed to the tugging and teasing and urging of the poetic intuitions they have. But of its own nature, the poetic intuition would result in a making.

When that happens, the artist has to pay close attention to the constellation of associations that as formed in him, and he has to be careful never to add anything that is not accepted or even demanded by the invisible motive force behind the constellation. Because his knowledge is non-conceptual, and only concepts lead directly to words, the artist cannot bring the poetic intuition itself before his gaze as a verbal rule to follow. So he proceeds by way of connaturality: he tries this and that, he doubles back, and works his way forward by feel, always trying to discern whether it is “right”. He does not know what he is doing, and he will not know until the whole work is completed and stands before him and is “right”.

Consequently, Maritain argues that the artist only comes to full and conscious awareness of his poetic intuition in the completion of the work itself. Just as the germ of intellectually illumined phantasms only becomes conscious knowledge when we conceptually grasp a real thing, so the germ of intellectually illumined emotion only becomes fully conscious knowledge when we complete the work to which it moves us. At this point, the artist enjoys rest, and the rest itself tells him: “This is it.”

* * *

Maritain uses this analysis of creative intuition to answer some fundamental questions about art. For example, is art imitative? Is the artist’s goal to imitate nature?

In a direct sense, Maritain says, the answer is no. Like God the creator, the artist seeks to make something out of the bounty of himself, simply from himself and not from any foreign element. His goal is in some way to make the thing he is.

But in an indirect sense, Maritain says the answer is yes. Unlike God, the artist is not the first principle of all things, and in fact the artist cannot know himself—cannot even know himself as a knower—until he first knows something outside of himself. So the artist must first become connatural with something from God’s creation and then, having become identical with the thing, he creates from himself. So in the end the artist does end up patterning his work on something outside of himself.

This is why the artist’s experience cuts in both directions. On the one hand, the artist feels that he is merely being faithful to something, and is not himself in charge of the work; on the other hand, the artist feels no obligation to produce the exact likeness of any given thing. If my silly example above were to lead to a painting of a tree, it would be the tree as transformed by becoming me and by accumulating around itself the ideas and associations and imaginations I happened to have in my soul. The ability to reproduce nature exactly may be a technical skill prerequisite to painting, but this skill is only necessary to enable the painter’s exact fidelity to his poetic intuition.

* * *

Another important question is why art and beauty are so bound to one another. Here, Maritain admits that he struggles to find words for what he has in mind. He says that because art is essentially intellectual, it naturally leads to what delights the intellect, namely beauty—id quod visum placet. Art, he says, does not aim at beauty but “engenders in beauty”. Beauty, he says, is the “end beyond the end” of poetry.

So yes, Maritain struggles to find words for what he means. I think I can spell it out a bit more clearly, but this summary is too long already.

* * *

Another important question is how all this relates to the experience of the one who receives the artwork. What can we say about the reader of poetry, or the viewer of sculpture, or the concert-hall audience? Maritain’s focus is on the artist himself, so he says very little about the audience. He does say that the one who receive the artwork receives through it the poet’s intuition, but he does not raise the obvious question: Now possessed of the poet’s intuition, which we have argued is essentially creative, does the audience itself now need to go out and create a work of art?

I think I can make a beginning on this question, but I’ll leave off for now.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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