Is “fine arts” a useful term?

Maritain expresses some suspicion about the term “fine arts”. It is hard to say what the fine arts are all about except to say that they make beautiful things, and yet Maritain maintains that beauty is not the end of the fine arts. It is the “end beyond the end,” he says—and in the same passage, he admits that he struggles to find words for what he has in mind.

This past year, I thought a lot about what he meant and how he should have said it, because I was asked to teach a course that covers the history of art from ancient Greece to the Gothic cathedral. The course presented a puzzle in its construction: during the entire period it covers, there was no word or category for “art” in the sense that defines the course, meaning more or less “the kinds of things that go in collections and museums”. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, “artists” were simply artisans, and “art” was the ability to make things of all kinds, including both paintings and plows. Today we distinguish the useful arts from the fine arts. How should we approach a course on fine arts that covers only those times in which no such distinction was made? How do the useful arts and the fine arts in fact relate to one another?

Universals and individuals

I want to begin thinking this through by pointing to a fundamental distinction between love and knowledge: love goes out to things, while knowledge draws things in. Love goes out to things just as they are, while knowledge bestows on things a new mode of existence, because everything is received in the mode of the receiver. The contrast is most dramatic with conceptual knowledge and material things: love goes out to things in all their materiality, while conceptual knowledge renders things wholly spiritual.

This distinction comes into play every time we make something useful. Suppose for instance that I decide to make a table for my family to eat on. The individuals who make up my family are the end, what I really love, and my love for them is not indifferent to their individuality: I love not “daughter,” but this girl; not “wife” but this woman. In contrast, the table is simply a means for their eating, and so it is a universal in my thought: I want “means for eating,” and I am indifferent to this individual table or that.

However, my desire for a generic means must somehow be instantiated, made real and material. To some extent, how to make the thing real will be determined by how the thing is to function, but not entirely. After all the planning required to achieve the best means, there will be a “zone of individuation,” a residue of decisions to be made simply to make the table materially definite. What color should the table be? What material should it be made of? How thick should it be? If I see the table purely as a means and remain indifferent to it as an individual, then this zone of individuation will be determined by considerations of labor and cost: what is easiest and cheapest, within the constraints of achieving the best means?

But there is another possibility. I could begin to care about the table as an individual thing.

Making and contemplation

Returning to the original distinction between love and knowledge, we have to realize that man is both fundamentally oriented to the contemplative and fundamentally oriented to the practical. All men by nature desire to know, as Aristotle pointed out, but all men also by nature desire to do and to make. Just as we do certain actions for their own sake, so also we sometimes make in order to make, because we are human beings and not because a storm is coming or because food is scarce. So it is possible to make a thing and to consider the thing itself as an end.

If the end, the good-in-itself, is an action, then we relate to it either by doing it ourselves or beholding and admiring it in others. But if the good-in-itself is a thing, we cannot do it: we can only behold it. Once made, the thing-as-end is necessarily an object of contemplation, that activity by which we do not consume things or press them into service but simply take them in as they are.

Therefore, to make the thing-as-end excellently means to make an excellent object of contemplation, which is to give it all the things the intellectualized senses thrive on: integrity, proportion, and clarity. When a thing is an excellent object of contemplation, merely to behold it gives delight—which is to say, the thing is beautiful. Any time a thing is ordered immediately to contemplation, its perfection will be found in beauty.

However, one does not make a beautiful object by aiming at delight. Just as pleasure attends good actions in the moral life but corrupts us when sought for itself, so the pleasure of beauty cannot be sought directly, either by maker or by viewer. If we make the thing for the sake of the pleasure it gives us, we make it a means, something to be used, like a condiment on a hot dog. To make a beautiful object, the artist’s direct intention must be to give the thing integrity, proportion, clarity, and whatever else makes for an excellent object of contemplation.

In the same way, the viewer of art must not seek delight directly, which would lead him down the road of entertainment; rather, he must seek to contemplate the object well. Nonetheless, the presence of pleasure in the contemplation of a thing is a sign that the thing is excellent, and in fact pleasure completes and perfects the act of contemplation.

Means and ends

To return to our table, we have to bring together our consideration of it as useful and our consideration of it as beautiful. While there exist pure ends and pure means, many a thing is both an end in itself and a means to something further. At the sublime end of the spectrum, we find that the Eucharist is both to be adored in itself and to be used for getting to heaven. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were both worthy in themselves, as worship of the true God, and means of foreshadowing the Messiah. At the level of the everyday, my gracious thanks for a service is both good in itself as a virtuous deed and useful for obtaining future acts of service. The humble table, a mere surface for platters and dishes, can be intended simultaneously as a means and as an end. To the extent that I begin to care about the individual table and to make it an end, to that extent I will make it an object of contemplation and therefore beautiful.

As is clear from the foregoing, things only mediately or indirectly related to contemplation need not be sensibly beautiful. Everything is ultimately ordered to contemplation, and so the final thing—the universe—must find its perfection in beauty, but anything short of the universe may be related only mediately to this end.

A more subtle example may sharpen the point. A treatise is meant to offer us universal truths for contemplation, and so one might suppose that the treatise, being immediately ordered to contemplation, must be beautiful. But this is not so: the treatise is an individual thing, and is not itself one of the universals it offers for our contemplation, and so the treatise is only mediately related to contemplation. Anything that is purely a means to conveying truth need not be beautiful in itself. Of course, by its necessary relation to the truths it conveys it has to have a certain integrity and proportion and clarity, but this not is true of the treatise in its sensible aspects. The words need not be sonorous or the cadence pleasing. The treatise will only become beautiful as it begins to be intended as an object of contemplation in itself.

This is a key distinction between prose and poetry. Prose is language intended as means, while poetry is language intended as an end. Of course, what we said above about the table is true here: language is often intended simultaneously as means and end; tools and treatises can be in part mediately and in part immediately related to contemplation. The lines between prose and poetry are never precise. In fact, there is something strange and off-putting about pure prose, language that refuses to be beautiful.


This brings us close to some kind of response to my opening question. A work of art becomes “fine” or “liberal” as it becomes an end in itself, and thus immediately ordered to contemplation, and thus beautiful. It is even possible to make something purely as an end, purely as an object of contemplation, and in no way as useful. This is Maritain’s preferred way of speaking: what we call “fine” arts are “free” or “liberal” arts.

However, since the useful arts and the fine arts share the same root, namely man’s nature as a maker, and since they are both ordered to contemplation, albeit at different removes, it seems strange to find them purely or consistently separate from one another. It is strange to find things made purely for utility, when no pressing need demanded it. It seems to point to a hatred for or at least indifference to contemplation, and we don’t find it apart from some kind of philistine philosophy.

To make things purely for contemplation can of course flow from a love of contemplation. At the same time, to make this purity an expectation or norm creates a ghetto for contemplation, and it is closely allied to the banishment of beauty from the cotidian. When the fine arts are rigorously separated from the useful, this heralds a devolution of the fine arts themselves.

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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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