A little while back I posted on the topic of Thomas Merton’s art. The art historian Roger Lipsey has written about Merton’s closeness with Jacques Maritain, and I have since wanted to post something a bit more basic about Maritain on art. Yesterday’s post on Rowan Williams reminded me that the Archbishop of Canterbury recently published Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, which neatly summarizes Maritain’s aesthetic before going on to speak of its influence on David Jones and Flannery O’Connor (Merton goes unmentioned, though Williams has written about him elsewhere):
(i) Art is an action of the intelligence and thus makes claims about how things are.
(ii) As such, it invites contemplation; that is, it sets out to create something that can be absorbed by intelligence, rather than a tool for use in a project larger than itself.
(iii) Thus the canons for understanding art must relate to the integrity of what is being produced, not to goals extrinsic to this process of labour.
(iv) When art engages the will by its own integrity and inner coherence, we speak of its beauty; but beauty cannot be sought as something in itself, independent of what this work demands.
(v) By engaging us in an unforeseen pattern of coherence or integrity, art uncovers relations and resonances in the field of perception that ‘ordinary’ seeing and experiencing obscure or even deny.
(vi)Thus art in one sense ‘dispossesses’ us of our habitual perception and restores to reality a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our control. It makes the world strange.
(vii) So, finally, it opens up the dimension in which ‘things are more than they are’, ‘give more than they have’. Maritain is circumspect in spelling out the implication of this, but it is pretty clear that what this means is that art necessarily relates in some way to ‘the sacred’, to energies and activities that are wholly outside the scope of representation and instrumental reason.