Maritain: Art & Creativity

Over the break—and yes, I'm still getting 'breaks' at 23, hard to believe I know—but, over the break I've been trying to read a book by the famous Thomist, Jacques Maritain, called Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. Assuming that most here haven't read it (including myself, except for the first chapters), I can't provide much of a detailed discussion or overview. But something he speaks of in the first chapter prompted me to ask a few questions, which I will present here.

The first chapter is a review of various forms of art—Oriental, Chinese, Greek and Western—comparing and contrasting them for their commitment to and portrayal of both "Things" and the "Self." Maritain's primary argument here seems to be that Eastern art, be it Muslim geometry, Buddhist mythology or Chinese iconography, all intends to portray the 'thing-in-itself' and speaks little of the 'self,' who creates the artwork. He contrasts this with ancient Hellenic art, wherein the human form becomes the object of beauty, but remains just that—a Thing—and not an actual extension of the artist-self. Finally, he attempts to show Christian art as the beginning of a form of self-expression that does more than simply focus on beauty in things; rather, it begins to show the beauty of the creator and the ideas which are put into a work of art from the subject end.

Here, I agree very much with Maritain. His representation and analysis of art from East to West seems quite correct, especially with regard to the religious incorporation involved in each form.

Maritain's final section of the chapter is devoted to modern and future art. Here, he makes a few claims which I'm not so sure I understand—at least not in the way he intends. "We are in the presence of an exceptionally great epoch," he says, "[which] comes from the fact that on the one hand never was painting so purely painting, and on the other hand never in painting was such poignant humanity united with such powerful penetration of visible things, through the simultaneous manifestation of the painter's creative Self and of the occult meanings grasped by him in reality." (28) Although he presents his case in eloquent fashion, I think his fundamental ideas are nonetheless up for debate—primarily the notion that modern art represents "pure" art, and that in this 'purity' arises the ultimate expression of self-manifesting creativity. Certainly, modern and contemporary art is unique, and it does speak from and toward a different level of self-involvement. There is something beautiful about abstraction and impression that is not found in realistic or iconic portrayals of reality; an involvement of Self, as Maritain would put it. But as for modern art indicating a true level of progress in the world of art, I think, is something altogether different.

I'll have to read more of the book before coming to a conclusion on this. But nevertheless Maritain does a brilliant thing in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, which delves into the problems of art and beauty with a penetrating and fruitful focus.