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  • Creative Intuition After BeautyJacques Maritain's Philosophy of Art in the Contemporary Context
  • Brett David Potter (bio)

Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) is unusual among major twentieth-century Christian thinkers for having produced a complete philosophy of art. Although Paul Tillich, Gerardus van der Leeuw, and Karl Rahner all wrote important works about the theological significance of the fine arts, and Hans Urs von Balthasar devoted seven volumes to the problem of theological aesthetics, none of these theologians (Catholic or Protestant) developed their reflections on sacred or secular art into a systematic philosophical account of art and artmaking.1 Outlined initially in the prewar Art and Scholasticism (1920) and expanded and clarified in later writings such as Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953) and The Responsibility of the Artist (1960), Maritain's theologically informed theory of art can be seen as an attempt to bring Thomist, broadly Catholic sensibilities to bear on contemporary problems in art and philosophy. Contrary to what one might expect, however, his neo-Thomist approach to art and culture—an interpretive framework he shared with his close contemporary Étienne Gilson—does not simply provide an evaluation of modern art based on a potentially anachronistic medieval ontology.2 Certainly his basic framework is the classical paradigm where all things [End Page 81] participate by virtue of their existence in the essential Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of Being—a metaphysics inherited from Aquinas, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Neoplatonists that holds fast to the transcendentals as the cascading outflow of the divine. We might thus be tempted to describe his project as a lofty theological aesthetics in the tradition of the Grand Theory of Beauty, susceptible to philosophical deconstruction (as onto-theology) and out of touch with actual artistic practice in the contemporary situation.3 But instead, we find Maritain's grounding in Thomism manifests itself in a philosophical model of art which, far from being lost in the clouds, is practical, empirical, and (perhaps most importantly) intrinsically adaptable to varying contexts. Broadly speaking, his approach to modern art is entirely in keeping with his general method of the creative application of Thomism to modern thought and culture—not simply restating what the Angelic Doctor said on a given topic, but bringing Aquinas's thought into conversation with contemporary themes. As John Trapani writes, Maritain's art theory "develops an original Thomist aesthetics that goes creatively beyond a mere exposition of the thought of Aquinas"—a reconstructive ressourcement forged in dialogical engagement with twentieth-century art and artists that uniquely positions him to "penetrate modern problems of the philosophy of art."4

Maritain's art theory was born out of a unique historical moment in the course of twentieth-century art and philosophy. His reflections are the natural product of his retrieval of Thomist metaphysics paired with his interactions with artists and poets over the course of several decades, particularly the painter Georges Rouault, filmmaker/novelist Jean Cocteau, and of course his wife, the poet Raïssa Maritain.5 His work thus quite naturally evinces a desire to constructively relate the Christian intellectual tradition to the great European artistic movements of the first half of the century: Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Fauvism, German Expressionism. However, despite this historical context, Maritain's philosophical (and by extension, theological) interest in creative intuition in art [End Page 82] extends beyond twentieth-century Western art to the larger problem of how to responsibly and critically approach the problem of theological meaning in the wider space of art and artmaking in general. Moreover, it seems clear from his writings that his theory of art was designed to be provisional, open to change and modification—a dialogical, dynamic approach in keeping with his own commitment to dialogue with practicing artists. In fact, one might even suggest that Maritain's creative use of Aquinas provides a helpful model for the creative appropriation of his own work in new philosophical and cultural contexts. Such an appropriation is precisely what I hope to point to here in a preliminary way.

With all this in mind, I hope to draw attention to two primary reasons why Maritain's methodology is still deeply relevant to the careful...


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