Jacques Maritain's

The Responsibility of the Artist

Chapter II

Art for Art's Sake


I have tried to make clear the state of tension, or even of conflict, which naturally exists between Art and Morality, and which proceeds from the basic fact that Art is intent on the good of the work, not on the good of man, whereas Morality is intent on the good of man, not on the good of the work.

Of this opposition between the good or perfection of the work and the good of man or the perfection of his life the artists are clearly aware. They even overemphasize the opposition, as Yeats did in The Choice:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.

Now it is of a vicious conception, a misuse and misinterpretation of the truths I emphasize concerning Art, or the fact that Art, of itself, tends only to the good of the work, that I should like to speak. In other words, I shall discuss the motto Art for Art's sake, a motto which in the last analysis originates in a hypostasierung, a substantification or hypostatization of Art, or a confusion between Art taken in itself and separately, which exists only in our mind, and Art as it really exists, that is, as a virtue of man -- in other words a confusion between the artist abstractly cut off from man, and man the artist.

The motto Art for Art's sake simply disregards the world of morality, and the values and rights of human life. Art for Art's sake does not mean Art for the work, which is the right formula. It means an absurdity, that is, a supposed necessity for the artist to be only an artist, not a man, and for art to cut itself off from its own supplies, and from all the food, fuel and energy it receives from human life.

To tell the truth, art took to enclosing itself in its famous ivory tower, in the XIXth century, only because of the disheartening degradation of its environment -- positivist, sociologist or materialist attitudes. But the normal condition of art is altogether different. Aeschylus, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare or Dostoievsky did not write in a vacuum bell. They had large human purposes. They did not write assuming that it did not matter what they wrote. Did not Dante believe he was giving only a higher course in catechism and turning his readers toward the business of their eternal salvation? Did not Lucretius intend to spread the Epicurean system, Virgil, when he composed the Georgics, to bring manpower back to the land and Wagner to glorify the Teutonic religion? For all that, they did not go in for propaganda art -- even Wagner, though with Wagner I am not so sure. But the fact that Frenchmen of my generation consider Wagner a great corrupter of music, an abortive magician is beside the point. What I mean is that with all the genuine artists and poets, the richer the human stuff, the more strongly was everything mastered for the good of the work and subordinated to the inner self-sufficiency of this self-subsisting cosmos.


For, as I have said, Art is not an abstract entity without flesh and bones, a separate Platonic Idea supposedly come down on earth and acting among us at the Angel of Making or a metaphysical Dragon let loose; Art is a virtue of the practical intellect, and the intellect itself does not stand alone, but is a power of Man. When the intellect thinks, it is not the intellect which thinks: it is man, a particular man, who thinks through his intellect. When Art operates, it is man, a particular man, who operates through his Art.

In the very line of the artistic production or creation, that which exists and requires our consideration, that which is the agent, is man the artist.

It is nonsense to believe that the genuineness or the purity of a work of art depends upon a rupture with, a moving away from the living forces which animate and move the human being -- it is nonsense to believe that this purity of the work depends on a wall of separation built up between art and desire or love. The purity of the work depends upon the strength of the inner dynamism which generates the work, that is, the strength of the virtue of art.

No wall of separation isolates the virtue of art from the inner universe of man's desire and love. There exists, to be sure, a special desire and love which is simply one with the activity of the artist, consubstantial with this activity. That is the desire and love to create a work. Discussing Henri Bremond's book on pure poetry T. S. Eliot said: "My first qualm is over the assertion that 'the more of a poet any particular poet is, the more he is tormented by the need of communicating his experience.' This is a downright sort of statement which is very easy to accept without examination; but the matter is not so simple as all that. I should say that the poet is tormented primarily by the need to write a poem." (9) Yet Eliot's accurate remark must not mislead us: in the very urge toward the work and toward creation the desire is involved, not precisely to communicate our experience to another, but to express it: for what is creation if not an expression of the creator? Man's substance is unknown to himself. It is when he grasps things through emotion that for the poet things and the self are awakened together, in a particular kind of knowledge, obscure, ineffable in itself, which can be expressed only in a work, and which is poetic knowledge. At this point we are confronted with the essential part played by subjectivity, by the self, in poetic knowledge and poetic activity.

An oriental critic, Mr. Lionel de Fonseka, in his book On the Truth of Decorative Art, A Dialogue between an Oriental and an Occidental, has written that vulgarity always says I. Well, vulgarity says one also, and this is the same thing, for vulgarity's I is nothing but a neuter subject of predicates or of phenomena, a subject as matter, marked with the opacity and voracity of matter, like the I of the egoist.

But in an entirely different manner poetry likewise always says I. Listen to the Psalms: "My heart hath uttered a good word," "Vivify me and I will keep they commandment . . ." Poetry's I is the substantial depth of the living and loving subjectivity, it is a subject as act, marked with the diaphaneity and expansiveness proper to the operations of the spirit. Poetry's I resembles in this regard the I of the Saint, and likewise, although in other fashions, it is a subject which gives. The art of China and of India, like that of the Middle Ages, may well shelter itself behind the rite or the simple duty of ornamenting life; it is as personal as that of the individualistic Occident. The more or less rigorous canonicity of art is here a secondary condition; in the days of old it was a condition favorable for hiding art from itself. But the consciousness of itself, and at the same time its newly acquired taste for freedom are fine dangers which mobilized poetry.

Well, my contention is that, by necessity, as a corollary of the preceding observations on the nature of poetic knowledge, which is at the core of poetic activity, poetic activity is, of itself, essentially disinterested. It engages the human self in its deepest recesses -- but in no way for the sake of the human Ego. The very engagement of the artist's Self in poetic activity, the very revelation of the artist's Self in his work, together with the revelation of the particular secret he has obscurely grasped in things, are for the sake of the work. The self is both revealing itself and sacrificing itself, because it is given, it is drawn out of itself in that sort of ec-stasy which is creation, it dies to itself in order to live in the work, and how humbly and defenselessly!

What does this essential disinterestedness of the poetic activity mean? It means that egoism is the natural enemy of poetic activity.

The artist as a man can be busy only with his desire and love for creation. He can say like Baudelaire "I don't give a damn for the human race," he can be concerned only with his work, like Proust, he can be an out-and-out egoist, as Goethe was: in his process of creation, insofar as he is an artist, he is not an egoist, he is freed from the greed of the Ego.

And obviously the artist can also have his desire and love for creation involved in the movement of expansion and generosity of a soul whose passions and ambitions are not of an egoist. And such internal abundance and magnanimity are even the normal and connatural climate of the virtue of the poet; narrowness and avarice in human desires make it live in cold and hail. After all, Shelley was right in writing that the "state of mind" naturally linked with poetic inspiration "is at war with every base desire", (10) though he went perhaps a little too far when he added: "A poet, as he is the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue and glory, so he ought personally to be the happiest, the best, the wisest and most illustrious of men."(11) The artists of the Renaissance were not, as men, models of wisdom, disinterestedness and benevolence. But at least they were interested in great causes and ideals, they had great human aspirations, and even their pride and their vices throve on a generous blood.

Let us observe in addition that many elements in the work itself can convey the resentment or the maliciousness of its author. A rhythm, a musical motif, a brush stroke, a color can be malicious. But the melody in a work, sonata, picture or poem cannot be malicious. The melody, as Arthur Lourié put it, is always good, la mélodie est toujours bonne, because the melody is the most immediate vehicle of the poetic sense. And he went on to say: "It is perhaps because we have become wicked that we have lost or claim to have lost melody."(12)

It is, I think, by reason of the essential disinterestedness, which I just pointed out, of the poet in the very act of poetry, and by reason of his natural orientation toward creation, that the poets and artists of the past have given us such poor indications of their own inner creative experience. They spoke in the most conventional and shallow rhetoric and in the most commonplace stock phrases -- nascentur poetae, the Muses, the genius, the poetic faculty, the divine spark, later on the Goddess of Imagination -- of this experience which at least the greatest among them lived in fact, no doubt, but which their conscious intellect did not seek to grasp. They were not interested in reflective self-awareness. The age of reflection, the age of prise de conscience, which roughly speaking started for Mysticism at the time of St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, came later for Poetry. When it did come for Poetry, at the time of Romanticism, it brought to completion the slow process of revelation of the Self which had progressively developed in the course of modern centuries. This revelation of the creative Self is a blessing to the extent to which it takes place in the genuine line of Poetry. But it becomes a curse when it shifts from the line of Poetry, and of the Self in the fire of spiritual communication, to the line of man's material individuality, and of the Self as jealous proprietor and center of insatiable lusts. Then the egoism of man enters the very sphere of the poetic act, not only to spoil it, but to feed on it. On the one hand such growth of the human egoism, being unnatural, becomes boundless; on the other hand, as regards the creative act, the artist no longer manifests himself and the world in his work -- he unloads himself in it, pours his own complexes and poisons into it, and into the reader, thus achieving a psychological cure at the expense of both.

The accident came about, sad to say, simultaneously with the most glorious discoveries achieved by the self-awareness of Poetry as Poetry. And nevertheless -- this is the point I should like to make -- the essential disinterestedness of the poetic act is so ineradicable that the final result invasion of the human Ego in the universe of art was not, in actual fact, to make the artist into a creative usurer (that is a contradiction in terms) but to make him (a fact to which I shall return at the end of this chapter) into a hero, a priest, or a savior, offering himself in sacrifice no longer to his work but both to mankind and to his own glory.


Let us come back now to the discussion of Art for Art's sake. The previous considerations help us to realize that, from the point of view of ends, or of final causality, it is only normal that the desires and loves with which human life is filled should be at play in the soul of the artist. They tend toward ends which are not the proper ends of art. But they feed and nourish art and poetry, and they will not warp the work, they will enrich it, if only art and poetry themselves tend purely and unyieldingly to their own ends in the making of the work. No doubt, I know that when it comes to a particular human purpose for which the work is done -- propaganda plays, patriotic poems and moralizing literature do not add up to much as a rule. But this is so because, as a rule, the artist has allowed his moral idea to enter the very sphere of the making and to act as a way of making, which it is not. I also know that the cathedral builders had no sort of thesis in mind, nor did they want to suggest a Christian emotion. But they had Faith, and it was enough. The human ends with which I am concerned here are not particular purposes, but rather the things in which the artist believes, and which he loves. In this sense it is only normal that a poet or a writer, a man who works with words should have a message, not only his proper artistic message (which is the essential) but also a human message of his own, silly, foolish or momentous, to deliver to men. Otherwise there would be a serious possibility that his work would have nothing to say. Such was, I dare say, the fate of Mallarmé's narcissism. Earlier I mentioned Dante, Virgil and Lucretius; to these I might add Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, William Blake, Léon Bloy, Nietzsche. There is nothing to stop Gide from saying: it does not matter what one writes. But in reality he himself was constantly prodded by a kind of apostolic zeal -- rather particular in nature, to be sure, but that's another question -- the chief intent of which was to justify himself in the eyes of men.

The workman works for his wages, and most disincarnate artist has a concern, concealed or repressed as it may be, to act upon human souls and to serve an idea. What is required is the perfect practical discrimination between the aim of the workman (finis operis): so that the workman should work for his wages, but the work should be ruled and shaped and brought into being only with regard to its own good and in nowise with regard to the wages. Thus the artist may work for any and every human intention he likes, but the work taken in itself must be made and constructed only with regard to the creative intuition in which it originates and to the rules of making which it calls for.


Similar considerations may be put forward from the point of view of the agent who operates or of efficient causality. Plato said that a philosopher must philosophize with his whole soul (though the intellect alone is the proper organ of philosophy). The same may be said of the artist.

The virtue of art does not allow the work to be interfered with or immediately ruled by anything other than itself. It insists that it alone shall touch the work in order to bring it into being. In short, art requires that nothing shall attain the work except through art itself. It is through His word and His art that God attains, rules and brings into being everything He makes. In the same way it is through art that the human artist must attain, rule and bring into being all his work.

But this in no way implies that the work depends on art alone, and not on the entire soul of the artist; that it is made by the art alone, separate, cut off from all the rest in man, and not by man the artist with all the human purposes, desires, and longings, all the human thoughts and beliefs he has in his heart. Theologians tell us that everything was made per Verbum, through the Divine Word, yet it is also true that everything was made by the whole undivided Trinity: in a manner totally free from the least interested intention, but to an end nevertheless, an end which is not simply the perfection of the work to be achieved, and which is of an order superior to art -- the communication of divine goodness.


Finally, our issue has also to do with the perspective of material causality.

It would simplify many questions to make a distinction between art itself and its material or subjective conditions. Art being of man, how could it not depend on the pre-existing structures and inclinations of the subject in which it dwells? They remain extrinsic to art, but they influence it.

Art as such, for instance, transcends, like the spirit, every frontier of space or time, every historical or national boundary. Like science and philosophy, it is universal of itself.

But art does not reside in an angelic mind: it resides in a soul which animates a living body, and which, by the natural necessity in which it finds itself of learning, and progressing little by little and with the assistance of others, makes the rational animal a naturally social animal. Art is therefore basically dependent upon everything which the human community, spiritual tradition and history transmit to the body and mind of man. By its human subject and its human roots, art belongs to a time and a country.


The last part of this chapter will deal with the artist in relation to the community, in other words, with the problem of the moral responsibility of the artist with regard to men. All that we have seen shows that this responsibility exists. Since morality is not a branch of aesthetics, the problem cannot be avoided.

Every work of art reaches man in his inner powers. It reaches him more profoundly and insidiously than any rational proposition, either cogent demonstration or sophistry. For it strikes him with two terrible weapons, Intuition and Beauty, and at the single root in him of all his energies, Intellect and Will, Imagination, Emotion, Passions, Instincts and obscure Tendencies. The question is, as Léon Bloy put it, not to hit below the heart. Art and Poetry awaken the dreams of man, and his longings, and reveal to him some of the abysses he has in himself. The artist is not ignorant of that. How will he deal with this problem?

It is true, as I said at the beginning, that Beauty is an absolute which admits of no division, and that the artist is bound to serve this absolute. He is first responsible to his work. Now must he bend or force down his work and his art, in order that men should not chance to be led astray by them?

If the artist asks himself this question, not through fear of the public but by virtue of a genuine sense of his responsibility, it is because he loves the truth and thinks of his fellow men with generosity. It is finally because he loves them. This means that he already has the answer. At this point I should like to appropriate, with a view to an issue which Rimbaud did not have in mind, the famous saying of Rimbaud: la charité est cette clef, Charity is the key. For it is inside the soul of the poet, in those very depths of the creativity of the spirit, where all the substance of man and all his yearnings and all his energies, emotional and intellectual, poetic and moral, are concentrated, that the conflict demands to be solved.

In the first place -- but this is not the primary consideration -- love makes those whom we love present within ourselves, as a part, so to speak, of our own subjectivity. What is a beautiful work, on the other hand, if not a work that we love? When we cannot love a poem or a painting, it ceases to be beautiful for us, even if it is perfectly made. Suppose that you read a magnificent poem in which your mother is insulted and vilified -- this poem cannot be beautiful for you: what remains of it, for you, is only a well-contrived artifact, but incapable of delighting the sight. Thus it is that literary criticism cannot, even from the sole point of view of beauty, rule out any consideration of the moral or ideological content of works.

Similarly, if the artist loves truth and loves his fellow men, anything in the work which might distort the truth or deteriorate the human soul will displease him, and lose for him that delight which beauty affords. Respect for truth and for the human soul will become an objective condition or requirement affecting his virtue of art itself, just as a rule of prosody was for the classical poet, or as the necessity of having doors and windows in a house is for architecture, or as the necessity of making an image before which it is possible to pray is for sacred art. Such kinds of obstacles, if they are obstacles, have never obliged an artist to bend or force down his art. They oblige him to make his art more straight, and more powerful.

Yet this aspect of the question remains secondary, and accidental as it were. What matters most, and is essential, is the fact that love -- I don't mean any kind of love, I mean love of Charity -- when it takes hold of man, makes the entire subjectivity purer, and consequently, the creative source also purer. As François Mauriac put it, to purify the source is the only way. The reason for this is clear enough. While expressing and manifesting some inside aspect or secret of things in his work, what the artist expresses and manifests first and foremost in it is his own self, his own subjectivity -- through the instrumentality of his virtue of art. As a result, any kind of distorted inclination or secret connivance with evil in himself will inevitably reflect on his work, one way or another, and the work -- whatever things (perhaps horrible and shameful) it may describe -- can be free of any inclination to, or connivance with, moral evil only if the source is a purified self.

A purified source is not, as Julian Green and Graham Greene would sometimes seem to think, a source which is timid or prudent, or with an admixture of chemicals. A purified source springs from the depths of man's substance, and is as wild and irrepressible as any other; but it has no mud. This is the work of self-discipline and the cultivation of moral virtues, but first of all of transforming love. Then the artist need no longer think of the souls of his fellow men. He can forget them, forget men and everything. He can do as he pleases, he is sure that his work will lead nobody astray.

The sentence of Mauriac which I just quoted is taken from a book, Dieu et Mammon, in which he struggles with Gide and insists that a Christian novelist is not a contradiction in terms. Gide insisted that the devil cooperates in any work of art. I am ready to grant that this is true, to some extent, as long as the source is not purified: for art taken in itself, as we have seen makes fun of everything save the glory of the work, and the devil makes mud in a source a fine ingredient for this glory. But when there is no mud, the devil loses his bite. And the art of a purified soul uses anything, even mud, for the glory of the work, with pure hands and with no connivance.

Here again the sole problem which always remains for the artist is not to be weak in his own God-given commission; to be in possession of an art strong and straight enough to be always master of everything it brings into play, without losing anything of its creative purity; and to be intent, in his very operation, on the good of the work alone, without losing anything of its creative purity; and to be intent, in his very operation, on the good of the work alone, without being deflected or disturbed by the weight of the human or divine riches which fill his heart.


A further point must be made. As I said in the preceding chapter, the artistic conscience of the poet forbids him to change anything in the work which is required by the good of the work, as he sees it, and by his inner singular truth as a poet. And the moral conscience of the poet is also involved in this very fact, for it is always bad to act against one's own conscience. Now what happens, on the other hand, and from the point of view now of the human good, if the moral conscience of the artist, assuming he has any, declares that something in the work, as artistically good and necessary as he may see it, is morally bad and that therefore it must be changed?

What is the solution? Posed in these terms, the problem has no solution. As long as his artistic conscience commands him to do his work in this way, the conscience of the artist is divided against itself. He is in a state of insoluble perplexity. If he does not change his work, he will offend the moral law, and be wrong. If he changes his work, he will betray his conscience in another way, and also be wrong.

As a matter of fact, it is possible that the moral evil ascribed to a work is only apparent. Then there is no problem. It is also possible, and probable, that the moral conscience of an artist whose work is really pernicious is contaminated by questionable human inclinations, warped instincts, or resentments or vices, which he shelters behind his art: then he will claim, and perhaps sincerely believe, that his work is innocent and incapable of offending morality, and is even the greatest tribute ever paid to virtue. But this is not a solution, it is a fake, or an escape.

There is a solution, indeed, but more difficult than one would wish. The only solution for such an artist is to change, not his work (as long as he remains what he is), but himself. Then his artistic conscience itself will require of him another kind of work.

The Prudent man, if he has to intervene, does not trouble himself with these spiritual entanglements. He will brandish the moral law against this artist, and summon him to change his work, whatever his inner state of mind and his artistic conscience may be.

The Wise man, I think, will not do so. He knows that the social community has its legislators, its magistrates, its legions of decency, its women's clubs, it Postmaster General, to defend itself against pernicious (or even supposedly pernicious) works of art. With regard to the artist himself in question, he will try to induce him to purify the source. There is no other real solution.


Let me point finally to a phenomenon which took place in the last century, and which might be called the imperialist invasion of art in the very domain of morality, that is, in human life. I spoke some moments ago of the distinction to be made between the creative self and the self-centered Ego, and of the manner in which self-awareness risks making the artist shift from one to the other.

Rousseau and the Romantics were the forerunners of the event. But the school of Art for Art's sake gave it its full dimensions. Through the effect of a strange dialectic, by virtue of the principle that the artistic value alone matters, this value, along with poetic creativity and the poetic act, instead of remaining enclosed in the ivory tower of Art for Art's sake, was to claim sovereignty over all of human life, and to perform a function which encompasses the destiny of mankind. In the Romantic period, Byron, Goethe, Hugo, had made themselves heroes "greater," as Mr. Blackmur puts it, "than any of the heroes in their works." "Arnold was making his claims that poetry might save the world by taking on the jobs of all the other functions of the mind at the expressive level." Then came the poète maudit, then the supreme seer whom Rimbaud glorified. And then the artist found that he had "upon his hands the task of the deliberate creation of conscience in a conscienceless society."(13)

Thus, as the French critic Jacques Rivière put it, "the writer has become a priest ... All XIXth century literature is a vast incantation toward the miracle."(14)

The ivory tower has become the cathedral of the world, the temple of the Pythoness, the rock of Prometheus and the altar of supreme sacrifice.

I submit that this very fact constitutes a refutation per absurdum of the theory of Art for Art's sake.

<< The Responsibility of the Artist >>