What follows are some thoughts on art, fine art, and censorship prompted by a reading of Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism…
In Art and Scholasticism Maritain defines art in the classical way: it is first of all a habitus of the intellect concerned with making. The aim of the artist, as artist, is not his own good as a human person but the good of the thing made. Prudence has to do with the former, art with the latter.
Fine art, as a subdivision of art, by definition seeks to make things that are beautiful. The French term for the fine arts — beaux-arts — makes this more obvious.
It is sometimes asked whether art must aim at the beautiful. Obviously, if we’re talking about art in general, the answer is, arguably, no. Some arts only need to aim at making something that is useful, e.g., the art of the blacksmith. I realize that people like William Morris and Eric Gill — and in general the whole Arts and Crafts movement of the turn of the 20th century — might want to contest the distinction between useful arts and fine arts, but let’s leave that debate aside for now. If we aren’t talking about art in general but fine art, then it seems to me that the term itself answers the question. What makes fine art fine is that it is about making beautiful things. I can’t — on pain of being regarded as crazy — regard myself as a downhill skier if in fact allI do is cross-country skiing. So, too, I can’t understand myself as working in the fine arts if my goal is not to produce something beautiful.
Maritain does not show any awareness that his belief that the fine arts are about making beautiful things is controversial. He does not bother to defend it, although he does know that people can lose sight of the nature of the fine arts and import extra-artistic considerations illegitimately into their work. Thus, he does insist on the “purity” of the artist’s motives in going about his work.
And yet, Maritain also insists that, in the grand scheme of things, we must not forget — and the artist especially must not forget — that the work of art and its good are not the highest good. The moral good, the political common good, and the the common good of the universe as a whole — God — all have a priority over the good of art.
Seeing the political common good as being among the goods having priority over the good of art, Maritain offers some very practical hints about dealing with the problem of censorship in the arts. Those who have a special concern for the political common good do not need to pass aesthetic judgments on works of art. Their consideration has to do with how the art affects people for good or for ill, its social impact. The restrictions that they pass on art need no other basis. If you think about it, this is, more or less, the approach that Socrates takes in the Republic.
But having noted this, I must say that, personally, I do not agree with Socrates in casting Homer out of the city. This disagreement should indicate to us that even if legislators and those in public office only need to take the social impact of art into consideration, this doesn’t make their decisions easy. True, they do not need to study art history or set sail upon the stormy seas of art theory and criticism. They can censor a work without denying its merits as art. But they do need properly to gauge the impact that the art has or might have on society, and this is no simple task.
But wait a minute! What’s all this talk about censorship? What about freedom of speech, freedom of expression? Aren’t we beyond censorship in the arts?
In fact we are not. A couple of decades ago it was the (partially) NEA funded exhibit of Robert Mapplethorp photographs. In 2004 it was Janet Jackson’s halftime performance at the Super Bowl. Now it is the depiction of Muhammad (e.g., the cartoons in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten) and the portrayal of Mulslim life (e.g., Geert Wilder’s Fitna). Indeed, public and academic discussion about censorship in the arts is alive and well.
[The foregoing post was recycled from another blog I used to run.]