In a 1976 article in Artforum magazine, critic Robert Horvitz asks: ‘To what extent, if any, and under what conditions, does morality have a higher claim on our actions and reactions than aesthetics?’ I will start off a series looking at morality and art by using Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s The Responsibility of the Artist (1960) to address this question.
For Maritain, Art is ‘that particular virtue of the Practical Intellect which deals with the creation of objects to be made’ (I.2). The end which it pursues is ‘the good of the work’ (I.2). Maritain states, ‘The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work’ (I.2). Maritain defines an artist as ‘a man using Art’ (I.2). Therefore, insofar as a person is using the intellectual virtue of Art – when he is acting in his role as artist – his primary responsibility is to create an excellent work of art. (How to define excellence in art is a separate, though related, question.)
Prudence, on the other hand – which is the term Maritain uses in opposition to Art – is also a virtue of the Practical Intellect. It is the virtue of ordering all human activities to their correct end. The end which it pursues is ‘the good of man’ (I.4), as opposed to the good of any particular creation or activity. The first responsibility of the man is to pursue his proper end. What is man’s proper end? Here Maritain reaches from the philosophical to the theological, and gives St Thomas Aquinas’ answer: man’s proper end is charity (I.4), because ‘it is charity that unites us to God, Who is the last end of the human mind’ (ST IIa-IIæ.184.i). Therefore, a person’s first responsibility in the moral realm is to pursue charity.
Maritain argues that when artistic and moral values conflict, ‘Prudence alone is competent, and there is no limitation upon its rights to govern’ (I.4). Making a moral decision about whether or not to engage in artistic activity is logically prior to any artistic decisions made while engaging in that activity. If Prudence determines that it would be immoral to engage in artistic activity, either in general or in a particular case, the person is bound by his moral conscience not to engage in that artistic activity. If, however, Prudence determines that it would be moral to engage in artistic activity, then the virtue of Art begins to function, which until that point has of necessity remained dormant. Only once the human person has made a decision as a human person can he begin to make decisions as an artist.
Maritain writes that ‘because an artist is a man before being an artist, the autonomous world of morality is simply superior to (and more inclusive than) the autonomous world of art… In other words Art is indirectly and extrinsically subordinate to morality’ (I.4). In this summation, we find an answer to Robert Horvitz’ question, ‘To what extent, if any, and under what conditions, does morality have a higher claim on our actions and reactions than aesthetics?’ The answer is that morality’s claim over our actions and reactions is absolute. The demands of aesthetics never take priority over the demands of morality. However, within the sphere of artistic action, morality has no power of influence, because artistic decisions and moral decisions are mutually exclusive. They are exercises of two different intellectual virtues.
What do you think? Do art and morality relate differently?
 Robert Horvitz, ‘Chris Burden’, Artforum XIV:9 (May 1976): 24-31.
 See St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia-IIæ.57.iv, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics VI.5.