A work of art is a new creation, a thing with an existence of its own. As such it lives and speaks not only according to its creator’s original plan, but often far beyond the original concept in its creator’s mind. Jacques Maritain writes:
because of the ambiguity essential to existence and to any great existential achievement, the significance of the work is larger in one sense, and more diversified, in the minds of men than in the mind of its author; a great work lives a life of its own throughout generations…and the facets of its message are perpetually changing.
While Maritain emphasizes the importance of the artist’s subjectivity and self-expression, he is careful to remind us of the central role of the created object in conveying poetic intuition. Any artist who is intent on the expression of his or her individualism as the primary end of the work of art will quickly become disillusioned with the creative process. The nature of the work of art as an object with an existence of its own—with the ability to maintain some sort of significance beyond the original significance bestowed upon it in a certain place, at a certain time, by a certain individual—restrains the artist from creating primarily out of a desire to produce a controlled, definite, fixed communication.
However, as Maritain cautions, an interpretive free-for-all inhibits the true end of the creative process as much as the artist’s attempt at tyrannical control over the meaning of the work. He argues: “We must listen to the interiority of the work and to the poetic sense, be open to what it conveys … And this requires a sort of previous, tentative consent—to the work and to the intentions of the poet—without which we cannot be taken into the confidence of the poem.”
The end result of the viewer’s accepting the work in this way is “a participation in the poetic knowledge and poetic intuition through which the poet has perceived a certain unique mystery in the mystery of the world.” This knowledge has nothing to do with ego, neither on the part of the artist nor the audience. On both sides, a sensitivity to the work of art’s existence as a thing separate from and beyond our own subjective experiences of the world is necessary in order for the work of art to say all that it is capable of saying to us.
Thus, in an often self-indulgent and egoistic culture, one of the characteristics of a great work of art is that it inspires—perhaps even demands—selfless love from both its creator and its viewers. The artist sacrifices his or her need for self-expression out of love for the new creation, out of the desire to give existence to something outside of his or her self—in Maritain’s words, the “creative Self … dies to itself in order to live in the work.” But in a similar way, the viewer must sacrifice his or her need for self-assertion, having a willingness to perceive reality from outside of his or her individual perspective and to enter into the life of the work. The practice of self-sacrificial love towards the work of art takes us beyond and beneath our egocentric vantage points and allows us to grasp the intuitive knowledge which is more elemental than our egos, and which the great artistic creation can express throughout the course of its existence if given the chance to speak in its own terms.
Caitlin Washburn is a recent graduate of Baylor University and is currently pursuing her MLitt at the University of St. Andrews in the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts.
 Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953), 308.
 Ibid., 142.
 Ibid., 308.
 Ibid., 309.
 Ibid., 143-4.