Art & Prudence: Jacques Maritain on the Responsibility of the Artist

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?’[1] 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.[2]

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).[3] 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)[4]. 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?

[1] Robert Horvitz, ‘Chris Burden’, Artforum XIV:9 (May 1976): 24-31.

[2] Accessible online through the Jacques Maritain Center, University of Notre Dame: Citations are based on chapter and section numbers.

[3] See St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia-IIæ.57.iv, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics VI.5.

[4] The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 2nd & rev. ed. (1920), online edition © 2008 by Kevin Knight:


  • Cole Matson is an actor, producer, and arts administrator. He received his PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in 2016.

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  1. says: Jim Watkins

    Hey Cole, thanks for this post describing Maritain’s position on the relationship between art and morality. I have often been confused about the way that Maritain relates these two spheres of human activity. On the one hand, as you say, Maritain regards them both as ‘autonomous’, and, on the other hand, he thinks that art should be subordinated to prudence. I’m not sure Maritain is being coherent if he regards art and morality in both of these ways.

    There is some indication in his writing to suggest that he has a more subtle view regarding the relationship between art and morality. For example, in Art and Scholasticism, Maritain writes that ‘the virtue of art is a perfecting of the spirit, so well does it stamp on the human essence a character incomparably deeper than is done by natural dispositions” (62). He goes on to say that the “general end” of art is beauty (he distinguishes this general end from “the good of the work,” which you have mentioned here). In the artist’s pursuit of beauty as a “general end,” artistic creative performs a spiritually formative work on the artist by shaping and ordering the artist’s desires (Augustine’s ordo amoris, see 71-2). At this point, Maritain even says that there is a “remarkable analogy between fine art and prudence” (72).

    I think what Maritain wants in this section of Art and Scholasticism is to view works of art as unique and original instantiations of the transcendental Beauty. But I don’t think he can do that and have art and prudence be two autonomous spheres. It seems to me that his description of the artist’s pursuit of the end of his work as contributing to the ordering of the artist’s love also breaks down the idea that “only once the human person has made a decision as a human person can he begin to make decisions as an artist.” This idea breaks down because making beauty the “general end” of art suggests that artistic creativity contributes to and informs the artist’s humanity. Or, to put it another way, artistic creativity is one way through which we can become more human.

    So, I do think you’re right to point out this tension between art and morality in Maritain’s philosophy of art, but I’m wondering if Maritain is being inconsistent in Art and Scholasticism and The Responsibility of the Artist. Or perhaps I am reading too much into Maritain’s views in Art and Scholasticism. I’m not actually as familiar with Maritain’s writings as I would like to be, so I’m hoping that you will point me in the right direction. Thanks!

  2. says: Cole Matson


    Apologies for the long-delayed comment.

    Best I can figure it, the way Maritain tries to have his cake (art and morality are separate) and eat it too (art and morality are related) is by saying that art is ‘indirectly and extrinsically’ subordinated to morality. The only way I can conceptualise what he means by this is by trying to imagine the artist’s working process.

    So, as an example, let’s use C.S. Lewis’s writing process (or at least the hybrid which results from me combining what he wrote about his actual process – cf the essays in On Stories – and the imaginative filling-in of the gaps):

    Lewis says he begins with pictures. So I, as Lewis, have this picture which has remained with me since my youth, of a faun carrying packages and an umbrella. Now, I start having nightmares about lions (cf Lewis’ letters on Narnia). I want to use these lions and this faun in a story (or stories), because the faun image obviously makes me curious – I haven’t yet figured out what’s in those packages or where he’s taking them – and the lions create a strong emotional response. So I start searching for a story in which both lions and a faun fit.

    Now let’s say I decide that a fairy story seems a fitting form, because a faun is a magical creature, and a fairy story is a magical creature’s natural home. This also allows me to make the lions talking Lions, which gives me more flexibility in how he will act. (He doesn’t have to act like a naturalistic lion.)

    The genre of fairy story usually involves someone from the “normal” world entering the magical world, and that seems to fit as well with the faun’s packages and umbrella, which seem like they would belong to someone in our world. How did the faun get them, then? There’s room for the creation of a magical portal.

    Also, I’ve been thinking a lot lately of why children (and adults) don’t seem to understand the excitement, the adventure, the high romance of Christianity. (Maybe I’ve been talking to Tolkien about it.) By gum, a fairy story might be just the way to introduce the powerful myth of Christianity to children in a way that I would have liked as a child, instead of boring, dull Sunday school lessons! And then, of course, the lion image fits well with Christ as the Lion of Judah. But why has he been terrifying me in my dreams? What does that mean, and how does it fit? “He’s not tame, but He’s good…”

    And so on and so forth.

    So, I imagine a Maritainian evaluation of the various spheres in operation here as follows:

    The reception of the images (faun & lion) is neutral. No activity has been involved in creating them, they’ve just popped into my head. However, when I choose to use them in a story, I am acting as both an artistic and a moral agent. The artistic decision is, first, my evaluation that these images would work well in a story (basing that decision on the criterion that they have spurred excitement or terror in me, which leads me to believe that they might do so in my reader – and the choice of this criterion based on the belief as an artist that it is desirable that fiction stir strong emotions in my reader), and second, the decision to therefore find a story for them. The moral decision is, first, my evaluation that these images would not in themselves cause harm to my reader (whereas I might draw the line at a naked woman, or would at least proceed with caution where she was involved), and second, my decision to allow the story-making to proceed.

    Lewis conceptualises these two agents as the Author and the Man, and basically says that it’s the Man’s job to make sure that nothing the Author is doing is violating the Man’s moral responsibilities, but if the Man is confident that the Author is proceeding within bounds, leaving the Author alone to do as he will, without trying to bend his work to an explicitly moral purpose. And this seems to me to be a very Maritainian view (via Sayers).

    So back to the writing process. When I decide to put these images into a fairy story, and have in the background of my mind the desire that this fairy story can help reveal the adventure of Christianity, I’m again making several artistic and several moral decisions, which are separate but overlapping:

    Fauns naturally fit within a fairy story. (Artistic)
    Lions fit, too. (Artistic)
    Nothing about either image is inherently harmful to a reader. (Moral)
    Combining these two powerful images into one story could increase the overall power of that story. (Artistic)
    Therefore, since increasing the power of a story on an audience is desirable, I will see if I can put them into the same story. (Artistic)
    I have a duty as a Christian to preach the gospel. (Moral)
    I have identified a need which ought to be served (children’s lack of imaginary understanding of Christianity, and therefore lack of love for Christ), and, since I am suited for the task, it would be right for me to make the attempt. (Moral)
    My other duties are not so onerous as to preclude me from giving my time and attention to this task. (Moral)
    Fairy stories can be effective teachers and inspirers of children via the indirect route of the imagination. (Artistic)
    Therefore, in order to be effective at fulfilling this task, writing a fairy story would be useful. (Moral)
    The form of a fairy story also fits the material that I want to use in a story. (Artistic)
    Therefore, as an artist, I want to write this fairy story. (Artistic)
    Therefore, as a Christian, I want to write this fairy story. (Moral)

    Now, we both know that the actual creative process is a lot messier than this. Breaking it down in this way actually makes it a bit artificial, if easier to conceptualise. In addition, Lewis was clear that he did not sit down to create a recipe in order to teach a lesson, as if by psycho-analysing children he could make a synthetic story that would automatically have the intended effect. However, he is clear that the idea that fairy stories could “steal past those watchful dragons” was one of the reasons why he wrote Narnia, even if could never be sufficient as the reason. Basically, if the artistic material wasn’t there first, no manner of moral should-ing would have made it artistically right (or, I think he might agree, morally right – this post his 1946 debate with Sayers) to write that story.

    So basically, the moral agent is there to keep the artistic agent within bounds, but ought not rule on artistic decisions that are being made within bounds.

    The interesting question, to me, is: Where does the moral agent’s power of veto start? For example, Lewis (and Maritain) would agree that if to create the work of art requires the artist to sin, the artist may not create that work of art (even if to do so would be desirable on artistic grounds of originality, power, or even downright bringing beauty into the world – for example, even if the artist wants to create the Sistine Chapel, he’s not justified in stealing the paint). However, does the Man’s power of veto end when he says to the Author, “The idea as you’ve presented it to me seems sound; do whatever you want, as long as you deliver the promised product on time and on budget”? What if the Man sees how a slight artistic tweak could bring a few more souls up at the altar call in the short-term? And does our answer change if that slight artistic tweak actually could bring a lot more souls into Heaven in the long-term?

    And then, of course, there’s the whole question of: If Beauty and Truth are Transcendentals, united in God, they cannot be separate in the end, even if they manifest themselves to our limited creaturely sight differently. Does that mean they’re really the same thing? Or not?

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