The Art of Love

maritain_jacquesA 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.[1]

While Maritain emphasizes the importance of the artist’s subjectivity and self-expression,[2] 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.”[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.

[1] Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953), 308.
[2] Ibid., 142.
[3] Ibid., 308.
[4] Ibid., 309.
[5] Ibid., 143-4.


  • Caitlin Washburn is a musician based in Carrboro, North Carolina. She received her MLitt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St Andrews in 2014, and served as an editor of and regular contributor to Transpositions through 2015. Her EP, Fragile Hands, will be available November of this year. For more information, visit

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  1. says: Travis Buchanan

    Thank you, Ms. Washburn, for a succinct and well-written treatment of an important subject–the creation and reception of art. I appreciate your own poetic intuition which allows you to recognize the significance of Maritain’s approach and the clarity with which you have summarized it for us here.

    What Maritain says about more properly receiving a work of art by listening to it and remaining open to all it may have to say to us (or against us) reminds me of what C. S. Lewis said about art appreciation in An Experiment in Criticism (published eight years after Maritain’s book you discuss). Seeking to advocate a mindset in readers of ‘fairly and squarely’ laying ‘their minds open, without preconception, to the works they read’ (1961/2000, 12), he goes on to advise the following:

    Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, [end of 18] or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such an surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (18-19)

  2. says: Caitlin Washburn

    Thanks for your comment, Travis, and thanks especially for the (as always) helpful insight of C.S. Lewis.

  3. says: Helen Morley

    Thank you Caitlin, I am most grateful to you and Transpositions for sending this timely reminder of the power of art and the power of love into my email box this morning. At the time, I was sitting waiting for some people to show up to my art workshop in a community centre and no one came. But the love and the art were there waiting nevertheless, and will find their place soon. I know this because I paint in just the way you describe and have an understanding of Grace, for which I am humbled and grateful. Many thanks. Helen

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