Faith & Thought

Encountering God Through the Arts

Writing this series of columns on art and religious faith has helped me to appreciate art in a new way. The importance of the artistic vocation boggles my mind. In a previous column in this series I made a distinction between two types of judgment that might be made about a work of art.

I referred to one judgment as subjective and a matter of taste. For example, a person might say that he or she liked a particular work of art. I distinguished this type of judgment from what I called an objective judgment such as claiming that a particular work of art is a masterpiece.

If I should say that I don’t like the work of art that someone liked, there is no argument or disagreement between the two of us. We have not disagreed. Neither of us has made any objective evaluation about the quality or significance of the work.

However, if I say that the work of art described as a masterpiece is not a masterpiece but actually not even a good work of art, now we have a disagreement. It is impossible that both of our judgments are true. Either the work of art is or is not a masterpiece. It cannot be both at the same time.

I think making objective judgments about works of art is very difficult because all persons bring their background and experience to the encounter with the work of art, and of course a person’s background and experience play a role in how a person encounters a work of art, whether the work is a painting or a novel or a film or a piece of music or whatever.

When we make objective judgments about a work of art we are commenting, whether we realize it or not, on how beautiful or how lacking in beauty a work of art is. Such judgments are not easy to make. Still, I think that some paintings are masterpieces and some are not, that some novels are better than other novels, that some films are better than other films, that some music is more beautiful than other music, etc.

Though I realize that making objective judgments about art is extremely difficult, I think those judgments can be made. In fact, I think they must be made. I believe critics can perform a very important role in society in making such judgments.

My own view of art has been greatly influenced by the Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. Many years ago when I was a senior in college and in my second year as a seminarian and a philosophy major, I was required to write an undergraduate thesis.

I decided to work on the thesis with two classmates. I suspect we worked harder on the thesis than our classmates worked on theirs. We did our thesis on Maritain’s philosophy of art. I agreed with Maritain many years ago, and I still accept his philosophy today.

Maritain claimed there were two components to every work of art: the matter and a creative intuition. The matter, which was easy to understand, was the material with which the artist was working, such as canvas and oil or plot and character or stone or musical notes.

The creative intuition, which is impossible to understand completely, was the special insight that the artist had into reality and which the artist wished to express in the work of art. Ideally, if the artist is successful, the creative intuition, which cannot be explained verbally, will exist in three places: in the artist, in the work of art, and in the person who experiences the work of art.

For the work of art to be a beautiful work of art, the artist must have some skill with matter. Is the artist born with that skill or does the artist achieve it through practice? Since I don’t have any skill with matter, my guess is that the great artists are born with some talent the rest of us don’t have and they nourish that talent through practice.

What especially interests me is the creative intuition. Whether the artist is religious or not, the artist is having an insight into God’s creation, which in some ways mirrors God. Therefore, through art the artist can be revealing God to us.

I believe that if the artist successfully through art depicts what is good, true or beautiful, if the artist to some extent through art reveals the mystery of being to us, that the artist is tapping into the mystery of God. If I am right, great art is a marvelous gift, a blessing.

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection all of creation has become sacra- mental. Because of Jesus all of creation can provide moments of grace. In such a world, artists and critics have an exceptionally important vocation.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.