Arts and Culture

The Nature of Art

First in a series

BEFORE I SAT down to write this column, I went to my filing cabinet and took out a piece of ancient history. It is a term paper that I co-authored 65 years ago with two of my classmates in our last year of college and our second year in the major seminary in Huntington.

My partners in writing the essay were John La Mazza, who did not go onto the priesthood, and Charles Matonti, who is a retired priest of the Brooklyn Diocese in residence at St. Columba parish, Marine Park. Every student in the class had to write a senior thesis in philosophy before graduating. I have no idea how our paper would compare with other papers written by our classmates, but I have no doubt that no one worked as hard as we three did on the senior thesis. Writing that paper was one of the most challenging academic activities in which I have ever been involved.

Memories are coming back to me with some clarity. Every spare minute the three of us had we worked on the paper. We discussed it and wrote it together, bouncing ideas off one another for several weeks.

Writing the paper with my two friends remains one of the great intellectual experiences I have had in my life. What I learned has stayed with me all these years and accounts – to some extent – for some of the ideas I still have about the nature and importance of art.

In writing the paper we borrowed some insights from the great Scholastic philosopher, Jacques Maritain. At the risk of over simplifying Maritain’s philosophy of art, I would say that he believed that two key components make up a work of art. The first is the material used. The artist should have some skill with matter that enables the artist to create works of art. The artist should be a person who has some talent expressing him or herself in matter. I don’t know if the artist is born with that skill or acquires it through effort.

I tend to compare great artists with great athletes. Is a great athlete born with special skill and talent? Or does he or she acquire the skill and talent through effort and demanding practice sessions? My guess is that, for both the great artist and the great athlete, it is some combination of the two. I know I don’t have that skill.

A Creative Intuition

The other component Maritain called a creative intuition. What is a creative intuition? It is not an idea or a concept. Rather, it is a spiritual insight into reality that drives the artist to create. A very talented artist can express a creative intuition in a painting or a novel, a play or a statue, a poem or a piece of music or a film. An idea or a concept can be expressed in a word. A creative intuition cannot be expressed in words. When a creative intuition exists, it exists in the artist and in the work of art. The person who experiences the work after it is completed may be experiencing the creative intuition that the artist had and expressed in the work. I don’t have creative intuitions. Great artists apparently have many.

In trying to explain what a creative intuition is, some artists have made some strange statements. For example the writer-director Ingmar Bergman, whom I consider the greatest artist in the history of cinema, gave the example of an artist sitting in a room. The sun is shining through one of the windows. Perhaps the artist notices some specks of dust in the air. One speck of dust captures and keeps the artist’s attention. Bergman suggested that if the artist continues to focus on the piece of dust, the entire movie may be present in it.

Dealing with Mystery

I once met the author/director John Cassavetes. Mentioning to him that I thought his films revealed great insights into human nature, I suggested that perhaps he needed a good editor to prevent him from allowing scenes to run on too long. Mr. Cassavetes listened to my comments with great interest, which I found rather flattering. He said, “Father, I don’t understand what I am doing. My vocation is not unlike yours. We both deal with mystery.” I thought that was a great comment.

What I think is especially wonderful about great art is that all great art, in one way or another, reveals the mystery of God to us. This can happen even if the artist is an atheist. The great artists, whether they do or do not believe in God, are deeply depicting God’s creation and so, at least indirectly, revealing God to us.

Enthusiastic gratitude seems to be the correct response for the gifts the great artists give us.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).

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