By IHE Fellow Thomas Hibbs
I am very much looking forward to participating in the Civitas Dei seminar in June on the topic “Art, Meaning, and the Public Square.”
I will be delivering a series of lectures based on the book which I completed during my sabbatical at the Institute of Human Ecology in the Fall of 2018 and which is being published by the University of Notre Dame Press. The book, which focuses on Jacques Maritain’s aesthetics as applied to 20th century art, begins with a reflection on the recent papal encyclical, Laudato Sì. Contrary to much media coverage, Pope Francis’s teaching in the encyclical is in deep continuity with that of his immediate papal predecessors, particularly in its insistence that natural and human ecologies are inseparable. Moreover, the Holy Father argues that “the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity,” a crisis in which human persons are alienated from God, nature, one another and themselves. Human beings risk being lost in the cosmos.
The source of our alienation is what recent popes call a radically “anthropocentric” vision of human beings in relation to the rest of the cosmos. The crisis has to do with misconceptions of the human person as maker (homo faber), rooted in a kind of techno-fideism. Francis underscores the intrinsic and distinctive dignity of human agents; it is a mark of the “nobility of the human vocation” that persons can “participate in God’s creative action” (Laudato Sì §131). He calls for an “aesthetic education.” On this view, poesis or art arises from and fosters in viewers or readers the ecological virtues of receptivity, wonder, humility, and gratitude (§220-232). The Holy Father’s corrective points in the direction of a recovery of a notion of artistic and human stewardship and a corresponding aesthetics of wonder and praise.
Maritain was equally concerned about the rise of radical anthropocentrism. He saw its dangers in philosophy, modern politics, and in art. At the same time, Maritain thought there was much in modern art that should be embraced. He is the only Thomist of the great neo-scholastic revival to have written extensively in the area of aesthetics and to have done so out of conversations and friendships with some of the great artists of the early 20th century: Chagall, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Satie, and especially the French painter Georges Rouault. Jacques’s wife, Raissa, a convert from Judaism and a friend of Chagall, once commented, “It was with Rouault in mind that Jacques wrote Art and Scholasticism.”
Not only was Maritain influenced by great artists, but his own account of the genesis of poetic inspiration has been embraced by an impressive list of artists. Most famously, Flannery O’Connor found Maritain’s articulation of the distinction between art and ethics liberating. The painter Makoto Fujimura and the poets Dana Gioia and Seamus Heaney found in Maritain’s writing a language that helps them to articulate their experience of the artistic process and to mediate between the traditional goals of art and contemporary modes of expression.
In my lectures for the Civitas Dei seminar, I will first address the account of human making, its modern disorders and the recipes for its renewal, in Laudato Sì and in Maritain’s writing. We will then turn to applications in the visual arts in the paintings of Rouault and in the modern artistic medium of cinema. We will be attentive to the ways in which art contributes to the building of shared practices and to human self-understanding in a way that helps us to recover our sense of belonging: in the cosmos and in our civic and religious lives.
IHE Fellow Thomas Hibbs is a professor of philosophy at Baylor University.