Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

The Reason Behind the Artist’s Madness

In his monumental Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain cites a somewhat disturbing poem by William Blake:

All Pictures that’s Painted with Sense and with Thought
Are Painted by Madmen, as sure as a Groat;
For the Greatest the Fool is Pencil more blest,
And when they are drunk they always paint best.

For a Thomist, this poem sits ill because it seems to say that the best artists are the ones who are not rational, but for Aquinas, the human good is to be in accord with reason. What is even more disturbing is that the best artists really do seem to fit Blake’s description. In Caravaggio, Van Gogh, even Mozart, creative energy seems more tied with madness rather than reason. At first glance, the Thomist has to say either that Blake is wrong, that the goodness of the irrational artists is only a semblance of goodness, or that Thomas is wrong, and that the human good is not to be in accord with reason, or at least not always.

This is the question Maritain raises in Creative Intuition. “Art Bitten by Poetry Longs to Be Freed From Reason,” he writes, introducing his chapter on the preconscious life of the intellect. Modern art, he observes, seems to violate a basic Thomistic principle, namely, that art is an intellectual virtue. Modern art longs to be freed from reason.

Maritain is not saying this from the perspective of criticism. Unlike certain thinkers, and especially religious thinkers, Maritain is not trying to deny the value or beauty of modern art. He is trying rather to identify and describe the sort of knowledge integral to art. He calls this knowledge “creative” or “poetic intuition.”

A poetic intuition is an obscure knowledge, born in the preconscious of the spirit, in which the artist grasps both hiss own self and things together in a sympathetic union of connaturality effected by means of an intentional emotion, and which takes shape, bears fruits, and finds expression only in a work.

Because poetic intuition is knowledge, it cannot be divorced from the intellect. However, such knowledge is not the kind we normally associate with the intellect, that rational, abstractive, discursive, and above all conscious form of knowing distinctive of rational creatures. Poetic intuition is preconscious. It is the efficient cause of conscious intellectual awareness, as Maritain so beautifully describes it:

It is enough to think of the ordinary and everyday functioning of intelligence, in so far as intelligence is really in activity, and of the way in which ideas arise in our minds, and every genuine intellectual grasping, or every new discovery, is brought about; it is enough to think of the way in which our free decisions, when they are really free, are made, especially those decisions which commit our entire life–to realize that there exists a deep nonconscious world of activity, for the intellect and the will, from which the acts and fruits of human consciousness and the clear perceptions of the mind emerge, and that the universe of concepts, logical connections, rational discursus and rational deliberation, in which the activity of the intellect takes definite form and shape, is preceded by the hidden workings of an immense and primal preconscious life (93-94).

Art, therefore, is not a rejection of reason but a deepening understanding of what constitutes reason.

Reason does not only consist of its conscious logical tools and manifestations, nor does the will consist only of its deliberate conscious determinations. Far beneath the sunlit surface thronged with explicit concepts and judgments, words and expressed resolutions or movements of the will, are the sources of knowledge and creativity, of love and suprasensuous desires, hidden in the primordial translucid night of the intimate vitality of the soul (94).

Such knowledge seems like madness because it transcends the conscious activity of reason. Poetic intuition is not logical, nor can it be encapsulated in logic. Poetic intuition is emotional. One grasps an object by poetic intuition only by a means of a particular emotion. Poetic intuition is also not linguistically intelligible. It is obscure, anti-logical, unintelligible. And in this ways, modern art is truly an expression of knowledge but also a freedom from reason. Modern art is

a process of liberation from conceptual, logical, discursive reason. Though it may accidentally entail a general disregard for the intellect, and a suicidal attitude of contempt fro reason, it is by now means, in its essence, a process of liberation from reason itself, if it is true that reason possesses a life both deeper and less conscious than its articulate logical life. For reason indeed does not only articulate, connect, and infer, it also sees; and reason’s intuitive grasping, intuitus rationis, is the primary act and function of that one and single power which is called intellect or reason. In other words, there is not only logical reason, but also, and prior to it, intuitive reason (75).

The madness of artist, at least from the Thomistic vantage point, does not compel us to reject the role of reason in the greatness of the artist, but rather, to come an appreciation of the wider role of reason, and its integral connection to the emotions. An appreciation for the madness of the artist reminds us that we are not disconnected minds, but embodied spirits, who know the world only by sensing and feeling.