An Essay on Art
i. Dignity of Art
The philosophers tell us that art consists essentially, not in performing a moral act, but in
making a thing, a work, in making an object with a view not to the human good of the agent,
but to the exigencies and the proper good of the object to be made, and by employing ways of
realization predetermined by the nature of the object in question.
Art thus appears as something foreign in itself to the sphere of the human good, almost as
something inhuman, and whose exigencies nevertheless are absolute: for, needless to say,
there are not two ways of making an object well, of realizing well the work one has
conceived -- there is but one way, and it must not be missed.
The philosophers go on to say that this making activity is principally and above all an
intellectual activity. Art is a virtue of the intellect, of the practical intellect, and may be
termed the virtue proper to working reason.
But then, you will say, if art is nothing other than an intellectual virtue of making, whence
comes its dignity and its ascendancy among us? Why does this branch of our activity draw to
it so much human sap? Why has one always and in all peoples admired the poet as much as
It may be answered first that to create, to produce something intellectually, to make an object
rationally constructed, is something very great in the world: for man this alone is already a
way of imitating God. And I am speaking here of art in general, such as the ancients
understood it -- in short, of art as the virtue of the artisan.
But where the maker of works especially becomes an imitator of God, where the virtue of art
approaches the nobility of things absolute and self-sufficient, is in that family of arts which
by itself alone constitutes a whole spiritual world, namely the fine arts.
There are two things to be considered here. On the one hand, whatever the nature and the
utilitarian ends of the art envisaged, it participates by its object in something superhuman,
since it has as its object to create beauty. Is not beauty a transcendental, a property of being,
one of the Divine Names? "The being of all things derives from the Divine Beauty," says
Saint Thomas. In this respect, then, the artist imitates God, Who made the world by
communicating to it a likeness of His beauty.
...The architect, by the disposition he knows,
Buildeth the structure of stone like a filter in the waters of the Radiance of God,
And giveth the whole building its sheen as to a pearl.
On the other hand, to create a work of beauty is to create a work on which shines the radiance
or the splendor, the mystery of a form, in the metaphysical sense of this word, of a ray of
intelligibility and truth, of an irradiation of the primal brilliance. And no doubt the artist
perceives this form in the created world, whether exterior or interior: he does not discover it
complete in the sole contemplation of his creative spirit, for he is not, like God, the cause of
things. But it is...