Of the 20th century philosophers in the Thomistic tradition, the most well known are Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) and Étienne Gilson (1884–1978). Both had an interest in the arts and aesthetics and both published books on the subject. As a cello student I became particularly interested in Maritain's works, Art and Scholasticism and The Responsibility of the Artist, since they spoke immediately to my interest in Aquinas and art. For several years after having discovered him, my own thinking on this subject was governed by Maritain's interpretation of Saint Thomas and his reflections on art, and much of it still does influence my thinking. However, I disagree with him on some particulars about this or that artist. (He looked down upon Bouguereau, for instance, whose paintings inspired the design of this site.)
Later I discovered another Thomist, Charles De Koninck (1906-1965), who is much less known than either Maritain or Gilson, but who seemed to me to be a more helpful guide to Saint Thomas's thought. Mostly De Koninck lectured about the Philosophy of Nature, but he also directed some (in my view) amazingly wise Ph.D. dissertations and published a few books. Among his papers I found a draft in two versions titled Art and Morality. In them he disputes a common view of Thomists on art and morality, perhaps with Maritain in mind, and points to an insufficiency in their thinking. I had instinctively felt this problem while studying the relevant parts of Maritain's writings myself, but I didn't see the principles clearly enough to defend my uneasiness. It was exciting and remarkable to find someone who shed light on the very same difficulty I had detected only obscurely.
So, what is the dispute about?
Maritain and others held that there is no essential connection between art as such and morality. A good man can be a bad artist and a bad man can be a good artist. Isn't this obvious? They conclude that there is only a per accidens relationship between the two and thus art as such has no moral aspect. Maritain writes, for example:
Art in its own domain is sovereign like wisdom; through its object it is subordinate neither to wisdom nor to prudence nor to any other virtue.
And while he goes on to persistently defend morality for man as such, lest someone think he is advocating for men to do evil through art, he insists that the two spheres, art and prudence, do not relate in any essential way, and the injunction against evil can only be directed to man as man and not to man as artist.
De Koninck, on the other hand, thought this was insufficient. Taking his cue from a passage in St. Thomas's Commentary on the Posterior Analytics, De Koninck looked at the question more deeply. He found that arts which imitate human actions, such as drama versus architecture, have a relation to morality in light of their object. This arises from the fact that the human actions being imitated have themselves a real moral order or disorder, and they will either be rightly or wrongly imitated in the work of art. In this way such imitative arts are related to morality per se, and insofar as the artist falsely imitates good and evil, by portraying good as evil or evil as good, he is committing not only a bad human act—it being evil in itself or leading others to evil—he is also creating bad art, false art.
Since I find the latter view more thoughtful and convincing, I have typed up his two short notes and made them available in our library. Read Charles De Koninck on Art and Morality and see what you think.
I should add that the practical application of this for instrumental musicians is minimal, since the imitation of human acts in such music is accomplished only indirectly: by the way the sounds produced through the instrument move the emotions, ordering them well—or not. It is hard to see how this could be known other than by an intuition. Perhaps it can be divined by putting to yourself the question: am I made better, more able to live virtuously, by hearing and knowing this music—or not?
In 2003, while I was a student in the School of Music at Yale, I was searching for biographical information on Alfredo Piatti. After years of working on his pieces it seemed only natural to know something more of the man. I was attracted to one work, by Morton Latham, which I secured through inter-library loan. When it arrived, the librarian was so concerned about its fragile condition that I was required to read it only in the reading room in Sterling Library.
Since then a scanned copy has become available. I have taken the liberty of preparing an online version, further enhanced with images to complement the charming story. It is a unique sort of biography in that the author was a close friend of Piatti, and it is predominantly written as a series of anecdotes.
Please enjoy. Alfredo Piatti: A Sketch by Morton Latham
Cello students looking for a teacher should inquire with Peter Dzialo for availability. He offers private cello lessons in CT.
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"Like a good instrument, a good bridge can outlast centuries."
Bridge photos by Gerard KilBride and Mick Quinn, who are known for their passion for stringed instruments.