In our meditations on the Via Creativa and the Via Transformativa we have been deepening and broadening our understanding of art. To do this we must part ways from our modern culture that has often rendered the word “art” in the narrowest of ways. As if an “artist” is some other person with lots of talent who may or may not translate it into “success” (meaning money).
I have emphasized how pre-modern peoples—both indigenous and medieval—did not conceive of art and creativity with “snobbish enthusiasm” as Otto Rank put it in our meditation three days ago. Rather, since we are all born in the image and likeness of the Creator, we are all artists creative in our depths.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages and indeed of all ages, offers an excellent example of this broad and pre-modern understanding of art. Consider how he talks about art as virtue alongside other virtues:
People become builders by building, and harpists by playing harp. Likewise people become just or temperate or courageous by doing just actions or temperate actions or courageous actions.
Virtue, he points out, is a power that is “not in us by nature.” We have to practice them to perfect them.
In response to our DM of three days ago I received this email from an artist. “Art is painful in your body, your hands get twisted by hours of painting–and years…But your soul gets meaning [about] why you are here and your miniscule offering to the Creator is well paid. The joy is infinite like God.”
Consider this amazing passage in which Aquinas names many diverse occupations as art:
The military art commands the art of horse riding. Some arts admit of conjecture, such as medicine, commerce, and the like. There is an art of making what is pleasant, namely, the art of cooking and the art of making perfumes. The habits of building and weaving and making music are in the soul and from the soul. But it is more accurate to say that the builder builds, and not that his art builds, though he builds through his art.
An art that is concerned with the end commands and makes the laws for an art concerned with means to the end. Thus, the art of civil government commands that of the military; the military commands the equestrian; and the art of navigation commands that of shipbuilding.
I just love this passage! I love it for its broad use of the word “art.” It justifies the engineers, business people, fools and educators we are inviting to lead us in our Daily Meditations.
Adapted from: Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, p. 316.
See also: Matthew Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.
See Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work
Banner Image: The DC Labor Chorus sings at the DC Emancipation Day Voting Rights March Assemblance Rally in Washington, D.C., 4/16/2007. Photo by Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography, on Flickr .
Queries for Contemplation
How many times have you, like Aquinas, called art a virtue or heard art called a virtue? What are the implications of that?
Are you as excited as I am to hear shipbuilding and horse back riding and building, weaving, cooking, medicine and commerce all called “arts”? What are the implications of that? What other arts do not get named for what they are—for example parenting, love-making, friendship, grandparenting, gardening, etc. etc? Art as meditation may be more present than we have been told.
Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him. He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French). He gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way. The result is exciting!
Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.
Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”