[Eric] Gill’s first exercise in rendering [Jacques] Maritain into his own terms was his 1925 essay, Id Quod Visum Placet – the title taking up Aquinas’s definition of beauty, which Maritain had made his own. He takes as foundational the principle that art aims at the good of the thing made – so that an artistic product is an object made in the chosen medium, not an imitation or reproduction of something else; consequently it is a mistake to aim at beauty as if it were anything other than the effect of the work’s integrity.
In the many essays that followed, especially in the years up 1933, and in his voluminous correspondence, Gill elaborated his assimilation of Maritain’s themes. ‘Art is skill,’ he wrote, a habit nurtured by practical apprenticeship which develops a natural capacity; we do not need any doctrine of mysterious giftings, spiritual genius, in an artist. The truest art is anonymous; emotions are never the ground of artistic work, only some of the consequences; ‘high art’ or ‘fine art’ is essentially a distraction, and the bulk of post-Renaissance art is a disaster. It has encouraged us to think of painting not as a sharing in the creative labour of God for the world’s eventual fulfilment but as the record of a particular individual sensibility looking at the world from outside.
True art is in some sense a part of nature, nature in its human embodiment pursuing its natural intellectual and formative character. Art is ‘metaphysically superior’ to prudence in its aspiration to collaboration with God. But prudence is more important for the human being as such, more in tune with what human beings concretely are and need. The two exist in a perpetual ‘lover’s quarrel’ (art being male and prudence female): prudence is suspicious of art’s concern with things in themselves, art is equally suspicious of prudence’s utilitarianism. We are lost if we try to separate the two: the truth is that prudence aims at the true good of human beings, but that true good includes, crucially, happiness. And ‘happiness is the state of being pleased with things, of being pleased with things.’) Art must aim at products that please the whole person. And the good of the whole person is something specified by that doctrine to which prudence tries to conform us. Art is good when it relates to the sort of creatures we know ourselves to be.
From chapter 2 of Grace and Necessity– reflections on art and love, published by Morehouse Publishing 2005 – reflections on art and love, published by Morehouse Publishing 2005