Art and Prudence

Take these passages as a kind of counterpoise (love that word) to the seeming harsh and unforgiving nature of Lent and the Fast. And please forgive me if I offend. Eric Gill can be controversial and is certainly not for everyone.

Gill was a deeply religious man— “largely following the Roman Catholic faith,” as Wikipedia puts it—though many of his beliefs and practices were far from orthodox. I will say outright that certain of his acts were downright perverse. I cannot judge the acts of men, but I can recognize truth where I am given to receive it. Gill gives me much to consider, especially in terms of the artist and the prudent man, and the gulf between the two.

St. Augustine said: “Love God and do what you will.”
         Dilige Deum et fac quod vis.
The artist says: “Love and make what you like.”
         This is the highest prudence.
         But the prudent man thinks them dangerous sayings: for though most men know what they like doing
         or making, few men know certainly that they love God…

There is some ill-feeling between the prudent man and the artist.
         The lovers’ quarrel between art and prudence has become an unloving “scrap.”
         The opposition has become a conflict.
The man of prudence is shocked by the artist’s inclination to value things as ends in themselves—
         Worth making for their own sakes—
         Loved for their beauty.
         He sees idolatry at the end of that road.
He is also shocked by the artist’s acceptance of all things of sense as beautiful and therefore pleasing in themselves—
         Worth having for their own sakes—
         Loved for their pleasantness.
         He sees sensuality at the end of that road.
Upon the other hand, the artist is shocked by the prudent man’s inclination to see things merely as means to ends—
         Not worth anything for their own sakes—
         Their beauty neither seen nor loved.
He is also shocked by the prudent man’s inclination to see in the pleasures of sense mere filthiness.
         To him that is  kind of blasphemy.
The prudent man accuses the artist of sin.
The artist cries “blasphemer” in reply.
         They see no good in one another…

As artists it is for us to see all things as ends in themselves—
         To see all things in God and God is the end—
         To see all things as beautiful in themselves.
         “The beauty of God,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting Denis, “is the cause of the being of all that is.”
It is for us to see things as worth making for their own sakes, and not merely as means to ends.
         We are not “welfare workers.”
         We do not even seek “to leave the world better than we found it.”
         We are as children making toys for men and God to play with, and “playing before him at all times”…

These quarrels can never be settled until most men of prudence are also artists and most artists have
         become men of prudence.
This pleasing state of affairs will not come about until the present civilisation has passed away.

         [passages taken from Eric Gill’s Beauty Looks After Herself]

Gill closes the book with the (extended) conclusion that “We make what we believe to be good—in accordance with our beliefs so we make.” It is our work (I say “our” because, like Gill, I believe all men are artists) to Look after goodness and truth, and beauty will take care of herself.

Madonna and Child 1925 by Eric Gill 1882-1940

© Eric Gill, “Madonna and Child” (1925), The Tate/London

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