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Grace, Necessity and Imagination: Catholic Philosophy and the Twentieth Century Artist - Lecture 2: David Jones: Material Words

Thursday 3rd February 2005

Clark Lectures, Trinity College, Cambridge. A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.


Maritain's Art et scholastique was translated into English in 1923, under the title of The Philosophy of Art , by Joseph O'Connor – best remembered as the prototype for Chesterton's Father Brown. O'Connor, a parish priest in Bradford, had a notable rapport with artists and writers; and at this time he was closely involved with Eric Gill. The translation was done in substantial part at Ditchling in Sussex, where Gill had lived since 1907; it was published by the St Dominic's Press, which Gill had established in association with Hilary Pepler some seven years earlier. The essay made an immediate and profound impact on Gill and the little community of artists and craftsmen around him, and decisively shaped a great deal of Gill's later writing on art. Up to that point, he had had exposure to some elements of scholastic philosophy through his contacts with the English Dominicans, especially Fr Vincent McNabb, but perhaps the most important intellectual influence had been Ananda Coomaraswamy, the most sophisticated exponent to Western audiences in his day of a pre-modern, oriental and hieratic philosophy of art. Gill always acknowledged this debt; but it was the vocabulary of Maritain that most marked him. After 1923, he could claim that his ideas about art were fully in tune with the foremost contemporary interpreter of Aquinas, and so with the essence of Catholic philosophy.

Gill's first exercise in rendering Maritain into his own terms was his 1925 essay, Id Quod Visum Placet – the title taking up Aquinas's definition of beauty which, as we have seen, 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 to 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. The good of the whole person is something specified by that doctrine to which prudence tries to conform us.

For Gill, while the artist as concretely engaged in the work is not a propagandist (because concerned about the good of the work and nothing else), the work itself must be in some sense propaganda: 'Art which is not propaganda is simply aesthetics'. It must be done in the service of a community with a clear shared ideology (which is why the right relation of art and prudence is impossible in contemporary society and the artist is reduced to being an entertainer); it must be a matter of performing tasks prescribed for the good of the community, so that it offers what is pleasing to the rightly oriented perception and emotion of persons in the community. Hence the impossibility – as in the Middle Ages – of distinguishing clearly between the artist and the craftsman, and the evils of post-Renaissance art with its mystique of the artist-genius, the solitary visionary. And in a situation of massive endemic social injustice, the priority must be to liberate the great mass of people to exercise their proper creativity in making things rather than to encourage fantasies about genius: 'It will be time enough to worry about the place of the Beethovens, Shakespeares and Dostoievskys when Tom, Dick and Harry and you and me have established the Kingdom of God and His justice, if ever.' Gill's artistic theory is inseparable from his vision of a society in which every working man (the male pronoun is deliberate) participates in the free exercise of intelligent making, instructed by the canons of virtuous doing so that he knows the purpose of what he makes.

And this is the point at which Gill's reading of Maritain becomes a fascinating and perverse distortion. Maritain is clear that art and prudence are not ultimately separable, and that the artist as human being is bound to have ideological commitments and moral concerns. But what cannot be extracted from his work is anything like Gill's doctrine of the artist as producing according to the specified needs of a community. It would be wrong to say that Gill simply subordinates art to external control: the execution of any work remains strictly ordered by the nature of the thing made. But there is more than a hint that 'the nature of the thing made' is, in the ideal cultural setting, known in advance in the light of a shared philosophy. The fact that this assumption would not be out of place in the high days of Soviet Russia would probably not have upset Gill very much; Soviet Russia had the wrong philosophy, objectively (though not as wrong as some people thought), but the right attitude to the place of cultural making in society. But Maritain is resistant to the idea that art is a making of objects known beforehand in some way: the artist obeys the 'laws' of what is being made, certainly, but this should not be confused with any notion of an authority telling the artist what to make. The maker's obedience to the integrity of the thing made is more to do with an unfolding logic in the process of making, as the work discloses itself. Gill's model suggests that there is no real gratuity in the artist's making; he comes curiously close to a real and drastic functionalism in his insistence that ideally the community determines what the artist's business shall be.

Gill was described on his tombstone, according to his own wishes, simply as 'Stone Carver'; as we have seen, he could make little of the distinction between artist and craftsman, and was relentlessly hostile to anything in which he detected what he liked to call 'art nonsense' (the title of one of his collections of essays). But this savage reaction against both art as entertainment and art as a mysterious end in itself leaves entirely out of consideration what is perhaps Maritain's most significant contribution to the whole debate, his analysis of art as exposing the 'excess' of the material environment ('things are more than they are'). Certainly Gill speaks of the artist as – so to speak – contributing to nature, continuing the work of God in the world, recreating objects in another medium, not copying them. But he seems not to recognise the tension between this and the stringent communal and ideological context he thinks necessary for art to be fully itself.

Aspects of his own practice cast light on this unresolved area. He was, of course, a supremely professional producer of material things, working to commission. What made sense to him in Maritain was the conviction that his job was not to express himself or to make pleasurable objects in a vacuum. Yet it is hard not to feel that much of his work falls between several stools. His commissions were frequently for essentially decorative objects – the famous Broadcasting House statue of Prospero and Ariel, the Leeds University frieze, the illustrations for limited editions of books published by small presses. The sculpture, as has often been remarked, is overwhelmingly an exercise in the handling of surface rather than volume. His brilliance at creating typefaces is the outstanding exception, the production of things that combine utility with beauty; but it is not an obvious example of art sharing in the self-propagation of nature. 'He side-stepped modernism' is the judgement of a perceptive recent critic (Jonathan Miles). Despite his endorsement of Maritain's principle, so close to the heart of the modernist aesthetic, that the made object is its own 'world' of reference, what he means by this is a deeply un-modernist conviction about the ideal primacy of hieratic convention. The result is immensely skilled work, often genuinely bold, witty, or monumental and poignant; but the tone-deafness about gratuity and about the formally exploratory nature of artistic production ironically leaves him stuck between the utilitarian and the decorative. Remembering Maritain's dictum about the incompleteness of authentic art, its woundedness by the infinite, we might wonder where the wounds are in Gill.


Some of the most sympathetic but candid discussion of the depth of Gill's anti-modernism and the problems and dangers of his craftsmanlike elegance in dealing with a surface, whether for carving or for engraving, can be found in a couple of brief essays by David Jones written very soon after Gill's death. Characteristically, Jones sees Gill, for all his passionate reformism, as basically untroubled by the seriousness of the cultural crisis of modernity. As Gill's first biographer noted, he was not a man to whom you could ascribe much in the way of 'negative capability', and there is a sense in which Gill's reaction to modernity is therefore a flat denial not a negotiation. Jones, in contrast, accepts the diagnosis of a cultural dead-end, but wrestles painfully with how to pursue an honest artistic path in this actual environment. Yes, we are all now heirs of the 'decadence' of the eighteen-nineties, in that we are all involved in 'an exasperated search for beauty on the part of individual men conscious or unconscious of the declining West'. We have no culture that educates us as artists; and it is no use pretending that we have or can simply retreat into another cultural frame. The painfulness of being aware of this is a theme that recurs in Jones' work, not least in the famous little fragment, 'A,a,a, Domine Deus', written and revised over a period of nearly thirty years: 'I have been on my guard not to condemn the unfamiliar./ For it is easy to miss Him at the turn of a civilisation...I have said to the perfected steel, be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I felt some beginnings of His creature, but A,a,a,Domine Deus...' What is remarkable about Jones is that, beginning from the same absorption in Maritain as Gill, he is able in both visual and verbal work to begin to frame some answers to the questions Gill so blithely ignores.

Jones' exposure to Maritain came through his participation in Gill's project. After demobilisation in 1919, Jones studied first at the Westminster School of Art, where it appears that a Catholic friend introduced him to Fr John O'Connor. He became a Roman Catholic in 1921, and, prompted by O'Connor, joined Gill at Ditchling later that year, moving in 1924 with the Gill family to Capel-y-ffin in Breconshire, then leaving for a spell at the monastery on Caldey Island; he returned to his native London in 1925. Thus he was alongside Gill and Gill's colleagues during the crucial period during which they were all reading Maritain; and it is clear that for Jones – coming immediately from a very different background – this made sense of what he had assimilated at the Westminster School of Art. He was to write much later (1971) that the basic insight of post-Impressionism had already implanted in him a sort of receptivity to sacramental theology – and to Maritain's understanding of art. 'The insistence that a painting must be a thing and not the impression of something has an affinity with what the Church said of the Mass'.

But for Jones, the 'thinginess' of a product of art could not be, as for Gill, primarily or perhaps exclusively its firm and defined location in the geography of a theologically mapped culture. From the beginning, what preoccupies him is a set of problems about representation – not imitation or reproduction, but precisely what so concerns Maritain, the showing of the excess that pervades appearances. The artwork is indeed, as Gill put it, an extension of 'nature'; but it is so by the thoroughness of its transmutation of given nature into another material reality which reflects it and in so doing alters it and displays the hidden 'more than it is'. This helps to explain his commitment to watercolour and gouache; he is suspicious of the temptations of oils, so apt for the rendering of mass and depth. Watercolour does not allow you to escape from two dimensions; it obliges you to translation or transubstantiation. The metaphor that Maritain uses so tellingly for the frustrated aspiration of a Rimbaud is here given a theologically reputable home in terms of an evocation of 'substance' that is related necessarily and inseparably but also ironically and multiply to material embodiment. Art shows that form is utterly bound to matter, yet also that this or that matter dopes not exhaust form. In the theological parallel Jones develops so richly in his essays, and to which we shall come back shortly, the substance of Christ's Body is such that it is real only in the matter of the world – but no less intelligibly (even if more ambiguously) in the matter of the sacrament or the believing community than in the flesh that could be handled in Galilee. That flesh is more than it is, gives more than it (as flesh) has.

Hence the artist's double business, spelled out with great clarity in Jones' own notes written in 1935 for the Tate (later printed for the 1972 Kettle's Yard exhibition). He is describing what he takes to be a peculiarly Celtic dimension to what he is after – 'a certain affection for the intimate creatureliness of things – a care for, and appreciation of the particular genius of places, men, trees, animals, and yet withal a pervading sense of metamorphosis and mutability. That trees are men walking. That words "bind and loose" material things'. This he associates with Welsh folklore, his lifelong passion, and, more surprisingly, with Lewis Carroll. But it is plain from this that he considers his task to be both a highly specific attention to what is given and the need to 'thin out' the given materiality so as to re-embody what is given that eludes the original embodiment.

The landscapes of the late twenties show exactly what he meant. In the pieces painted during his time with Gill at Capel, and the years that immediately followed, we can see the rapid emergence of what has been called a 'sub-expressionist' style: there are powerful linear patterns, a relentless 'verticality' – the depth of landscape transmuted into a sort of foreshortened perspective, the entire depth coming forward into the surface (as dramatically in 'The Waterfall, Afon Honddu Fach', 'Blaeu Bwlch', 'Tir y Blaenau', the well-known 'Y Twympa', and – from his visit to Lourdes with the Gill family - 'Roman Land' and 'The River Gave in the Pyrenees'). The technique is already at work in pre-Capel works ('The Garden Enclosed', which has an unusually dark palette and looks as though Jones has been absorbing a particular vein of Russian expressionism, Goncharova perhaps, or Larionov). Nor is it only at work in landscape: 'The Suburban Order' (1926) and 'The Engraver's Workshop' (1929) are urban and domestic versions, the latter looking forward to the still life work of the early thirties. The 1931 'Place for Ships' brings together this crowded vertical pressure with the really remarkable work on the sea's colours and contours that he had refined on Caldey especially. And by this time his palette has become magnificently distinctive. As Paul Hills argued in his excellent Tate catalogue of 1981, Jones' habit of not painting regularly in a steady north light but frequently with the light in his face meant that 'academic tonal relationships are confounded: an object in the distance silhouetted against a bright light – a steamer against the sea – may appear darker than anything closer to the eye' (47). His use of gouache in some of the late twenties paintings allows him, again as Hills notes, to achieve some of the effects of oil (the visibility of brushwork, for example) without letting go of his absolute commitment to the flat surface of the watercolour. And his use of pencil line intensifies this commitment to the eye working on a surface.

In the late twenties and early thirties, he was close to figures like the Nicholsons and Christopher Wood; there are even elements that drift towards surrealism. But the nervous illness that overtook him in 1932 changed things permanently. He had begun to work on his first poetic enterprise; and his visual production shifts towards what some have (wrongly) thought a more dematerialised style. There are landscapes and still lifes as before; but the work moves towards the intensely symbolic vein that most associate with his work. What is completely continuous with what went before is the vertical and linear emphasis. But what he now brings out by this is what is best seen as an effect of multiple exposure in the visual image: linear designs are superimposed, they intersect or simply coexist on a surface where pigment is minimal. 'The Farm Door' of 1937 is probably the first really distinctive essay in this vein, but it develops through the extraordinary 'Aphrodite in Aulis' (finished in 1941) and Vexilla Regis (1948) to the wonderful chalice paintings of 1950 and 1951 and finally the masterpieces of the early sixties, Trystan ac Essyllt and Y Cyfarchiad i Fair ('The Annunciation'), this last one of his best-known images, appropriately uniting the dense allusiveness of his mature literary work with the Welsh hill landscape that had absorbed him nearly four decades earlier.

Much has been written about the detail of pictures like the Cyfarchiad; but I am concerned here with what his actual technique says about the perspective underlying the work. As in the chalice paintings (especially 'Flora in Calix-Light'), the pencil lines, very delicate and exact, present superimposed layers of representation. In the Cyfarchiad, we have to look at the detail of the flowers and the bird life, and the woven hedge, all drawn with what Kenneth Clark called 'the skill and precision of a de Limbourg' (Agenda 1967); but this is not a reproduction of anything, so the 'realism' is in one sense beside the point. Or rather, its point is in its absolute refusal to be anything other than linear, so that further detail can be interwoven or posed in tension with it. This is how you show what is 'more than it is': the birds are not naturalistic background for Mary's spiritual encounter as they might be in a mediaeval or pre-Raphaelite depiction; they are the mobile life of an actual landscape that is being 're-lit' by the non-local but utterly concrete presence of the coming of the Word of God. They are a visual transcription of Jones' ever-deepening preoccupation with the image of the land itself as 'The Sleeping Lord', the immanent and imminent presence of God's meanings, pregnant in the local and immediate. At this level, there is no real difference between this explicitly religious picture and 'Flora in Calix-Light'. This is how you paint 'excess': by the delicate superimposing of nets of visual material in a way that teases constantly by simultaneously refusing a third dimension and insisting that there is no way of reading the one surface at once. As in the Byzantine icon, visual depth gives way to the time taken to 'read' a surface.


Paul Hills quotes from a letter of 1952 to Fr Desmond Chute in which Jones very tellingly compares his technique as a visual artist with what he was attempting in his written work: 'I find, or think I find, the process almost identical', he says. And ten years later, he writes to Harman Grisewood about the difficulty many critics experienced in placing him as a poet: 'all I tried to do was to see how the business of "form" and "content" worked in writing in relation to what I knew of how it worked in drawing'. A much earlier note on this, written for his doctor in 1947, explains that in painting 'one is led partly by what evolves as the painting evolves, this form suggesting that form – happiness comes when the forms assume significance with regard to this juxtaposition with each other – even though the original "idea" was somewhat different'. He is again taking Maritain a stage further: the half-apprehended consonance of impressions out of which an artwork grows has to be realised in the process of actually creating significant forms which, in the process of their embodiment, in stone, words, or pigment, uncover other resonances, so that what finally emrge4s is more than just a setting-down of what was first grasped.

In Jones' poetry, this makes for a density that can, by common consent, be alarming. To read In Parenthesis adequately, you have to have a level of alertness to the concrete reality of the trenches in 1916 or thereabouts, to a British military history behind that, to the Trojan war, the Arthurian cycles, and the liturgy of the Passion. The famous frontispiece and tailpiece to the work set the tone: the frontispiece, with its naked soldier pulling on an army jacket against a background of splintered trees, with (a favourite motif) a horse in the distance grazing under a tree, makes the soldier in the trenches a kind of Adam, half-naked, half-clothed, ensnared in the trees; and, as Paul Hill suggests, a Christ 'putting on' human nature. The riderless horse is an Arthurian motif, echoed in his great Vexilla Regis (as he explained to Helen Ede). The tailpiece is unambiguously the slaughtered Lamb, caught in the thicket of barbed wire, again with a background of broken or lopped trees. Throughout the work, the texture of the words translates the pictorial technique – intersecting and crisscrossing lines on a surface, realities superimposed; the bleakness of the trenches being and giving also a history of futile slaughter and heroism, and a simple and direct light into some foundational truth about sacrifice and freedom, looking back to Abraham and Isaac and supremely to the event that the Mass makes present. There are passages that chillingly underscore the impersonal character of the warfare of 1916 and of the mass death it generates – a well-known few lines depict the marching soldiers as 'wired dolls' jerking mechanically against the sky. But this is set in counterpoint to the haunting imagery of sheep going to the slaughter, which opens up that mechanical vision to the sacrifice of Christ. And the folkloric section in Part 7 where the dead soldiers are crowned by the Queen of the May ('Some she gives white berries/ some she gives brown...Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod') offers a perspective on the casual and brutal deaths endured by ordinary soldiers that is hard to reduce either to consolatory religious language or to a merely decorative mythology. It is simply that something completely outside the framework of prose and history establishes – to pick up one of the most striking words here – seriousness about the human loss. And the angry irony of some passages about sentimental celebration of such loss allows Jones to bring into relief the only celebration that actually respects and heals. 'Give them glass eyes to see and synthetic spare parts to walk in the Triumphs, without anyone feeling awkward and O, O, O, its a lovely war with poppies on the up-platform for a perpetual memorial of his body.'

There is much more to be said about the way in which In Parenthesis prepares the way for later fragments inviting us to see the events of Christ's passion through the eyes of Roman soldiers (some of them auxiliary recruits from Britain) serving in Jerusalem. Rome, the Celtic world, modern imperialisms, the Latin of the Mass and the offices – all are brought together in one complex verbal 'surface' covered with interlacing lines. But if there is a point of convergence, a centre to the knotwork, it is the cross itself. And this is equally what is at work in the most sophisticated and 'achieved' work of Jones' maturity, the Anathemata. The introduction to this particular thicket of allusion develops that very image, the hunt in the thicket; picking up from the Dominican theologian Thomas Gilby's description of the mind as 'hunter of forms' (echoed in a well-known poem of Geoffrey Hill's, incidentally, or not so incidentally), Jones lays out the process of searching for poetic form as a search for the complex of inter-reference that makes up the cultural identity of the poet herself (19-20). It is a hunt for what makes the poet's mind possible; and as the work unfolds, this definition takes on a double aspect. At the more obvious level, it is about what makes this poet's mind possible, the cultural specifics of a London Welshman 'of Protestant upbringing, of Catholic subscription' (11). But then it is also and more importantly about what makes any poet possible: the ontology, if we can use that forbidding word here, of a universe that is inextricably both material and significative, where things matter intensely, but matter in ways that breach boundaries and carry significance beyond what they tangibly are. Words are material communication; things are material words. And the distinctive fact about humanity is this double business, as I have already called it, of attention to the creaturely and immediate, and involvement, known or unknown, in the making of meaning or the uncovering of connection (c.f.33). In this context, the poet is exhibiting the human as such.

But the human as such is always located, rooted, so that the second aspect of what makes the poet's mind possible is never without the first. Hence, Jones is clear that he begins with the specific tracks of association that are realised in one highly particular setting – his own participation in the Roman Liturgy. The Anathemata is set in the course of the Mass, which is for Jones the place where the meaning of meaning is displayed; displayed in the history that the Mass celebrates and makes contemporary, displayed in the chains of allusion and connection that occur in this person's awareness or half-awareness as the rite proceeds. You have to start somewhere; and Jones's argument in the introduction notes the ways in which the modern imagination is radically deprived of most of what made the world of signs possible, natural and intelligible in the past, before the great 'Break' of the modern age (22-3). The sense of ontological depth to metaphor, the awareness of participatory patterns under the surface of appearance so that thinking itself is always allusive and (in every sense) involved – this has shrunk dramatically, and to write in such a way as to display what the act of imaginative writing itself is becomes a challenge. 'It is precisely this validity and availability [of images] that constitutes [the artist's] greatest problem in the present culture situation' (23).

The modern artist does not know where she is; and if you do not know where you are, you cannot easily 'lift up signs', in Jones's phrase. If you cannot place a perception, a specific thing, in the context of its resonances and formal echoes, you cannot place it at all. As a matter of fact, because artists know more than they think they know, they continually do 'place' percepts and things in these ways. But making sense of what this is has become obscure. Someone has to locate his poetry more openly in relation to what makes significance occur. And so the work begins with the priest at the altar: 'We already and first of all discern him making this thing other' (49). The first section of the poem evokes the history and prehistory of making signs, the history of the creature who is called sapiens, a mind capable of sapientia, a mind that can speak, a body that can dance in ritual, a perception that can make one thing another in word or picture. The constant refrain of these pages is the question 'How else?' Without this human history, how could there be a priest at the altar re-presenting in another form an act (the self-surrender of the incarnate divine Word, the divine connection of meaning) that supremely communicates to the material world the transformative liberty of God.

The Anathemata moves on through an often bewildering world of Roman and post-Roman Britain, the Arthurian legend in both its early Welsh form and its mature expression in Malory, the archaeology of London, British naval history, a wide reference to English folksong and folklore and a good deal besides, littered with Welsh, both early and modern, Latin and a bit of Greek. Quotation is difficult; but there are parts of section VI which bring out specially plainly some of the depth of reference. The title of this section is 'Keel, Ram, Stauros'; growing out of the previous sections that deal with London and the sea-traffic coming in to the port, we begin with the ship's keel, 'the trembling tree...the quivering elm on which our salvation sways...Yardstick, prime measure' (173). Like the great world-tree that is also the cross in Jones's Vexilla Regis painting, the keel-timber begins 'forechosen and ringed/ in the dark arbour-lands' (175). But such a timber might equally be a battering-ram, blessed by a Roman priest as the siege is laid to a city with words from the archaic hymn to Mars urging the god to 'leap the limes', jump over the boundary (176). Or simply a wayside cross: neglected, sometimes deliberately defaced or ignored when people turn to other saviours, but standing among faded flowers and candles. And then this section of the poem swings back to the ship, the hidden keel soaked with the refuse of the ship as its master brings her to shore: 'He would berth us/ to schedule'(182).

This gives little idea of the Joycean inventiveness of the wordplay, the verbal nudges and half-echoes, of this section alone. But the 'schedule' – and the punning 'berth' - of the last line begins to bring the heavy ship of the whole composition back towards the calendar of Christian mythology; section VII is a Midnight Mass in post-Roman Britain, locating the narrative of the mother and child against the classical background of spirits and sybils and the Celtic myths of divine and heroic children and their goddess mothers. And the final movement of the work takes us to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday; to the taking of bread at the Last Supper and the crucial, axial exchange between God and the world on the cross. The Mass reaches its climax, the words are spoken and the bread lifted up, a material sign of a material sign, a sacrament of the ultimately sacramental humanity of Christ.

What did he do other
recumbent at the garnished supper?
What did he do yet other
Riding the Axile Tree?


Art is an uncovering of what is uniquely human; and what is uniquely human depends in some way that defies exact statement on those connections that are held and sustained by whatever and whoever it is that is incarnate in Christ: that human life which is most supremely charged with significance (because it speaks for the maker of all things) becomes a sign, a material word, lets itself be taken into the world of sign-making and communication by means of the institution of the Mass; and so to take your stand in the context of the Mass is to be where sign-making is grounded or vindicated. God makes himself other; the world is a world in which things make themselves other or are made other (they are more than they are and give more than they have); human beings are those creatures who uniquely have the capacity and responsibility to uncover for one another the nature of the world in which sameness and otherness constantly flow into each other, and in which there is no final reading of a 'surface', whether the literal surface of a sheet of paper or the surface, the first perception, of a narrative, a song, an action. Jones's practice as poet and visual artist displays all this with extraordinary energy and depth. But in the mid-50's he summarised his vision in a single essay which not only illuminates his work overall but also suggests where he used Maritain's categories to go beyond Maritain.

'Art and Sacrament' was published in 1955, as one of a collection of essays dealing with the 'Catholic' attitude to various areas of contemporary life and work. It begins by taking us back to the distinction that had now become canonical in so much Catholic writing on aesthetics between art and prudence; but Jones refused to take the familiar terms of the distinction wholly for granted. He notes – as others hadn't – that the two terms are not self-evidently comparable: art is an activity, prudence a quality of an activity. It does not greatly help to argue about their spheres of operation or their relative importance. Go back to even more basic principles, and you can see that prudence is pervasive in human self-understanding: even if you abandon the ethics of revealed religion, issues of better and worse, wiser and more foolish, realistic and unrealistic, shoulds and shouldn'ts are unavoidable in anything we'd call a human life. We are beings who have choices about these things, and we can't avoid involvement in them; we reason about our situation and shape our acts accordingly. In brief, we are free; we do things because we have reflected and come to a policy, not because we set out to meet a simple cluster of needs. There is an 'intransitive' element in us, a habit of doing things that have significance. We choose because an act has potential meaning for us or others, not because we are bound to exercise these specific functions.

So 'in the very process of somewhat tortuously considering why man (if he exists) is a creature of faith and morals and is thus the darling of Prudentia, we find ourselves unexpectedly confronted, as by an old friend at a street's bend, with man's natural activity, the activity we call "art."'(148-9) Prudence is to do with how we make lives significant, not about how we meet our needs; so art is a necessary accompaniment of prudence. 'There is a common cause preventing the animals from being either prudential beings or artists' (150). Animals (the ant, the spider, the nuthatch) produce work of outstanding beauty, but it is like the beauty of the natural world because it is 'transitive', it has a definable and general function; human activity aims at the embodying of meaning by deliberate choices, and this gratuitous element in what is human makes the difference between us and other creatures. It is, Jones further suggests, something to do with the fact that, for Christian theology, God's act of creation is utterly gratuitous, describable as a kind of play (153-4).

The essay proceeds to argue that the whole notion of sign implies the sacred – the real as good, the good as supremely real, and thus as laying on us an obligation, a binding. We are bound to undertake 'judgement' in the conduct of our specifically human business, discrimination, as we seek new forms or new collocations of forms. As we select and shape our forms – whether in poetry, painting or military strategy (Jones's deliberately unexpected example here) – we seek to bind ourselves by the exercise of judgement to what is, because of a conviction that the real (when finally discerned or uncovered) is good.

'Some man known to the reader may indeed appear to escape from all that is commonly or vulgarly meant by the "sacramental", but no sooner does he put a rose in his buttonhole but what he is already in the trip-wire of sign' (167). As the union of material being and meaningful imagination, humanity alone has the gift of sign-making, and humanity alone cannot avoid sign-making. Without this recognition, we fail to understand the nature of sacramental action; equally though, sacramental action is the supreme illumination of what and who we are, and art fails to understand itself without sacramental reference. Jones again refers to his formative experience as an art student in 1919, the discovery that what the Post-Impressionists were saying about making something other was most clearly evident in the Mass. In this brief 'autobiographical digression' in the essay, Jones recalls how Maritain's work offered at that time an exhilarating perspective on the idea that art was fundamentally making – not copying, not free-wheeling or expressing an inner selfhood, but producing a material thing. Yet the whole of this remarkable essay of Jones's, one of the most important pieces of writing in the twentieth century on art and the sacred, illustrates a point Maritain does not quite get to. Jones implies that the life of 'prudence', a life lived in a consciously moral context, however exactly understood, is itself an act of gratuitous sign-making; moral behaviour is the construction of a life that can be 'read', that reveals something in the world and uncovers mystery. It is not something that Jones develops systematically, but it foreshadows as good deal of writing about religious ethics in more recent years – what we have learned to call 'virtue ethics' and 'narrative ethics', and ethics explicitly rooted in communal practices of meaning. Almost without noticing, he has turned away from both legalism and subjectivism in morality and opened up a new and tantalising perspective on behaviour as a kind of art, a search for forms that will uncover the interconnectedness of reality.

But this point about the way in which a life may become a significant form – as, decisively and uniquely, in the life of Christ – also leads us towards a new set of questions about the creative arts. Jones was a visual artist and poet; these are the arts that Maritain has most to say about. What about the art in which narrative and character predominate? Maritain has surprisingly little to say about drama, and his interventions in debate about fiction were not productive of anything much except a monumental quarrel with Georges Bernanos. But Jones's ruminations on the gratuitous element in prudence prompt us to ask how a Maritainian theory of art would look applied to the creation of story and character, the re-presenting of a life that signifies. In the next of these lectures, my subject will be a writer for whom these were the pressing practical issues. Jones's clear theological agenda – the impossibility of grasping the human centrality of art without some awareness of a 'binding' (religio) to unseen continuities held in intelligible harmony by the divine Word – will need some further exploration in the fourth of the lectures; but for now I leave the last word to Jones on the Anathemata: 'There is only one tale to tell even though the telling is patient of endless development and ingenuity and can take on a million different forms. I imagine something of this sort to be implicit in what Picasso is reported as saying: "I do not seek, I find."'

© Rowan Williams 2005

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