I've started reading John Trapani's Poetry, Beauty, & Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain. I picked this one after reading Matthew Milliner's hearty recommendation in the pages of First Things (subscription required). I've been thinking about what I hope to get out of such a book.
Philosophical theories of aesthetics need to account for both the experience of the person encountering an artwork and the creative work of the artist. My particular interests follow that division. First, how do I account for my own range of responses to art, high and low? A good book on aesthetics will help me understand my own judgments, and perhaps render comprehensible works that have thus far been mystifying. Second, what is the proper function of artistic communication in a Christian community? This question takes special weight for an evangelical like me, who has concluded that the artists of his subculture, though well-intentioned, generally got it wrong.
Maritain is a promising figure. He was a Thomist philosopher, which certainly embeds his work in the Christian tradition. But he was also a well-connected Parisian intellectual in the first half of the twentieth century, and counted as his friends artists whose work is decidedly modern. So I expect to find his pre-modern philosophy in conversation with more contemporary theories of art.
My worry has to do with the Thomism. As best I understand the history, Thomas Aquinas follows Aristotle in positing a human faculty that deals directly with the essences of things. When I look at an apple, I get some information from sight, but my soul's grasping that this is an apple means not just that I've applied a label to what I take to be a single thing, but that my soul has perceived that this is appleness itself. (I'm writing roughly, and surely have all the terms wrong.) I expect that Maritain will also take this view of intellection in his discussion of beauty, and argue that encountering beauty is something other than finding a pleasing conceptual arrangement "in my mind" or experience a complex sensory pleasure. The problem is that this view of the soul doesn't seem at all natural or intuitive to me.
So what would it take to convince me? I'm not sure if this book will put Maritain's theories in conversation with those of other thinkers, or if it will merely give me the framework to chase down these conversations in Maritain's own texts. But judging from the first few chapters, the book won't be a bad read, and I'll post my findings here as I go.