While reading a translation of Umberto Eco’s The Aesthetics Of Thomas Aquinas, on page 185 of the work I came across the following quote from the writings of Thomas Aquinas on the praiseworthiness of creativity: “Non enim pertinet ad lauden artificis, inquantum artifex est, aua voluntate opus faciat, sed quale sit opus quod facit.” This was translated in the book as follows: “An artist as such is not commendable for the will with which he makes a work, but for its quality.” That is to say, according to Thomas Aquinas (at least as translated), it is not creativity for which an artist is to be praised, but for the fruits or results or quality of that creation. That is to say, creativity as such is not praiseworthy, but the worth of creations determines the worth of anyone’s creativity in particular. I happen to wholeheartedly agree with this statement, but it does suggest something of the ambivalence by which the medieval world held towards creativity and some of the ways in which contemporary society has neglected the qualitative role of creation and praised the will of artists without looking closely enough into the moral value (or lack thereof) of their creations.
Why is it important to be clear about the grounds on which we praise creativity? To the extent that we have artistic judgments that reflect on the morality of creative works, we will find much to be censorious about when we examine the creations around us, or even our own works. The quality of a given work can be judged by a variety of criteria. For example, we may reflect on the quality of a work as reflecting the artist’s mastery (or lack thereof) of the proper techniques that are necessary to create a successful work. Does an artist have mastery of perspective or brush and color technique? Does a writer grasp the genre one is writing in have a firm grasp of structure and content? Does a movie demonstrate sound direction as well as editing, lighting, score, screenwriting, as well as quality acting performances? And so on and so forth. Different people bring different standards of judgment to the table when it comes to looking at the quality of a work. And, as previously mentioned, the quality of a work may not merely reflect the competence of an artist in one’s craft but also the moral quality of that work as well, which would tend to lead one to have negative views of those works which adopt a verismo perspective of seeking to deal with the more sordid and corrupt aspects of human existence. Likewise we may appreciate the skill of a painting but view it as lacking morality because of its Hellenistic fondness for nudity or the use of prostitutes as models for virtuous biblical females or heathen mythological content in the painting itself. Such examples can, of course, be multiplied ad infinitum.
Post-Nietzsche, it has become customary in the analysis of contemporary creativity to praise the will of the human creator that brings forth some kind of artistic or technological novelty on those grounds alone, without considering other aspects of that creativity. This praise of the will separate from any moral judgments about the value of the creation or any discussions about the ramifications and consequences of that creation amounts to a rebellion against the predominant role of morality in determining the worth of human endeavors. Admittedly, it is all too easy for human beings to be prejudiced against the novel simply because of a native temperamental conservatism that dislikes change and novelty on those grounds alone, and simply seeks to justify this dislike of the novel by attributing it to morality as opposed to an inveterate tendency to resist change. Nevertheless, if we must be careful to properly understand ourselves and our own attitude towards change as such, there are still legitimate grounds for the consideration of moral questions as being fundamental to any judgment about the worth and value of a given creation. Even if we approve of creativity and novelty in general, to the extent that we are concerned with the preservation of humanity and dignity, we will be inclined to limit the possible uses and applications of a given novel art form or technology to keep its operation within boundaries of propriety and decency so that it does not cause harm to other people.
If we look at the will as opposed to the quality of works from a broader perspective we may better understand why it is unwise to praise the will in absence of other considerations. When we are confronted with bratty children or toddlers throwing tantrums, we are present to the stirrings of the will in little beings who are not often aware of what is in their best interests and not inclined to respond kindly to restrictions placed upon acting according to their wishes and desires. While we may praise someone’s obstinacy for the cause of righteousness in the face of hostility, we should make it clear to ourselves and to others that it is not the will in itself that we are praising, but rather the will to act according to what is right and proper, even if it comes at some expense to our peace of mind and to our ability to get along with others. We praise resistance to tyranny and to evil, but we do not praise resistance as such, since we would condemn those who resist what is right and good in defense of evil. Likewise, we praise the quality of art and the moral worth of artistic and technological novelty, and seek to channel them towards moral ends, and do not praise the will that leads someone to create as such, since people may have the will to create a lot of filth and garbage, and such a will is not worthy of praise.