Dear Iris,

You wrote a lot about liberating and unselfing effects of art, and how good art can make you a better person. But – can you be someone who creates art (good art, hopefully) and be a bad person? (Picasso, Jimmy Page, Edmund Narraway?)

Philosopher's reply

Dear Tatevik,

It is undeniable that many great artists behave less than admirably in their personal lives. (I don’t know that I’d want to make a final judgment on anyone being a good or bad person! But egotistical, selfish, self-deluding, surely.) So your question is excellent, and hard – can we reconcile that with the claim that art makes one better, and if so, how?

I think one way is to remember that, as I once wrote, that it is a task to see the world as it is. To create a great work, an artist must have a glimpse of the world as it appears objectively, must pierce the veil of selfish fantasy, and show that to his or her audience. But just as we might read their work and see through the veil for a moment, and then lapse back into our ordinary self-centredness, so might the artist fail to sustain the vision expressed in the work. I don’t claim artistic greatness, but I know the clarity I sometimes felt I achieved in writing my novels did not, alas, make me feel impeccably good.
I believe, with Plato, that goodness is a matter of vision and not of will, but the matter is complicated somewhat by the fact that vision takes effort – moral stamina as Simone Weil put it. We all have to work continually to turn the soul in the right direction and keep it turned that way.

Yours, Iris

(via, Lin Atnip)

Philosopher's profile

Lin Atnip

University of California-Santa Barbara, USA

In my work I seek to articulate a philosophically rigorous conception of how we are educated to reality by art, and Murdoch is one of the few modern philosophers that provides a grounding for such a claim, and more broadly for a non-religious (or at least non-doctrinal) way of conceiving the normative ground of human life ("the Good"). Murdoch's idea that (good) art shows us the world objectively, free from the 'rat-runs of fantasy,' has been foundational for my own thinking about art.

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