ARTISTS AND SAINTS

A number of EQMM’s writers have also had successful careers as visual artists or musicians. When I first encountered cases of this, it seemed remarkable to me that two exceptional gifts should meet in one person. Then I learned of some of the more famous examples of that happening: Tennessee Williams, for example, became a successful painter, at least to the extent of selling some of his canvases in his lifetime; Kurt Vonnegut included his own drawings in some of his novels and went on to produce paintings that were exhibited in galleries in New York. A number of successful musicians and composers also write fiction. The examples that come immediately to my mind are in the current rock world: Check out Akashic Books, whose founder, Johnny Temple, once a musician with Girls Against Boys, has several fellow musicians on his publication list.

So does being accomplished in one art actually make it more likely that a person will be accomplished in another?

As I was considering this, years ago, a lecture by Flannery O’Connor entitled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” came to mind. I dug it out and found what I was looking for: her discussion of “the habit of art” (as Jacques Maritain called it), which O’Connor explains as “a certain quality or virtue of the mind.” O’Connor assured her audience that there was no need to be scared off by this “grand idea.” On the contrary, art begins, she says, with common experience—with the senses: “the fiction writer begins where human perception begins.” That “habit of art” she refers to is partly a matter of the artist/writer acquiring the discipline to observe the world precisely. “Any discipline can help your writing,” she says, “logic, mathematics, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.”

Several EQMM writers have told me that they practice other arts at an amateur level in order to strengthen their writing: learning to play an instrument so as to become more attuned to human speech and its rhythms; painting or drawing (as O’Connor recommends) in order to become a better visual observer.

The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch linked the kind of discipline the artist has—the habit of striving to see the world accurately—to morality. In her view the struggle to see the world as it is, particularly where human individuals are concerned, is inextricably linked to seeing the world “justly or lovingly.” She says in her essay “The Idea of Perfection,” “I have used the word ‘attention,’ which I borrow from Simone Weil, to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality. I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent.” Later in that same essay she says that the “ideal situation” in which moral action occurs is “to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity.’ This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ‘obedience.’ . . . an obedience which ideally reaches a position where there is no choice. One of the great merits of the moral psychology which I am proposing is that it does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.”

I find this very interesting. Does it somehow imply that we should expect artists to be more moral than others? This can’t be what Murdoch intended. She begins the essay by reminding her readers that “an unexamined life can be virtuous” and that in any moral philosophy it must be possible to do justice to “both Socrates and the virtuous peasant.” Besides, we all know that the struggle to achieve perfection, in an art or in one’s life, can become perverted or corrupted and even, occasionally, lead to madness. (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” illustrates this well.) In addition, not all that we call art is equally focused on seeing and revealing reality. There’s a spectrum that runs from art meant solely for entertainment to more serious work, and it’s to the latter end of that spectrum, of course, that Murdoch’s comparison applies most clearly. But even with those caveats in mind, I find the idea that there is a “habit of art” and that that habit is not only common to all the arts but related to the struggle for just moral vision to be intriguing.

I wonder what others think. —Janet Hutchings

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3 Responses to ARTISTS AND SAINTS

  1. Lou manfredo says:

    Janet, thanks for the thought provoking piece. My two cents: artistry and morality are unrelated within the artist his/her self. The expression can take vastly varied forms (Leaves of Grass/ Nazi propaganda films, for example). The artists motivation behind the work provides a clue. People are people, and even multiple talents don’t really change that.

  2. elmediat says:

    A few biases/limitation in definitions are at the base of the argument. The visual arts you are describing suggest a very realistic school, which fits with a realistic style of narrative that is typical of the detective , mystery & suspense genres. Once you enter the realm of surreal, impressionistic, abstract and magic realism we move into a different vision of reality – not as it is, but as it might be. We are in Kafka country and Borges reality.

    Art , like all forms of Mass Media, can both convey values, beliefs and ideologies and be shaped by those of the target audience.

  3. marie cash says:

    I am an artist who also writes mysteries. I doubt that my values and morals are any different than non-artists who are also writers. What I have found is that some artists have an easier time when it comes to describing the surroundings of the character, i.e., the landscape, colors, etc., and others have to work at it. It’s the same with writing.

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