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Some notes on the duty of the artist

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Over Christmas I really enjoyed a BBC television production of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was merciless, confrontational and ‘of our times’. Then, just the other day, I had the good fortune to see another BBC production of a work by Dickens. This time it was his ‘Great Expectations’ and it was brilliant: pure and devastating tragedy was exquisitely mixed with the fundamental idea that people  – all of us – are ‘made’ through chance and circumstance.

The next day or two came and went and then the work of Dickens resurfaced in a rather unexpected place. I was reading a masterful discussion on ‘philosophy and literature’ featuring the philosopher and author Iris Murdoch and she happened to underline her deep respect for the writing of Charles Dickens. In the course of the overall discussion Murdoch had examined the important contrasts between the endeavours of philosophy as compared with the nature of expression in the arts; she then explored the attitude of philosophy to art and, during this, she began to identify the responsibilities of the artist. (Since I am supposed to be ‘en route’ to becoming an artist I took her assertions particularly seriously.) This is what she said:

‘I certainly do not believe that it is the artist’s task to serve society.’ And she adds: ‘As soon as a writer says to him or herself, ‘I must try to change society in such and such ways by my writing’ he or she is likely to damage their work.’

In the unfolding discussion she is then asked about Dickens – who had genuinely social aims and who also had considerable social influence – to which she replies:

‘… Dickens manages to do everything, to be a great imaginative writer and a persistent and explicit social critic. I think the scandals of his society were closely connected with the kind of ferment and social change which engaged his imagination most deeply. He is able to embrace all these things in his genius and you rarely feel he is ‘getting at you’ with some alien social point. His most effective social criticisms are made through live and touching characters such as the sweeper boy Joe in Bleak House. Dickens is a great writer because of his ability to create character, and also because of deep frightful imaginative visions which have little to do with social reform.’

The BBC’s productions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Great Expectations’ surely endorse Murdoch’s view. But then she returns to outline her thinking about the ‘duty’ of the artist:

She notes: ‘I do not think that the artist qua-artist has a duty to society. A citizen has a duty to society’ and she adds that, ‘the artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his or her chosen medium.’ She immediately goes on to say that the writer’s duty, like that demonstrated by Charles Dickens, is ‘to produce the best literary work of which he or she is capable, and he or she must find out how this can be done.’

By extension, in Fine Art (where I am primarily located) the artist’s duty is to truth-telling in his or her chosen domain or specialisation. Murdoch urges the artist not to lurch into propaganda and she recognises that ‘a good society contains many artists doing many different things’ whilst a bad society coerces artists because it knows they can reveal all kinds of truths.’

On this last point, I think that’s why I take so much pleasure seeing the great variety of artistic expression and the explorations of the height, breadth and depth of human being in the place where I am studying for my MA in Fine Art. And I wish that Iris Murdoch’s deeply knowledgeable discussion was part of the required reading list on our course. If it were then we would quickly recognise that there is an often unbridgeable gap between the rarefied specialist discussions of the theorist with the imaginative play of the artist.

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