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Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals by Iris Murdoch deals with morality and transcendental experiences. However, first and foremost, it is a treatise on art, its essence, sense, implications, and effect. One of the leading themes in Murdoch’ insightful work is the way art and its objects assist people in understanding real life. According to Murdoch, life is more than a palpable reality, and art is more than materialization of the reality images. Since art is an insight beyond the material world, it represents the ideal world that is real, and hence, prompts an idea of the real life to an attentive viewer or listener.
Murdoch opens her essay with a concept of a self-contained unity: “We see parts of things, we intuit whole things” (p. 15). This idea presumes that an object, according to Plato, is a shade of the ideal, whereas the thoughtful observation can give an idea of the whole. Moreover, a person can intuitively perceive this whole in the complete scope of connections and interrelations. The author sides with Platonic concept of the ideal world and derives her main argument from it. However, she also accepts and analyses the ideas of other philosophers such as Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Derrida. Pertaining to art, this concept means that painting, sculpture, poetry, or music can provide a doorway to the understanding of deeper inherent sense of things.
In order to develop such vision people must possess attention. Murdoch notes that lucky children have an opportunity to see paintings or listen to beautiful music at an early age; when parents tell them to look or listen, but not touch, they teach attention (p. 19). Both aesthetical and ethical education implies an “idea of attention or contemplation, of looking carefully at something and holding it before the mind” (p. 18). In that way, a person learns to see beyond the form of the object instead of observing a painting just as a combination of lines and colors or a symphony as a succession of sounds, but to notice a manifestation of the ideal beauty. In the same way, the observation of the nature’s beauty brings the man closer to the ideal. Thus, attention is an essential prerequisite of respect and morality; moreover, as regards beauty, it is also preparation for a fuller pleasurable life. Just like Schopenhauer, Murdoch views interaction with beauty through art as a kind of pilgrimage of the soul, the act of purification and estrangement from one’s egoistic self (p. 144).
Depending on the personality and perception, objects of art in general evoke a range of reactions from harmful egoistic fantasies to the purification of the soul. The condition for expanding of consciousness, both for the creator and recipient of art, is the ability to still one’s self, to step out of the boundaries of one’s ego. The basic moral values, irrespective of religion or nationality, are being good to others and not damaging them. For example, Jesus praised the law of love as the highest of all commandments. However, love can be selfish and dominating or “it can prompt a process of ‘unselfing’ wherein the lover learns to see, and cherish and respect, what is not himself” (p. 38). Thus, refusal from one's self is a component of the true, real love. The process of penetrating beyond the form of an art object also implies denial of one’s will. The rebirth, change of being, expanding of consciousness suggests “a long deep process of unselfing” (p. 93).
Furthermore, art gives insights into the ideal world; in the same manner, it gives insights to the human consciousness. Murdoch considers that “in enjoying great art we experience a clarification and concentration and perfection of our own consciousness” (p. 26). Undoubtedly, true art can touch even an unprepared soul, but the best effect is realized through moral training, attentive observation, and intuitive penetration in the essence of the work. Ancient Greek appreciated art but did not worship it; they realized that art “is motivated by and caters for the lowest part of the soul, the bad unconscious, which is to be contrasted with anamnesis, the good unconscious” (p. 26). Consistently, Freud regarded art as the work of Eros, the transformation of sexual energy. Finally, Jung did not polarize the unconscious and viewed inclusion of the “dark opposite” as a necessary and sacral condition (p. 138). Therefore, since art is connected directly with the unconscious, it broadens the limits of consciousness.
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Murdoch warns that “the concept of ‘art object’ or ‘work of art’ has a force which goes far beyond what we usually think of as ‘art’” (p. 17). Specifically, artistic beauty works through reminding of the ideal that is always lofty and moral. However, the danger lies in the fact that art is the imitation of an ideal. The artist reflects the ideal that he or she sensed with imperfect feelings and conveyed via imperfect means. Thus, a work of art always bears an imprint of the artist’s personality and his or her fantasies.
Plato regarded fantasy as an obstacle to comprehending the ideal. While the ideal exists, fantasies distract from its cognition. Therefore, the danger of art is that it evokes fantasies or imposes illusions of the creator. Plato distinguished between “bad” and “good” art (p. 42). Whereas the bad art is corrupting by itself, the good art is also dangerous because of the fantasies it may evoke: “Art fascinates us by exploring the meaner, more peculiar aspects of our being, in comparison with which goodness seems dull” (p. 32). Even great works of art exhibit this fascination with evil or at least compassion to it. For example, Rubens gave a very human and attractive trait to Judas by painting his dog underneath his seat in The Last Supper (p. 141).
Moreover, Kantian ethics of duty also roots in Plato’s ideas. His moral imperative is duty, and it serves in the process of reaching perfection through self-discipline and education. In that way, artist’s duty is to be a prophet of the ideal. In a strange way, serving the duty does not contradict the freedom of will because for a man trained to good, good will is rather a habit than an expression of egoism (p. 92). Murdoch basically agrees with this argument, but also warns that art subdued to the idea of morality can lose the essence of being art.
I absolutely agree with the above stated opinion because art history knows extremes of both viewpoints. Just as socialist realism that was the means of communist and socialist propaganda, “art for art’s sake” lose its moral constituent by catering to egoistic fantasies. Art indeed speaks sometimes to the darkest instincts of the man. However, just as artists strive to cognize the incognizable ideal good, they can be tempted to cognize the ideal evil, its essence and manifestations in human nature. As any human limited by their own personality, an artist can only reflect the ideal world through the lens of their perception.
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Murdoch’s philosophy has serious implications for art and artists. She considers art to be “sustained experienced mental synthesis” (p. 18) and at the same time convinces of the necessity of the moral component. Such a viewpoint suggests the necessity of the artist’s ‘unselfing’ in the first turn. Additionally, it implies that artists should strive to still their selves to better capture the light of the ideal world and to transmit it to other people.
To conclude, Iris Murdoch created an impressive analysis of the essence, sense, destination, and effect of art. With all the awareness of the limitations imposed by the objective reality, she convinces that humans intrinsically strive for the ideal which is the highest reality. However, understanding of that ideal and approaching it is possible not through the act of will, but through metanoia, the change of being. Therefore, art in any form is the best way of communicating the ideal to people as well as the instrument of ‘unselfing’ and changing of consciousness.