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The Artist & the Moral Imagination

Thoughts on Flannery O’Connor and Russell Kirk

If there exists any area in which Americans are fond of the term “royalty” than surely that area is in the arts. We members of this so-called Democratic Republic are not fond of referring to our politicians as such and therefore, since we are instinctively driven to bow the knee to someone, we instead turn to the creators of our society. That is, those who create. Our royals are writers, painters, musicians, and filmmakers. And rightly so, I think.

Russell Kirk, in 1981, wrote an essay called “The Moral Imagination”, a phrase derived from the revolutionary writings of Edmund Burke, the 18th century political philosopher. To Kirk, and to T.S. Eliot, the “moral imagination” was the mind made fully alive, fully awake, by the efforts and effects of the arts. Kirk wrote that through the arts, and specifically through great literature, one is able to discover “what it means to be genuinely human.” To Eliot the arts revealed what he called the “permanent things.” In other words, Kirk believed, the goal, the purpose, the nature of the arts was in fact to display and express this moral imagination.

Certainly, the implications of such an idea are far-reaching, for the artist as well as the consumer of art. Both must change the way they look, must open their eyes anew. If indeed the ultimate purpose of art is to reveal the “permanent things” than all other potential purposes must become subordinate to that overriding one. The artists interest to entertain, explain, or teach must be relegated to a secondary position. It would seem that it becomes the artists duty to attempt to fulfill, in whatever ways possible, this purpose.

Of course, Kirk understands that the idea itself the putting of the idea into practice are two very different things. Certainly to Kirk, and to Eliot and certainly to Flannery O’Connor in her time, this was an ideal, but it was also a creed by which to live and by which to create. In her fantastic essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, O’Connor (certainly part of the royal family of American letters) wrote that “the basis of art is truth, both in manner and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth.” Obviously O’Connor’s definition of “truth” is loaded, but I think within the context of this discussion she means something very specific. I think that she means that the artists must be abundantly conscious of the way things are. That is, the way things really are, how they work. That is, reality.

oconnor7Later in the essay she goes on to write that the artist who is interested in telling a story – and very nearly all art tells a story of some kind, whether gothic novel, noir film, landscaped yard, or punk rock song – must have “the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or situation.” O’Connor discovered as a young woman, still finding her way as a writer, that if an artist wants to present some sort of didactic message, or to purvey some sort of experience, than he must learn to accept the fact there is reality and that things do happen and are a certain way. She argued that the writer who is interested in saying something valuable must first accept things like life and death, and good and evil, and the very problematic fact that those who consume their art will, at one time or another, experience, in some way, each of those things and their effects.

Therefore the artist must, “like a very doubtful Jacob,” seek to present in their work the context and truth of reality – and with the most real-ness possible. This doesn’t diminish the possibilities of genre art, like science fiction or fantasy, but rather allows for form and frame by which the work can be fulfilled. In fact, those genre’s work because in them are the paradoxes and comparisons between the world of story and the world in which we live. Fantasy works, so to speak, because the consumer is able to identify the ways in which the world of the story and world in which they sit are different, and, subsequently, those differences, imprint upon their imagination some meaning. Hence, allegory and myth are effective means of story-telling. Even in the greatest of genre stories, people do as people are – and when they don’t that absence is meaningful. But there is a philosophical tight rope the artist must walk here.

The world of the Middle Earth is first meaningful to the reader because it is much like our world. But it is more meaningful because the reality of that world stretches beyond any reality we can possibly know, but only within the confines of the moral imagination. There are magic and wizards and hobbits and elves in that world, but there also exists good and evil. friendship and hatred, courage and fear, hope and despair, life and death. Thankfully, a world without these would not exist at all, and therefore it would do the artist well to draw them out as much as possible.

But to O’Connor the acceptance of a “real world” that was physical was not all that mattered. The artist must acknowledge, must be acutely aware, she thought, of the existence of form, of right and wrong in art-making. The artist must accept that the decisions he or she makes while in the process of creation are either right or wrong, particularly within the context and confines of the story they are creating. This is an idea that might be most important of all. Many a decent work of art has fallen short because the artist failed to acknowledge that the decision they made on behalf of a character, or color, or place could potentially be wrong, either for the work itself or the future consumer. Since the experience of consuming art is so utterly subjective, the artist must attempt to infiltrate their art with common, ultimate, universal truths, ideas whose existence and expression are known by all, in all places. Otherwise, the artist runs the risk of betraying their reader or viewer. The artist always runs the potentially devastating risk of telling a lie.

And the first truths in art are form. A period always has meaning because the sentence is, as Wendell Berry wrote, “both the opportunity and the limitation of thought.” Commas and colons and such always have meaning because ideas will always relate to one another. Beginnings and endings will always matter because all men have them. Narrative structures, and aesthetic qualities all matter because all men live lives that follow them and because all colors have relationships, with light at the very least – a solid metaphor for the life lived in a way, I think.

As Kirk wrote: “‘scientific’ truth… alters from year to year – with accelerating speed in our day. But poetic and moral truth changes little with the lapse of centuries. To the unalterable in human existence, humane letters are a great guide.”

The artist who accepts these facts and buys into them, attempting with all his might to incorporate them into his work – difficult though the task is – will, according to O’Connor, discover “vision”; he will discover that he has opened the floodgates of the moral imagination, from which will pour the truth of the centuries, and by which those who are consumers will avoid falling prey to the “ditch” of “our limited private insights.” It will be human-ness that will pour forth. And to the artist who does this well we are right, despite our democratic pride, to bow the knee.

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