See in ‘Publications’ for the following essays related to art (links available for the first two):

  • Radiant Depth: transcendence and ethics in Rothko’s late series of paintings
  • Why Edvard Munch is a painter for this time of great anxiety
  • Ethical Depth: On Seamus Heaney’s poetry and prose.

See also the fiction pieces in which reflections on art feature:

  • George Moore, Confessions of an Old Man
  • Last Things.




The idea that artistic beauty provides a model to inspire good behaviour is part of the classical tradition deriving from Plato. But in a time when models of good behaviour are looked upon with scepticism, this lofty view no longer seems relevant. Today we are very aware that human beings are, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “all-too-human”. And we rarely hear now about how art can provide ethical sustenance.

In the twentieth century, ideals of human goodness were shattered by two world wars, the holocaust, and the enforcement of political ideologies which resulted in mass suffering and death. Artists were to the fore in reflecting this reality in their work. But it became difficult, if not impossible, for artists to express anything good about the human condition. Edward Munch’s iconic modernist painting ‘The Scream’, which dates from in 1893, expresses the pith of human alienation and anxiety and intimates something of the horror which followed during the coming century. This horror is depicted in such works as Picasso’s Guernica. And an artist such as Beckett, who served in the French Resistance during the Second World War, is reduced to near silence in his work.

Also, the very idea that human beings have a fixed nature or identity became highly questionable, in particular a nature directed towards goodness. Artists tended to depict people as fragmented and alienated, and unlikely to find moral inspiration from art or any other source. This alienation comes across, for example, in Kafka’s novels as well as in Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities and in Albert Camus’s The Outsider. Art continued to be important for expressing human experience. But the idea that art also contained ethical meaning faded, other than as a standard-bearer for uncompromising honesty in its depictions of what the reality is like.

Yet in more recent times some artists and philosophers have come to recognise that art of its nature can help bring out in us a sense of what is ethically good. They don’t say that art does, or should, promote ethics in any wishful or didactic way. Instead, they have pointed out that there are ethical features to art, even though the content of a work is about nothing good in any obvious or conventional sense. The following  are some of these features which link artworks to ethical meaning and value.

 Immanuel Kant

In the Critique of the Power of Judgment he makes quite clear that an interest in the beauty of art is “no proof of a way of thinking that is devoted to the morally good or even inclined to it” (p.178). And, as we know from the history of the Nazi regime, some of its leaders appeared to have a genuine appreciation of art while at the same time they could perpetrate atrocities. Yet Kant connects our moral sensibility with both the beauty in nature and in art. He asserts that an interest in the beauty of nature “is always the mark of a good soul” and that if the interest is “habitual, it at least indicates a disposition of mind that is favourable to the moral feeling, if it is gladly combined with the viewing of nature” (p. 178).

Also, at a deeper level, Kant links what he calls “our moral vocation” with both the beauty in nature and the beauty in art. He does this by way of putting forward an idea to explain how our judgements on what we think qualifies a work to be  a work of art, judgements which are manifestly subjective, can also be valid for others. He says first that “Nature gives the rule to art” (p.186). Nature gives the rule not in the sense of any formula, but from having an unknowable inner purpose, which he calls “purposiveness without an end” (p. 181). As far as we can see, we are all able to recognise that nature doesn’t present itself to us as having a knowable purpose. And when an artist embodies this recognition in a work, it makes it art. It is the essential element an artwork needs to have and make palpable if it is to be considered a work of art. And this unknowable purpose is an element we can all recognise in our experience of an artwork, and, on the basis of getting a sense of it, we find it is the essential ingredient which qualifies a work as specifically a work of art. For Kant this idea can explain why people tend to agree in their admiration for certain works as art, and be indifferent to or dislike other supposed artwork in which this element is lacking or absent. He’s suggesting that when we look at a painting or read or hear a poem or experience some other art form, it’s essentially because it can unsettle us by its lack of knowable purpose, or identifiable end of the kind nature has, that it also astonishes and intrigues us with admiration for a force greater than us which we can’t explain, but which is integral to our lives.

In addition, Kant says that nature’s inner purpose, which we recognise as unknowable in itself, naturally inclines us to search for its purpose within ourselves, in what we might regard as the ultimate purpose of our lives, and it is from this that our moral calling or “moral vocation” comes. As he puts it, since we can’t know to what end nature’s purposiveness is directed, it becomes something “we naturally seek within ourselves, and indeed in that which constitutes the ultimate end of our existence, namely the moral vocation…” (p181). And since “nature gives the rule to art”, our experience of art can, then, help stir in us a profound sense of having a moral vocation to do with seeking within ourselves the purpose of our lives or the ultimate end of our existence.

Where the ultimate source of our, or anyone else’s, moral vocation comes from remains in the realm of speculation. Theists posit it as coming from God; contemporary moral sense thinkers, such as Sam Harris, locate it as an element in how our species has evolved. But through art’s aesthetic power we can connect ethically with it either as an open question, or one which we feel our particular understanding might satisfy.

While we have no knowledge of nature’s purpose, we are all too aware of it power. Kant believes its power is sublime. And he links nature’s power to our propensity to be moved by beauty in nature as well as in art.  He describes beauty, whether in nature or art as something sublime which is pleasing in and of itself and not just because of our opinion. “The beautiful coincides with the sublime in that both please for themselves” (p.128).

Since Kant’s day the power of nature, which we experience as both beautiful and sublime, has taken on a greater sense of threat from the havoc it’s predicted to inflict on us unless we change our behaviour and arrest climate change from global warming. At a species level, this threat gives a sharp edge to Kant’s identification of our moral vocation with seeking nature’s purpose within what constitutes our own ultimate end. It faces us with the existential challenge of being able to secure the future of our species on a habitable planet. It also tests our courage in the face of nature’s power to a greater extent than Kant tellingly describes, in a passage which might also be judged artistic as well as philosophical:

“Bold, overhanging, as it were threatening cliffs, thunder clouds towering up into the heavens, bringing with them flashes of lightening and crashes of thunder, volcanoes with their all-destroying violence, hurricanes with the devastation they leave behind, the boundless ocean set into a rage, a lofty waterfall on a mighty river, etc., make our capacity to resist into an insignificant trifle in comparison with their power. But the sight of them only becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, as long as we find ourselves in safety, and we gladly call their object sublime because they elevate the strength of our soul above its usual level, and allow us to discover within ourselves a capacity for resistance of quite another kind, which gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent all-powerfulness of nature” (pp.144-5).

Charles Taylor

Philosopher Charles Taylor maintains that the sense of beauty in art gives us access to a source for our moral experience. In Sources of the Self he writes about art enabling us to experience an epiphany, which he describes as “a spiritually significant fullness or wholeness.” It is an experience of “translucence … where something deeper shines through …” (1989, p. 431). Realizing an epiphany is a paradigm case of what I have called recovering contact with a moral source. The epiphany is our achieving contact with something, where this contact either fosters and/or itself constitutes a spiritually significant fulfilment or wholeness (p. 425).

Taylor’s claim that art makes palpable a moral source through epiphany is one which we may be able to support from our own experience of particular artworks. Admirers of Mark Rothko’s paintings, for example, have felt spiritual fulfilment from the way the vibrant colour planes draw them into a dimension where something deep and ultimate lies present. And it’s a dimension they can identify with a moral source. People are affected in a similar way by, for example, Rilke’s poems and Rembrandt’s self-portraits and the great works of classical music.

Also, for Taylor, we cannot know conceptually what the moral source is which we experience through art. This is because we do not have towards the source a capacity for knowledge based on a subject-object relationship. The spiritually significant fulfilment or wholeness springs from “energies” or “forces”. And, unlike ideas, the energies which make the moral source palpable “are not the kind of thing which can be expressed”; instead, they are “operative among us” in a “non-expressive relation…” (p. 477). They give us a feeling of contact with a moral source, not knowledge of it.

Seamus Heaney

In ‘The Poetic Redress’, his Introduction to the book From the Republic of Conscience, a book of stories to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Seamus Heaney refers to an ethical source in poetry’s capacity to provide redress for the bad things that happen in the world, an idea he says he got from reading Simone Weil’s book Gravity and Grace. Poetry has an ethical effect of redress not because the poet has some ethical obligation to console us or to provide morally uplifting advice. It has it because, as Heaney wrote in an earlier essay, which he called similarly ‘The Redress of Poetry’, the poet has been drawn to make palpable how the potential of his inspiration to write a poem is realised in a way that is both freeing and directed:

“In this ‘redress’ there is no sense of ethical obligation; it is more a matter of finding a course for the breakaway of innate capacity; a course where something unhindered, yet directed, can sweep ahead to its full potential” (p.15).

As readers of poems, we can pick up that something both freeing and directed is being conveyed, and this fortifies our spirit by giving us a sense of something essential to human goodness. We recognise that goodness is deeply associated with the freedom that comes from realising human potential, and the poet, in bringing his inspiration to artistic accomplishment, engages us with a paradigm of this experience. Notably, the freedom involved is not arbitrary. It’s not a license to act on a whim or do as we please, for we sense that the force behind the freedom is in some way directed. And this require restraint to do it  justice.

 Martha Nussbaum

In her book Love’s Knowledge Martha Nussbaum maintains we can acquire ethical knowledge and understanding from reading in literature about how characters handle challenges, opportunities and setbacks. She points out how literature enables us to see that Aristotle’s understanding of the role of reason in enabling us to act with virtue is more nuanced and flexible than traditionally understood. For her, Aristotle is telling us that reason doesn’t act outside feelings and desires as a separate faculty in some kind of standoff attempt to control them. Instead, reason is already at work in our engagement with what is happening in situations where we notice and attend to the often complex emotional and other factors in play in our own and other people’s lives. We can follow the decisions and actions of fictional characters and their effects and consequences and learn from them to make good judgments in the circumstances of our own lives. Aristotle provided a general guide  for behaving with good character,  the doctrine of the golden mean. He advised us that we should try to avoid over-reacting or under-reacting to our feelings if we want to act with virtues, such as self-restraint, courage or honesty. And even though we may not have heard of Aristotle’s advice, as we read and enjoy a  novel we may be sensing his general guide in the background as a framework which is stimulating our interest in the lives of characters, especially in how they handle challenges.

In her re-interpretation of Aristotle’s ethics of practical wisdom, she has pointed to the need to be sensitively attuned to the rich particulars of life, along with using reason, to make good judgments, a point she sums up in Henry James’s phrase, “being finely aware and richly responsible …” (1990, 84). Notably also, for her the ethical response is not about imposing a perceived moral ideal or applying it in the abstract. This is likely to lead to an imposition of a standard for how to behave as if it was already fully understood and accomplished. She points out how working solely from an ideal can lead to “an extraordinary blindness …” (1990, 132). In her view classical ethical theories make the mistake of trying to extricate us in advance from “bewilderment in the face of the present moment” through an ethics based on rules and procedures (1990, 141). Instead, she refers to “the primacy of intuitive perception”, which she finds operating in Aristotle’s ethics along with his advice to give thought to how we want to behave (1990, 141). By foregrounding an experience of bewilderment and the primacy of intuitive perception, she is aligning a source for ethics in the kind of foundational experience artists are familiar with as the source from which they draw their art.

Susan Sontag

She makes the point that literary works offer us an insight into the interior, subjective life of a range of characters. In a sense, we live with them in the unfolding stories they go though, with its difficulties, anxieties and hopes etc. This expands our awareness of what it is like to be a human person. In particular, it can stir our understanding and empathy for others. In her book entitled At the same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning, she wrote:  

“Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent…. This doesn’t entail moralising in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories, they narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from out own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate – and, therefore, improve – our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement.”

 Karl Ove Knausgaard

A further way in which ethics functions in art is through the uplifting nature of the aesthetic experience itself. It comes from the way art can give us an original or fresh experience of the human world or of nature. This idea is expressed in Man in Love, the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s long autobiographical novel My Struggle. Karl Ove is in a beer hall having a meal and drinking with his friend Geir when Geir tells him that he sees him as someone obsessed with a state of innocence. By ‘innocence’ he means “that which has not been touched in the world, that which has not been destroyed, it is like water into which a stone has never been thrown.” He adds that Karl Ove’s “insanely huge longing for beauty comes in here as well.” And he tells him that his artistic attempt to “conserve innocence” leads him to renounce modernist artistic practices where forms are created and broken “in an endless regression.” And the renunciation is “almost saint-like in its desire to draw closer to innocence and beauty.”

In writing this passage Karl Ove is making the point that he believes artworks give us a sense of aesthetic pleasure or beauty by conveying to us something of an original, innocent or fresh experience of the world, much like we can imagine the early saints experienced through renouncing worldly temptations and engaging in ascetic practices. But it’s not that we have to become similarly ascetic to experience beauty in this sense. For, Geir tells him “it’s not like you don’t have lusts, that you don’t have desire, for you do.” It’s an experience available in the context of Karl Ove’s fairly typical domestic and social life as a husband and father in contemporary society, as well as a writer and lover of art. And seeking this kind of innocent beauty for its spiritual sustenance makes him, for Geir, “a deeply ethical person”. Geir adds that it’s not, though, a “social morality.” It’s “an aestheticism” that’s “in religion”, though a religion without a god” (pp. 530-4).

Richard Ford

Novelist Richard Ford makes the point that we can use our reading of literary novels to  make sense of our own lives in relation to the lives of the characters we are reading about.  In an essay ‘Frank and Me’ in the Financial Times (Life & Arts 25/6 October 2014) he describes the sense he has of human existence whereby “we’re all but bits and pieces forged together by some furious will.” It is a furious will that directs us towards “seeking plausibility”. Ford doesn’t specify what he means by ‘plausibility’. But there is a sense in which he sees plausibility in some credible understanding of ourselves in the world which would enable us to feel less disjointed and more complete. Plausibility comes across as some overall sense of coherence we seek to have in our lives, no matter how much success we have been able to achieve or failure we have suffered. Our need to find plausibility is something he says he tries to bring out in the lives of his fictional characters, in particular Frank Bascombe, who features first in The Sportswriter and at different stages in his life in some of Ford’s other work, including most recently in Let Me be Frank with You. It’s because Bascombe’s character is shown to be seeking plausibility that Ford believes “novels act as moral instruments.”  Through reading a novel we follow out how characters deal with the challenge of finding plausibility while feeling directed by a furious will. And implicitly we relate the responses they have to our own lives; we read their responses in the context of our own experience of feeling similarly challenged to find plausibility while under the direction of some unclear impulse or furious will. And this implicit recognition we experience  when engaged with the artwork can become explicit when we reflect on it and discuss it.

Ford is writing about the content of novels as works of literary art. So why do literary works have this ethical feature of helping us to find plausibility in our lives rather than, say, the content of biographies or documentaries or soap operas? In the classical tradition expressed by Aquinas, it’s because artworks contain qualities of wholeness, harmony and radiance. These qualities provide a sense of unity which pervades a variety or richness of material and gives the work a certain indefinable attraction or radiance. James Joyce referred to the significance of these qualities in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Seamus Heaney also referred to them in response to a question put to him in interviews he gave to Denis O’ Driscoll, interviews which were published in the book Stepping Stones. These traditional qualities underwent re-formulation in the modernist period. Instead of traditional harmony, qualities such as dissonance, disjuncture, and verbal flow and verbal play featured in works. But they are not presented at random; they are formed in an arrangement that comprises a new kind of more complex unity in keeping with the modernist sensibility.  In literature, Joyce’s Ulysses and Beckett’s plays have such qualities. Such qualities are especially evident in contemporary classical music, in the works of John Cage and Philip Glass for example. The move in poetry from rhyme and metre to free verse marked an early shift to an new kind of harmony more adequate to the reality of how the poet feels his or her experience.

Aesthetic qualities give artworks their unique form and make them meaningful in a way that is lacking in other accounts of people’s lives. This is not to say that the biography of a good man, such as Nelson Mandela, or the storyline in a soap opera, can’t be ethically instructive or influential for how we might live. Clearly they can be. But the artistic form offers a deeper, more realistic and more intense appreciation of other people’s experiences in relation to our own than other written forms. In the case of literary fiction in particular we also experience a person’s life as if from within their feelings, thoughts and conscience. This brings it right inside ourselves in how we relate to our own feelings, thoughts and conscience.