I’ve just read a transcript of an interview between Bryan Magee and Iris Murdoch. The interview is particularly interesting now that we are living in the midst of a culture where so many musicians are trying to use their art to advocate for social issues.
Magee points out that the primary example we have of people doing this in modern times is Marxist artists. Marxists tended to view art as only valuable in didactic terms. (I know there are some more complex Marxist approaches to this problem, but I don’t really think they get around the main issue without giving up their Marxism.)
Murdoch is quick to respond by saying, “I certainly do not believe that it is the artist’s task to serve society…As soon as a writer says to himself, ‘I must try to change society in such and such ways by my writing,’ he is likely to damge his work.”
Magee responds by saying basically, ‘Yeah, but what about Dickens?’ Murdoch responds with a, ‘Well, true, but he’s the exception because he’s really good. Most people aren’t that good.’
Further down, she gets to the rub. “There is always something moral which goes down further than the ideas, the structures of good literary works are to do with erotic mysteries and deep dark struggles between good and evil.”
Ultimately, the difference between art that suffers from being overly didactic and great works is a matter of space. “A great work of art gives one a sense of space, as if one had been invited into some large hall of reflection.”
So let’s make some space in our art.