Art is for Seeing Evil

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In a new piece for The Point, titled “Art is for Seeing Evil”, philosopher Agnes Callard discusses the central role that art, in particular narrative fiction, has occupied in her course syllabi over the years. To answer why, Callard offers the simple yet provocative theory that “art is for seeing evil.” For Callard, evil is “the whole range of negative human experience, from being wronged, to doing wrong, to sheer bad luck.” In addition to serving as the essential ingredient of narrative fiction, this evil is often hidden from the ordinary experience of life. “Life is censored,” Callard argues: 

We are relentlessly efficient in targeting our movements, including those of our eyeballs, at some apparent good. Even our mental movements—thought processes—are subject to this regulative pressure. You permit a problem into your line of sight only insofar as you are looking for solutions to it; we instruct our children to ponder the mistakes they’ve made, but only so as to do better in the future; holding wrongdoers accountable is important because it allows us to “move forward.” The value of mourning lies in “working through” grief; crying is a way to “let it out.” When you criticize someone, you should do so “constructively.” The soul is like a compass; it can’t help but point goodwards almost all of the time.

In our relentless pursuit of good, we become the “censor of [our] own reality.” When we cannot use suffering as the raw material for our own betterment, when we are unable to put a positive spin on our own misfortune, when “harms refuse to take the friendly shape of surmountable obstacles,” we turn away, resigning ourselves to “swim in an invisible sea composed of all that is irrelevant, unhelpful or downright wicked.”

Art forces us to turn our attention back to the evils of the world, not to look for its inherent good, but to revel in its badness. “The point of art is not improved living,” Callard concludes. “[T]he point of art is precisely not to be boxed in by the sometimes exhausting and always blinkered project of leading a life.”

Callard’s essay prompted me to reconsider my Life Design reading list and explore the ways in which I might incorporate art – fiction, poetry, painting, music, etc. – so as to force my students’ attention to the evils they will encounter throughout whatever life they ultimately pursue. No life will ever be as neat as the one they imagine in the design process. Careers will take unexpected turns to be sure. But so too will marriages fall apart, loved ones get sick, and friendships end. Racism, sexism, and homophobia – rarely addressed in Life Design – will impact their lives in seen and unseen ways. Evils will shape their aspirations and help define who they ultimately become, so perhaps its prudent to avoid censoring evil from our syllabi.

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