Art and moral courage

Posted in Art, Continental, Museums, Storytelling by Alex L. on February 12, 2012

Louvre Museum at dusk (image courtesy of Gloumouth1 via Wikipedia)Does being an atheist mean you have to be non-religious, asks popular philosophy writer Alain de Botton? In a new book and in an interview on the podcast Philosophy Bites, he answers that atheists should give certain religious practices a second look.

Himself an atheist, de Botton argues these points in the interview: (1) it’s easy for people of all beliefs to forget moral lessons they’ve learned in the past and continue repeating their mistakes, (2) religions do a good job of creating a “moral atmosphere” that inspires people to think about goodness, evil, suffering, and kindness; (3) art museums should organize at least some of their galleries not chronologically but thematically, taking inspiration from church services that through the senses invite the viewer to consider moral and ethical questions; and (4) atheists should adopt for themselves ideas that they like from any religion just like one may both like and dislike certain parts of the same work of literature.

Can going to a museum make one morally courageous? I agree with de Botton’s first proposition, and I also think that art can remind us of our values. For me, narrative-centered art forms like film, literature, and biography have the strongest impact on reinforcing my beliefs (or challenging them, for that matter). Static forms of art (like painting) or highly stylized ones (like opera) are more difficult for me to apply to my life. Even though I still enjoy them, I lack a mental paradigm to delve into their truths. Music, poetry, and philosophy writing break down for me in the middle: the more their arguments and observations are delivered in a narrative form, the more I am capable of thinking seriously about them.

When people go astray and find themselves lacking in courage, I don’t think they have forgotten what their beliefs are. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have pangs of conscience. What they forget is why they once came to those convictions in the first place. The emotional underpinnings of their philosophy: this scaffolding is often torched by our poor memory for moral lessons.

A narrative-based work of art leads its audience’s emotions along a virtual highway back to their original convictions. I agree with de Botton that immersive museum experiences can help us reinforce good values, just like many other arts venues. But there are obvious limitations. First, the viewer has to be a conscientious person who thinks critically about ideas. Second, it’s hard to imagine a museum inspiring the same sense of community–which also aids in moral courage–as one finds in a religious congregation. Third, as de Botton himself suggests, perhaps slashing undesirable religious ideas from one’s personal philosophy while keeping others may undermine the function of religion as a method of challenging our selfishness.

I don’t think de Botton supplants religion with his philosophy. Rather, I think he tries to dam a certain tributary of Western thought: the idea that morality is no longer a primary human concern because religious institutions have lost their central place in society. Topics like goodness, courage, suffering, and justice should be everybody’s business, says the philosopher.

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