Be Still and Know that I Am an Artist

Margaret Atwood tells a joke:

The Devil comes to the writer and says, “I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation—of this century. No—this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and also the richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul.”

“Sure,” says the writer, “Absolutely—give me the pen, where do I sign?” Then he hesitates. “Just a minute,” he says. “What’s the catch?”

Atwood uses this fictional exchange to explore “the problem of moral and social responsibility in relation to the content of a work of art.” The passage appears in chapter four of her 2002 book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I’m still in chapter three, but I skipped ahead.

Negotiating with the Dead is a literary essay on the writer as artist. At least, that’s true of the half I’ve read so far. Chapter 3, titled “The Great God Pen,” traces the Art Wars generally, and the world of poetry and fiction as a theatre of war in particular. And she examines an interesting argument—strictly syllogistic, mind you—that “we should devote ourselves to beauty-worship.” An unexpected but crucial premise in this argument is Jesus’ declaration, “The truth shall make you free.”

The interesting story here is that art has displaced religion in a secular society. Atwood isn’t all that explicit about this. But what she says is suggestive. Her chapter begins with clichéd questions about literary worth and money. Since writers are warned against unrealistic expectations of monetary gain, they must come to grips with deeper incentives. One possibility commends “the social usefulness of art.” But writers beguiled by this idyllic motive are victims of censorship, often inflicted by themselves. “Thus, the heroes of Art became those who were willing, as they say, to push the envelope.”

In due course, this pushed artists in the direction of a “pure aesthetic” that pitted art against moral purpose. The upshot, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is that beauty, rather like God, “is its own excuse for being.”

Oscar Wilde drew out religious parallels with art that imitate the language of Christianity, says Atwood. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde wrote, “No artist has ethical sympathies.” He added, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.”

The artist is a high priest of the imagination. But this does not require scruples. When it comes to Art, some get it and some don’t. Art for art’s sake is non-utilitarian. It disdains mammon and turns a blind eye to social responsibility. For a writer of this persuasion, there is no accountability. The only ultimate is the instinct of the artist.

Atwood explores this theme without committing herself to its creed. But she does seem to think that there are only two other motives for writing. They are writing for monetary gain and writing to fulfill a social responsibility of one sort or another.


Atwood is probably best known for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), depicting an apocalyptic future with the world’s women in subjection to a theocracy run by fanatical devotees of the Bible. The film adaptation appeared in 1990, starring Faye Dunnaway, Natasha Richardson, and Robert Duvall.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

10 Responses to Be Still and Know that I Am an Artist

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Amanda, thanks for the heads-up about Hershman and Lieb. The relationship between manic depression and creativity is a fascinating area of research.

    I don’t have much experience writing about art. But I’ll post a short entry on my blog about one of the items you’ve done and link it to your site by way of a trackback. It will give me a chance to test some of the principles set forth in three writing books I strongly recommend. In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser includes a chapter on “Writing about the Arts.” Zinsser also has a chapter on “Art and Artists” in Writing to Learn. Peter Elbow provides a list of 18 prompts, “questions to help you write about a work of art,” in his book Writing with Power.


  2. Amanda says:

    Thanks Doug! I find it amusing that 3 out of the 4 pieces you like are my digital art, which I would argue I’m less than skilled at. The Guitar was great fun doing, though. Now if only more musicians would have me re-create their busted up musical instruments. 🙂 But please feel free to comment on my blog on anything you like, or dislike for that matter; both are valid and I love getting feedback.

    I have read Jamison’s book. I also enjoyed Hershman & Lieb’s Manic Depression and Creativity. They touch on Newton, Beethoven, Dickens, as well as VanGogh.

    And yes, the Rockies are amazing. I’ve recently moved to Edmonton from New Brunswick (Canadian maritimes=ocean and beaches). So we are close to the Rockies but not visually close. My hubby and I are actually planning on going to Banff this weekend camping, although, by the sounds of things it might be a tad cold.


  3. Doug Geivett says:

    Amanda, my experience of Alberta is of the Canadian Rockies region. It sounds like you’re stationed east of there. Alas.

    Those are interesting details about Van Gogh. I’m reminded of Kay Redfield Jamison’s book Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. She shows how the thread of bipolar distress haunted and continues to haunt so many leading artists. Jamison is a psychiatrist who suffers from bipolar mood disorder and has written a liberating treatment of this in her earlier book An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.

    As for your own art, I especially like the Guitar (very cool), “Cheers” (fun), “Thinker” (my favorite), and “Pierced” (provocative).


  4. Amanda says:

    Hi Doug,

    Thanks, but I’m not sure if I’d say I was blessed to be in Alberta. Perhaps if I started painting cows and critiquing the oil industry more I’d get more publicity. 😛 But hey, if you know of anyone looking to commission some work, let me know. I’ll ship anywhere.

    With regards to Van Gogh’s religious background, the earlier part of his life was when he was the most religious. When he was 25 he tried to take after his father and join the ministry; however, that was short lived due to his mental illness (which they’ve now labeled as manic depression). Because of his illness he took things to extremes. He’d give away all his money and clothes, even what he was wearing—which some would argue is a very noble Christian act, but it got to the point where his extreme generosity caused him to become ill and malnourished. How could a man that couldn’t take care of himself lead a people to God? So, he was kicked out of the ministry on more than one occasion. Unable to discern reality from fiction (due primarily from his mania) he claimed that this modern Christianity was too decadent. Because he had such a religious framework he had to worship something, and when he could no longer enter the ministry he turned completely to art. He was quoted as saying: “I can very well do without a benevolent deity in my life and also in my painting. But I can’t do without something which is bigger than myself and constitutes my very life, the capacity to create.”

    So that’s that. 🙂 Hope I helped to shed a bit of light on that topic for you.


  5. Doug Geivett says:

    OK, then, Rebecca!


  6. Hi Doug: Thanks for the email and your great comments. I’d love to be on your blogroll! The Book Lady loves new friends.


  7. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for dropping in. It’s great to have an artist like yourself pay a visit here. You’re blessed to be working in Alberta.

    Do you know anything about Van Gogh’s early religious background?


  8. Amanda says:

    Interesting review. Atwood seems to be borrowing from the Marlowes’ “Doctor Faustaus” framework. Atwood’s use of art as the secular religion is actually something that’s been prominent for many years if perhaps aimed more at the visual artists. I remember reading that VanGogh always struggled with being religious and due to mental illness ended up developing an almost reverend and spiritual love of art. All the same, I wouldn’t mind giving it a read sometime.


  9. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    I’ve just read your review of The Handmaid’s Tale. I look forward to reading more of your reviews, and I hope visitors to my blog will pay a visit to The Book Lady’s Blog.

    Would you mind if I added your site to my blogroll?


  10. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for sharing this essay…I hadn’t heard of it yet. I recently read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale and have reviewed it at The Book Lady’s Blog . Not sure how it took me so long to get around to reading it. Her recent short story collection Moral Disorder was also excellent.


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