The Relationship Between Art and the Soul

Article topic: 
Never Let Me Go

Art offers an insight into the soul; indeed, art is proof that we have souls.

The children at Hailsham are encouraged to produce art, or more precisely, poetry, paintings and sculptures, to be included in Madame’s somewhat mysterious gallery. Tommy speculates that the art works will offer proof that a couple can be in love. Tommy is wrong, but not entirely off the mark. The children’s art turns out to be part of an ineffectual ethical assessment of the donation programme. The capacity to produce art might prove that the cloned children have souls, and thus moral status. This conceit makes a number of interesting claims about the relationship between art and human nature.

Firstly, in order to produce art, the artist seemingly requires a creative imagination and for there to be some inner state that can be manifested in the art work. The soul is both a capacity (creative imagination) and an expressible content, some form of subjective self-awareness and a psychological life. What we glimpse of the children’s art suggests that this soul-content manifests itself only in attractive use of colour and design, and given the ridicule that Tommy’s elephant painting receives, good mimetic skills. The implication may be that the soul is little more than the ability to recognise and create that which gives aesthetic pleasure.

Towards the end of Bladerunner, the dying replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) releases a dove. If this is not a rather embarrassing example of the director just being pretentious, then it is the replicant’s inept attempt to express himself (and thus to create art). The dove is not merely beautiful. Rather its conjuring and release strives to articulate something of Batty’s emotional life; it is the manifestation of his aspirations and frustrations. Bladerunner of course grounds this question of self-expression, and thus the question of the possession of a soul or humanity, in the issue of verifiable memory. Bladerunner is thus, philosophically, rooted in John Locke’s account of personal identity in terms of memory and anticipation; Never Let me Go is more Cartesian, presupposing that art might give the clue to something akin to Descartes’ soul substance.

Secondly, only a few art genres are privileged. The children are not encouraged to perform, so there is no music, or dance or theatre. Perhaps this is simply a matter of practicality, as paintings and poems can be more readily stored and documented. But there is something more subtle here. The human soul is manifest, seemingly, in introspection, not in performance or action. It may be noted that the children play sport, and yet the creativity and free activity of sport is not considered possible evidence of the soul. There is again something worryingly Cartesian here, with its implicit dualism of the soul and body. The clones are bodies, evidently. Indeed, the problem is that they are considered little more than bodies. It is not clear that a body that is made rather than begotten (to use the vocabulary of the Nicene Creed) has a soul. The ability to use that body creatively and expressively is not considered evidence of genuine humanity.

Thirdly, the only art that seems to matter is the spontaneous, untrained, art of the child. Tommy’s art, even if created when he is a young adult, shares this lack of tuition (although it does have an expressive angularity that goes beyond the children’s art we have seen). Here, the story evokes the interest in the art of children (and ironically, in Tommy’s art, those suffering mental health problems) that was fashionable in the late 1960s. The story champions an innocence, that is uncorrupted by the artificiality and calculation of education or civilisation (and thus perhaps, the influence of television, against which Kathy protests later in the story). This art is evidence, not simply of the soul, but of the sort of soul that is possessed by Rousseau’s noble savage, or perhaps Levi-Strauss’ savage mind.

These comments hopefully suggested that the link that Never Let me Go presupposes between art and the soul is highly problematic. Neither art nor human nature are well understood. Humanity (and thus the claim to moral consideration) is reduced to the possession of a soul. Proper humans are souls that have bodies; clones simply are their bodies. The soul is a capacity for creative imagination, and this allows for the production of art. But the understanding of art is highly individualistic and intuitive. It is merely the production of beauty. Art is not allowed any communal significance, and it is stripped from its history and cultural development. It is seemingly little more than a diverting but ultimately idle play, rather than a source of self-understanding, or the expression of aspirations, hopes and fears. The irony of Tommy’s art is that is does struggle towards self-expression, and away from the merely beautiful (although it may still merely betray his tormented psychological state, rather than genuinely encourage reflection and self-understanding).

Whether these misunderstandings are those of Mark Romanek and Kazuo Ishiguro or Miss Emily and Madame is unclear. There are better indicators of humanity’s moral status (and the pursuit of art, especially in this superficial form, may blind the authors or their characters to those indicators, not least that the clones are capable of playing a full part in a human linguistic and cultural community). Perhaps, ultimately, it is the passivity of the clones before their eventual fate is evidence of their lack of a soul. Certainly, their characters are otherwise profoundly unconvincing as fictional constructions. Although even this may also be the failure of their art. Caught up in the mere production of beauty, this pseudo-art may inhibit the very self-understanding that might allow the clones to rebel.

A final thought: in 2003 a flint object was found on the Loire. It was carved, around 35000 years ago, seemingly to resemble a face, with bone fragments as eyes. It is thus an early example of art. It is thought to have been made by Neanderthals.

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