The art of philosophy

For the last three years, senior Becky Moon has utilized her passion for art to create meaningful paintings inspired by her Arts & Sciences philosophy courses. Recently, Moon developed the solo art exhibition “Sea of Perception,” which was on display at Harvard University last October. She now illustrates philosophical concepts for scholars across the country and is in the process of creating a picture book inspired by the philosopher Iris Murdoch.

Moon met with the Ampersand in her Walker Hall studio to discuss her path to WashU, how she blends her studies in Arts & Sciences and the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, and what’s next for her work.

"Affordances," 2023, Acrylics on canvas, 16x12 inches. Inspired by Affordances and the Contents of Perception (2014) by Susanna Siegel. Image courtesy of Becky Moon.

What drew you to WashU?

I was looking for a strong arts program, but I was also interested in the humanities because I had been very involved in human rights activism during high school in South Korea. I wanted a school that offered strong programs in both. WashU is the oldest art school west of the Mississippi, and I knew it was a place where I could study humanities as well.

Becky Moon at her studio in Walker Hall. (Photo by Genevieve Avellino)

How do you describe your art?

I was in an Uber the other day and the driver asked me what kind of art I do. I said, “I paint philosophical things.” She followed up with, “So, do you paint people or nature or what?” and I ended up saying, “I paint rocks sometimes.” Philosophy is in the form of language, and language is quite abstract and nonvisual. So, I transcribe philosophy concepts back into a visual form. That’s why my work always has a figure in it, whether it’s a person or a rock.

How did you begin applying your passion for art to philosophy?

I took a philosophy course called “Present Moral Problems” which made me realize I had synesthesia, which is when you see a corresponding image when you read something. As I learned about philosophy concepts, I visualized them as doodles. I thought maybe I could use this and make it part of my art practice.

The next year, I enrolled in a philosophy-neuroscience-psychology course called “Art and the Mind-Brain,” which combined philosophy with themes of mind aesthetics and perception. It introduced me to the philosophical research surrounding the way art is perceived and that led me to look deeper into perception and philosophy, influencing my current “Sea of Perception” exhibition.

How has your experience illustrating philosophical concepts shaped your perspective on the world around you?

Ever since I started diving into the philosophy of perception, I’ve started to have more appreciation for seeing and perceiving. We take perception for granted because it happens all the time, but there is so much magic and mystery behind the way we see things.

You’ve worked with several philosophers to illustrate journal and book covers. Tell us about those experiences.

Cover art for "The Philosophy of War and Violence" by Becky Moon.

I did a cover for the Washington University Review of Philosophy's second issue, "The Philosophy of War and Violence," in 2022. It gained a lot of attention because it isn’t common for an artist to read every article in a journal and transform all the elements into a visual piece. One of the journal’s authors, Susanna Siegel, wrote to our editor saying she liked the cover. She is one of the most important scholars in the philosophy of perception, and I wrote many essays about her in my classes. So, I reached out to her and asked if she’d be interested in collaborating.

Before I met Susanna, my art was often inspired by philosophers from the past, so it has been awesome getting to work with a living philosopher who can answer my questions. When I talk with her, I discover new ways of portraying things. I spent my junior year turning her examples and arguments into 11 paintings, six drawings, and three sculptures that were on display at Harvard.

At the moment, I am working on three projects. First, I’m making an image and logo for philosophers Sarah Kathleen Robins (PhD '12) and Marta Caravà of Purdue University for their philosophy of memory research blog, "Memory Palace."  I'm also creating a painting for Laura Frances Callahan of the University of Notre Dame, who has a project called "Intellectual Humility and Oppression." Finally, I am making a children's book inspired by Irish-British philosopher Iris Murdoch's 1970 book "The Sovereignty of Good," which is about learning to look at things with "just and loving attention" to see the good in things. The book will be on display at the American Philosophical Association's Central Division Meeting in February.

Do you have any advice for students who want to combine seemingly different subject matters in their studies at WashU?

When you have two different interests, picture a circle, not a horseshoe. Even if two things feel entirely separate, there will be a crossing point somewhere. Whether it’s now or later, you will eventually find the intersection, so keep thinking outside the box!