4 What is the Connection Between Art and Morality?
This chapter explores some problems that arise when one considers the relation between art and morality.
The first section questions whether it is possible for the artistic value and the moral value of an artwork to interact. Some have denied that this is the case: while an artwork may well be correctly judged as being moral or immoral, this judgment has no bearing on the evaluation of the artistic merit of the artwork. Other philosophers disagree: they think they can show ways in which the moral flaws of an artwork negatively affect its artistic value, and some even believe they can show how moral flaws may at times enhance the artistic value of a work.
The second section of this chapter examines whether and how artworks may further our moral knowledge and understanding. Some philosophers have been sceptical about this possibility, as it is unclear what sort of knowledge could be communicated by a novel or a painting. Others have challenged this view, questioning the assumption that we acquire moral knowledge in the same way in which we learn truths in other areas.
Interaction between Artistic and Moral Value
Anti-Interactionist Views: Radical and Moderate Autonomism
We start by examining two anti-interactionist positions. They are anti-interactionist in that they deny that an artwork’s moral value, if it exists, could have a bearing on its artistic value.
The first is radical autonomism, that is, the idea that artworks cannot be judged in moral terms. “Autonomism” refers to the separation of artistic and moral value, as these are considered as independent domains. The adjective “radical” further specifies that the artistic and moral sphere are completely independent—not only do they never affect each other, but it doesn’t even make sense to evaluate an artistic object in moral terms.
A way to flesh out the radical autonomist view relies on the idea of a category mistake. A category mistake occurs when a property is attributed to an object belonging to a category that does not support such properties. For instance, it would be a category mistake to say that the number three is smelly, as smelliness is not a property numbers (as abstract objects) could possibly have. The radical autonomist claims that attributing ethical properties to artworks is a category mistake, as artworks do not support the attribution of such properties.
Richard Posner concedes that art may represent all sorts of morally good or bad acts but argues that this is insufficient to show that art may be moral or immoral. These represented acts and attitudes are simply part of an artwork’s raw material (Posner 1997, 7). He holds that art may be evaluated from an ethical point of view only if it can educate morally, as this would show that art in fact may impact people’s sense of what is right and wrong, and thus be worthy of ethical assessment. However, Posner firmly denies that art may contribute to moral education. He is therefore committed to a form of radical autonomism.
Radical autonomism seems implausible, as there are many cases in which critics and lay people alike express moral judgments regarding artworks. Radical autonomism would need a theory that could explain why we erroneously and systematically describe artworks in ethical terms if they should not be so described.
Moderate autonomism avoids this problem by adopting a more defensible view. It accepts that artworks may be assessed for their ethical value, but also holds that this evaluation never bears on artistic value. In other words, moderate autonomism concedes that we may describe artworks as wicked or virtuous, while still judging them to be artistic accomplishments of the highest order, because the two evaluations do not interact.
This view is more compatible with the way people usually talk about art, as it makes sense of the cases in which we praise an artwork for its artistic merits despite our reservation for the moral attitude it displays. For instance, people may still consider Wagner’s Ring Cycle a great work of art, while at the same time condemning its implicit anti-Semitism. These examples are taken by the moderate autonomist as a reason to keep artistic and ethical evaluation separate.
Anti-interactionism, in the form of moderate autonomism, remains a popular position, although it has to face some objections. For one thing, moderate autonomism still seems incompatible with much art criticism, in which ethical considerations often figure in the evaluation of an artwork’s artistic merits. Moreover, moderate autonomism would contradict intuitions artists sometimes have on the relation between the morality of their work and its artistic value. A cartoonist may think that part of her artistic success depends on moral features of her work: if her cartoons are based on easy irony targeting disadvantaged groups, the resulting product will not just be morally problematic, but also artistically defective.
In addition to these objections, moderate autonomism is threatened by any successful argument that shows how an artwork’s moral value may impact its artistic value. The next section explores arguments of this sort.
Interactionist Views: Moderate Moralism, Ethicism, and Immoralism
Over the past three decades, philosophers have produced powerful rejections of the anti-interactionist positions we have just examined. These philosophers think they can show how the moral character of an artwork may have an impact on its artistic value.
Interactionist views try to make sense of ethical criticism, that is, the practice of bringing ethical judgments concerning artworks to bear on their artistic evaluation. What follows is a presentation of some notable interactionist proposals.
Noël Carroll holds an interactionist view he terms “moderate moralism” (Carroll 1996). This position is committed to the idea that sometimes ethical flaws are artistic flaws and sometimes ethical virtues are artistic virtues.
Carroll’s main argument for moderate moralism is the “uptake argument”. Artworks often require emotional uptake, in that they aim at arousing emotional responses in their audience. The moral character of the figures and events represented in the artwork are important to secure the audience’s uptake. Carroll draws this observation from Aristotle, who, in the Poetics, had observed how a tragic hero could not be a completely flawless character, otherwise we would react to her fate with outrage, rather than with pity. In these cases, an author’s ability in designing an appropriate character or event may affect emotional uptake by a morally sensitive audience. Now, a failure to produce the relevant uptake occurs sometimes because the author fails to understand the appropriate ethical response to a certain character. This is an ethical failure: the author cannot understand the response that is appropriate to the character she presents. But it is at the same time a failure in designing an appropriate character, that is, a character that would provoke the intended response, and so it is also an artistic failure.
Carroll exemplifies his view with an interpretation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991). This work was intended as a satire of capitalistic society and attempted to pursue this goal by presenting a serial killer engaging in brutal murders and other morally repulsive acts—the point being perhaps that capitalism promotes a view of human beings as disposable commodities. Carroll observes how many readers are unable to get past the shocking brutality of the facts related by the novel. As a result, they fail to appreciate the underlying satirical intent. According to Carroll, Ellis’s strategy rests on an ethical mistake, namely that of underestimating the effect of gratuitous violent murders on the audience’s emotional response. In turn, this mistake undermines the novel’s satirical intent, and thereby its artistic value.
We shall now consider two objections against the uptake argument, both due to Berys Gaut (2007, 228–30). A first problem is Carroll’s appeal to a morally sensitive audience. Carroll needs this concept because it is perfectly conceivable to imagine a morally perverted audience that would have no uptake issues with an immoral work.
Consider Leni Riefenstahl’s movie Triumph of the Will (1935), a propaganda documentary for the Nazi regime. We may guess that many of the original viewers of Riefenstahl’s film did not have any problem with a work celebrating Hitler. In cases like this, the work’s perspective, however immoral, would not result in a failure of uptake, and so would not diminish the artistic value of the work. The uptake argument only works if one is committed to the idea that an artwork’s artistic value must be assessed from the standpoint of a morally sensitive audience, but Carroll does not offer any argument in support of this claim.
The second objection goes as follows. According to Carroll, failure of uptake results in an artistic flaw because it prevents the artwork from absorbing the viewer’s attention and engaging her emotions. Now, even granting that absorption is a general goal of artworks, nothing prevents us from imagining a case in which a work’s morally flawed perspective would sustain such an absorption and emotional engagement. So it does not seem that a moral flaw is always going to hinder uptake and sustained engagement. As Gaut observes, one may be absorbed by The Triumph of the Will precisely on the grounds of the warped moral outlook it displays (2007, 228).
Gaut believes he has a better interactionist strategy than Carroll’s uptake argument, the so-called “merited response argument”. This argument is similar to Carroll’s uptake argument, although it results in a considerably stronger position, ethicism. This is a bolder position than moderate moralism, which is simply committed to the idea that moral flaws/virtues sometimes decrease/increase artistic value. Ethicism holds that if an artwork possesses an artistically relevant moral flaw/virtue, this will always count also as an artistic flaw/virtue.
The merited response argument can be summarised as follows. Artworks typically attempt to provoke certain responses to those who appreciate them. One can say that artworks prescribe certain responses; in other words, they invite us to have such responses. For example, horror movies prescribe a fear response when they employ suspenseful music before a jump scare. Artworks may be more or less successful in prescribing these responses. Some horror movies may set up jump scares in such a way that they systematically fail in arousing fear in the audience. In this case, the prescribed response is unmerited; it is undeserved, as the artwork doesn’t quite do what it takes for the intended response to occur. Sometimes a prescribed response is unmerited because of aesthetic reasons—the music may have been bad or the acting unconvincing. On other occasions, however, the prescribed response is unmerited on ethical grounds. For instance, some of Gainsborough’s portraits of wealthy landowners may prescribe admiration and respect for individuals who have attained their status in morally unacceptable manners. This response is unmerited, not because of artistic or technical shortcomings of the painting, but rather because the object of admiration is in fact morally repulsive. In these cases, the artwork is artistically lacking because of its flawed moral perspective. Note that this strategy does not require an appeal to the ideal sensitive moral audience needed by Carroll’s uptake argument. The claim here is simply that the artistic value of the work is compromised because it relies on a response that should not be adopted, as it is not merited on ethical grounds.
Ethicism is also committed to the idea that a work’s morally commendable perspective is going to enhance the work’s artistic value. Gaut thinks that the merited response argument can prove this too, as a work’s ethically commendable attitude provides reasons to adopt the response prescribed by the work.
A criticism of ethicism is that it appears to construe moral value as a constituent of artistic value (McGregor 2014, 454). A morally appropriate attitude or prescribed response is thus part of what may render a work artistically valuable. The problem with this is that ethicism would turn into the uninteresting claim according to which moral value, as a subset of artistic value, has an impact on artistic value.
Another objection against ethicism questions the idea that attitudes manifested by artworks may be ethically assessable. If these attitudes are directed towards imaginary objects, as opposed to real ones, it would seem inappropriate to regard them as morally commendable or reproachable. Gaut rejects this point, as he holds that even attitudes towards imaginary objects may be ethically assessable. For instance, we would certainly consider someone’s sexual fantasies as blameworthy if they were entirely constituted by rape fantasies involving imaginary women. Of course, this example only shows that some attitudes to imaginary objects are ethically assessable; it remains to show that that all are, and this is a contentious point.
It is important to stress that ethicism is not committed to the idea that a morally flawed/praiseworthy work is always going to be artistically defective/accomplished overall. Ethicism is simply committed to the idea that the attitudes expressed in the work count towards the work’s artistic evaluation. A work manifesting an immoral attitude may then still be artistically praiseworthy because of some redeeming features. For instance, according to ethicism, Titian’s Rape of Europa may still be a great work of art despite the sexist attitude it promotes (see Box 1).
Box 1: Ethical flaws and artistic achievement: Titian’s Rape of Europa
Titian’s Rape of Europa (1560–62) is often praised as an artistic achievement of the highest order, as it showcases many of the features that make Titian a towering figure in the history of Western art.
Anne W. Eaton (2003) argues that these artistic merits are partly marred by an ethical flaw in the painting. She argues that Titian’s work does not simply represent rape, but eroticises it, depicting Europa as if she is taking pleasure in the act, while still clearly presenting her abduction by Jupiter as unwanted and forced. By doing so, Titian’s painting displays the ethically flawed view according to which women may in fact enjoy sexual abuse, despite their apparent resistance.
Eaton holds that the artistic value of the painting is diminished by the fact that so many of its artistically valuable features depend on our acceptance of an ethically flawed perspective. She observes how several of the painting’s notable features contribute to the attitude it manifests concerning Europa’s rape. The colours are joyous, and the painting’s atmosphere serene; Europa’s expression is often interpreted as betraying ecstasy more than pain or fear, and the painting’s composition directs our gaze to her pubic region.
We have seen how some authors have proposed explanations of how an artwork’s moral flaws may diminish its artistic value. But is it possible to conceive of cases in which a work’s flawed moral perspective actually enhances its artistic value? The view held by those who answer these questions positively is generally named “immoralism.” It holds that sometimes a moral flaw may enhance the artistic value of an artwork.
Daniel Jacobson supports a form of immoralism in observing that morally reprehensible art may be considered artistically successful precisely because it gets us to respond to its content in the way we think we should not respond (1997, 187). For instance, a caricature or political cartoon may show an individual or a group as deserving a response that we think is morally undeserved, and it may do this so well that our moral considerations are overridden. This is a moral flaw of the caricature, yet it is also an artistic merit. Commentators agree that Jacobson fails in providing compelling examples in support of his immoralist view, and that he is generally vague regarding its details.
Matthew Kieran has advanced a position he terms “cognitive immoralism.” His view is that some works of art present us with obviously immoral attitudes but do so in order to teach something with regard to those attitudes (2006, 138). An example is the Belgian pseudo-documentary movie Man Bites Dog, in which the everyday routine of a serial killer is related in an atmosphere of surreal and dark humour, abruptly dispelled by a scene in which the camera crew becomes involved in a brutal rape. After this, it becomes impossible for most viewers to maintain the same kind of amused response that they deemed appropriate to the rest of the movie. According to Kieran, this twist in the narrative highlights how far we can get in the representation of extreme violence whilst still being able to laugh at it. Thus, the film makes a moral point through its immoral character, as it gets us to think critically about our responses to violence in fiction. How does this support the interactionist thesis? According to Kieran, Man Bites Dog works because it gets us to respond to brutal murders with a response that is ethically problematic, but it redeems itself artistically because it is in virtue of its capacity to provoke and sustain unmerited responses that it allows us to learn an important moral lesson.
An objection to cognitive immoralism is that the immorality of the artwork in these cases is merely apparent, as the ultimate attitude the work takes on its subject matter is a morally commendable one. If this is true, then cognitive immoralism would have failed to show that immoral art can be artistically valuable in virtue of its immorality (Eaton 2012, 289).
Anne W. Eaton has developed an ingenious case for immoralism based on the figure of the “rough hero” (Eaton 2012). A rough hero is a deeply and intrinsically flawed character who is also presented as sympathetic, likeable, and even admirable. Eaton’s example of choice is that of Tony from the television series The Sopranos. Tony is a mobster and has a number of serious moral flaws, yet he typically gets the audience’s sympathy. This is puzzling, as normally a morally flawed character generates some degree of imaginative resistance, that is, a reluctance and difficulty in the audience to follow along and adopt an attitude that is deemed unethical.
However, a successful rough hero figure is endowed with features that would normally motivate imaginative resistance, while at the same time being presented in such a way that this resistance is ultimately partly abandoned. In this way, fictions containing a rough hero manifest an artistic achievement, as they tread the fine line between imaginative resistance and positive responses. In appreciating fictions containing a rough hero, we feel tempted by both reactions, and the success of these fictions is partly in their capacity to keep this tension going.
If this is an artistic achievement, then it is one that depends essentially on the morally flawed attitude of the work towards the rough hero, where the flaw in the work’s attitude resides in its presentation of a morally repulsive figure as likeable and admirable.
It is important to stress that immoralism does not rule out the possibility, explored by moderate moralism and ethicism, of moral flaws that impact negatively the artistic value of a work. Immoralism is simply committed to the additional claim that sometimes a moral flaw may enhance the artistic value of a work of art.
Art and Moral Knowledge
In the preceding sections we assumed that artworks mandate certain responses, some of which are related to our moral attitudes. We also saw how an artwork can manifest an attitude towards objects or events it represents, and thus may have a moral perspective on such things.
Given these rather strong connections between art and morality, some philosophers have wondered whether it is also possible for artworks to teach us something about morality. It is rather uncontroversial that life events may develop our sense for what is right and wrong. Whether the fictional world of a work of art could do the same is open to question, but we have already seen that some of the interactionist arguments presented above relied on the alleged capacity of art to teach us moral lessons.
As noted earlier, Posner denies that art may educate morally. He observes that it just seems false that art has a great impact on the morality of those who appreciate it. We find good and bad characters among the uneducated crowds just as often as we do among the finest art critics (Posner 1997, 5). Moreover, even if we concede that we learn psychological truths from art, it would not follow from this that we also learn the disposition to act justly upon those truths, which is required for genuine moral advancement (10).
Jerome Stolnitz also defends a sceptical position on the matter. He argues that the truths that art is supposed to teach us do not possess the distinctive features possessed by truths of the more indubitable sort, such as scientific or common-sense truths. For one thing, the truths gleaned from art seem curiously immune to contradiction (Stolnitz 1992, 196). William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus (1888) holds that “I am the master of my fate;/ I am the captain of my soul.” Henley seems to be saying that people, or at least some people, are in complete control of their lives. Greek tragedies, on the other hand, seem to hold that people can never control their fate. According to Stolnitz, we are undisturbed by these formal contradictions because we are not dealing with propositions aimed at truth.
Secondly, truths need some kind of confirmation, some evidence in their support. But confirmation eludes the truths we find expressed in great works of art, as many of their alleged moral lessons behave like bad generalizations when applied to a broader set of cases taken from the real world (Stolnitz 1992, 196–97). For instance, Pride and Prejudice may be interpreted as a story of how “stubborn pride and ignorant prejudice keep attractive people apart” (193). But is this anything that one may generalise and apply with some confidence to any other context? Stolnitz thinks that the answer to this is negative.
Martha C. Nussbaum firmly rejects many of the presuppositions on which views such as Stolnitz’s are grounded. Stolnitz assumes that moral knowledge is something like a list of true propositions, or a set of general rules. Nussbaum, following Aristotle, believes that moral knowledge is much broader than that, as it includes emotional and volitional activity, that is, emotional responses, feeling, desires, and the like (1992, 40). Relatedly, she denies that general rules may exhaust our ethical knowledge, as this rests crucially on our capacity to react appropriately in the context of very specific situations (153). Because of this, some novels may in fact be just as important for our understanding of morality as standard works in ethics. These typically discuss far-fetched and simplified cases in order to draw general conclusions, whereas novels avoid idealised and regularised features, and present instead highly particularised scenarios.
I conclude by noting some ways in which the possibility of gaining moral knowledge from art may impact the debate examined in the first section of this chapter. As a first example, think of Nussbaum’s claim that we may gain moral knowledge from some novels. As we have just seen, the capacity novels have to develop our moral sensibility is strictly tied to the style and content of the novel in question, as it is dependent on a perceptive presentation of highly particularised scenarios. This may suggest that the moral value of a work may enhance its artistic value. The work’s artistically valuable features acquire part of their value from their unique capacity of providing moral insight. If all of this is true, then it may lend support to interactionist views such as moderate moralism.
Secondly, some of the views considered above explicitly rely on art’s capacity to provide moral knowledge (or lack thereof). Posner’s defense of radical autonomism is partly supported by his denial that works educate morally. Kieran’s defense of cognitive immoralism rests on the claim that artworks adopting immoral perspectives may enhance our moral understanding, and Gaut’s cognitive argument for ethicism relies on a similar assumption.
Box 2: Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters and moral knowledge
Matthew Kieran considers Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885) an illustration of how artworks have the capacity to further our moral education (1996, 344–46). The painting represents poor peasants gathered for their meagre meal. In a letter, Van Gogh expressed the view that pictures of peasants painted in a rough style, without the charming quality that is often found in depictions of the rural world, might give people a better sense of the harshness of that lifestyle—compare Van Gogh’s work with peasant paintings by Jean-Batiste-Camille Corot to understand the sort of charming quality that Van Gogh considered inappropriate. According to Kieran, this painting’s capacity to enhance our moral understanding depends on the fact that Van Gogh is prescribing us to imagine what it is like to be poor peasants who, in spite of their harsh material conditions, lead their lives with dignity and mutual respect. These prescribed imaginings would be hindered, Kieran observes, by a highly polished pictorial style, which would romanticise the picture and perhaps make us oblivious to the struggles of the people represented in it.
Lastly, but perhaps most interestingly, Cynthia Freeland notes that, if we grant that art may change our moral outlook, then we should be open to the possibility that our judgment as to the moral character of the artwork is itself going to be impacted by the artwork’s effect on our moral sensibility (1997, 18). This point might be dismissed in the case of single artworks—after all, how much could a work possibly change our moral compass? However, Freeland’s suggestion gains relevance if we think of cases in which our evaluation bears on various works, all sharing the same outlook. Imagine a series of highly aestheticised propaganda documentaries. On our first encounter, the documentaries’ problematic agenda results in a failure of uptake, in Carroll’s sense: because of the work’s moral perspective, we fail to respond to it in the way intended by its author. However, this initial failure may be overcome by the capacity these documentaries have to get us to buy into their moral universe once we are sufficiently exposed to them. And once the uptake is successful, the work’s moral perspective is no more an obstacle to its artistic appreciation. This would not of course be enough to show that the uptake argument fails; rather, it would show that uptake is influenced by a work’s effect on our moral sensibility.
This chapter has presented some philosophical views on the connection between art and morality. Most importantly, we have considered the possibility of evaluating artworks along moral lines, as well the possible connection of this evaluation to their artistic value. This is not the only sense in which moral matters may be brought to bear on artistic evaluation. A question that has attracted a good deal of public attention in recent years is whether an artist’s personal moral failings are relevant to the evaluation of their art. The investigation of the connection between art and morality remains therefore an open and productive field of philosophical research.
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- This chapter discusses the value interaction debate as it is found in contemporary analytic aesthetics. For an overview of a similar debate in Chinese aesthetics, see Peng (2016). ↵
- In the literature one finds both the expressions “artistic value” and “aesthetic value.” For the sake of consistency, I have chosen to use “artistic value” throughout this chapter. ↵
- See the section on Art and Moral Knowledge, below, for Posner’s view on why art cannot educate morally. ↵
- For a general assessment of autonomist positions, see Clavel-Vazquez (2018). ↵
- A morally sensitive audience is something like an audience composed of people with a standard sense of morality. We shall see, however, that this concept may cause some issues for Carroll’s argument. ↵
- For discussion of this objection, see Conolly (2000, 309–312). ↵
- See Eaton (2012, 290) and Carroll (2013, 7). Eaton’s defence of immoralism, presented below, may be considered a refinement of Jacobson’s. ↵
- Eaton’s immoralism has been recently criticised by Song (2018, 290–92). ↵
- Note how Gaut’s first objection to Carroll’s argument questioned exactly Carroll’s reliance on an idealised and fixed response by a morally sensitive audience. ↵
- Principled answers to this question have been offered by Wills and Holt (2017), Bartel (2019), and Harold (2020, Chapter 3). ↵