By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge
When engaging with a piece of art, the most natural way of assessing it is along aesthetic lines. Indeed, it seems a bit weird to talk about assessing the value of a piece of art in a way that is non-aesthetic, without making some kind of category mistake. Yet, on closer inspection we can see that there is another dimension along which the value of art is commonly measured: ethics. There are all kinds of ways we might think a piece of art can be immoral. For example, films involving bad people, such as those produced by Harvey Weinstein or featuring Kevin Spacey, or those made with bad practices, like abusive behaviour towards actors or crew. Finally, and most significantly for present purposes, we might also think that a film is immoral because it displays some kind of immoral message.
Historically, some have rejected the idea that art can be criticised on ethical grounds. For example, Oscar Wilde famously defended this kind of aestheticism in the preface to ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ when he wrote “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Nowadays, Wilde’s ‘art for art’s sake’ view is not very popular, and people seem to engage in ethical criticism like this all the time. One powerful example of this concerns Leni Riefenstahl’s film ‘Triumph of the Will’ - a famous piece of Nazi propaganda detailing a large rally in 1934. Despite the fact that the film featured techniques which were revolutionary, most of us will surely accept that the film is morally bad due to its purpose and message. If we accept then that art can be assessed on aesthetic and ethical grounds, the question then becomes whether these kinds of value interact with one another. In other words, if a piece of art is morally bad, is it as a result to some degree worse as art, or are these two values independent?
Here is one argument for the conclusion that immoral art is bad as art – Noel Carroll’s uptake argument. The argument can be reconstructed as follows:
Artworks attempt to secure uptake from their audiences.
When artworks fail to secure uptake, this constitutes an artistic flaw.
Moral flaws in an artwork can sometimes prevent audience uptake.
Therefore, moral flaws can amount to artistic flaws in an artwork.
Here ‘securing uptake’ is understood as meaning that the artwork succeeds in getting the response it solicits from its audience. For an example, consider the Tommy Wiseau’s notoriously terrible film ‘The Room’, intended to be a serious and emotional drama. However, this response is undermined by the strange acting and odd dialogue, thereby making for a worse film.
Carroll argues that something similar can happen here due to a piece’s immoral message. Consider the novel ‘American Psycho’, where the desired response is that the audience recognise the greed inherent to the Reagan era USA. Carroll argues that audiences fail to experience this reaction because ‘the serial killings depicted in the novel are so graphically brutal that readers are not able morally to get past the gore in order to savour the parody’. In other words, since failing to secure uptake is an artistic flaw, the book is artistically flawed because of its moral flaws. If we accept this argument then it is clear that in at least some cases, a piece can be bad as art, because of its immorality.
Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Noel Carrol – Art and Ethical Criticism
Mary Deveraux – Beauty and evil: The case of Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’