If an artwork is morally dubious, does that make it aesthetically bad?

This stupid question needlessly dominates so much discourse about the “ethical criticism” of artworks. I wish it could be torpedoed out of sight. The question is stupid because (i) the answer is obviously “no”; (ii) it risks conflating two forms of judgement (moral and aesthetic) that have been kept separate since Kant’s critiques, not because of a philosophical argument against their independence, but because of the assumption that artworks have a single “value” derived from both aesthetic and ethical components, and that the job of criticism is to arrive at a quasi-numerical assessment of this value. This assumption about the task of criticism, and the unified value of an artwork, seems totally wrong-headed to me.

In much of analytic aesthetics, the question of “ethical criticism” involves providing positions on a scale from radical moralism (in which an artwork’s aesthetic value is entirely determined by its moral value) to radical autonomism (in which the two are not at all connected). Such debates are quite far removed from actual criticism, and are concerned instead with idealized structures of judgement. They hence seem to miss the point: I can maintain, independently of each other, aesthetic and moral opinions about an artwork, and its success or failure for me is not necessarily fully determined by either set of issues. Whilst this may sound like some version of moderate autonomism, I do not hold that “aesthetic value” nearly always has primacy of place – sometimes I may judge primarily on moral grounds. What I reject is the principle that there is some single “value” to which an artwork can be reduced, and that the categorical independence of moral and aesthetic judgement is somehow collapsed when I pronounce this value. To talk of “success” or “failure” for me, as a critic, is not quite the same as trying to pin a single value (1 or 0) to a work. The critic’s task is to mediate the interplay between both forms of judgement – indeed, between all sorts of variegated judgements about an artwork – whilst guiding the reader through their process of assessment. It is about gaining a sense of the artwork and articulating a response to what it makes you feel or think. If an artwork is good, it will generate a rich response. But there is no hard and fast rule for determining which form of judgement is most significant: this changes from work to work, from reader to reader, according to appropriateness and sensibility. Debates attempting to classify structures of judgement with the aim of establishing, once and for all, whether Triumph of the Will is aesthetically questionable on moral grounds, ultimately simplify the nuance of our aesthetic experiences, which do not simply seek to pass judgement on what is “good” or “bad” art, and which involve both aesthetic and moral responses.

To claim that moral dubiousness is an aesthetic flaw is to commit a category error. Nonetheless, disliking an artwork’s moral attitude (if that attitude seems unambiguously expressed by the work) is a perfectly valid reason to criticize it. It just won’t make it ugly, rather wicked or, more likely, stupid: to put some flesh on these theoretical bones, consider that most moral criticisms of artworks are just that they are sexist, racist, etc. — in some sense crudely ideological. This stupidity seems to point towards a more subtle understanding of where an artwork’s value may lie.

The real issue of “ethical criticism” isn’t that of judging artworks, but of accounting for their potential moral significance: how is it that artworks can teach us things about action, moral judgement, and so on, in way different from that of philosophy? This involves attributing a cognitive power to artworks, and is not incompatible with a certain autonomism in matters of judgement. If an artwork has “moral value” in this sense, it is usually not because it expresses a view with which I agree (in an uncomplicated fashion), but because it illuminates a problem in a novel way. The question about moral dubiousness assumes a simplistic hermeneutics of art that makes it, if not didactic, then at least straightforwardly paraphrasable. In some cases, this is definitely justified: artworks frequently do express particular moral views of the world, but what often makes these views objectionable is not only their injustice, but their simplicity. The deficit in such cases is a cognitive, not only a moral one. In this sense, I would claim that most so-called ethical criticism of art disguises a form of intellectual rebuke. If your art sees the world so simply, it is bad.

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This entry was posted in aesthetic experience, aesthetics, criticism, ethical criticism, ethics, philosophy, pointless rants, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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