The Moral Dimension of Judging Art

Every once in a while, usually after something sensational and traumatic, discussions crop up on the moral dimension of art, by which I mean the question of to what degree art reflects or influences society and individuals, and whether we should therefore take this into account when evaluating a work, especially in popular culture.

On that first question, on whether art primarily influences society or is merely a reflection of it, one can begin with the observation that a work must be created by somebody in an act of will. This creation is not done ex nihilo, however, because the will is informed by the intellect. “No man is an island,” and that intellect relies on outside data, such as interactions with other people and what a man has read or watched, including the artwork he’s encountered. Thus, those who create art are themselves influenced by other works, and their own work influences others, creating a circular relationship between art, culture, and individuals. The impact of any particular work will almost always be small, except perhaps for children for whom each individual experience is weighted more heavily in their minds, and for the mentally unstable, but the general themes found across a large number of works in a society can tell us both what that community generally believes, and where it is likely to go. For the individual, though he certainly possesses free will, he must use the information he has in his intellect to inform his will, and the art he’s experienced will certainly factor into that calculus.

So, how responsible are artists for their work? After all, no one can cause another person to sin, certainly not in so indirect a fashion. Also, as Flannery O’Connor pointed out in the essay “Catholic Novelists” (collected in the highly recommended Mystery and Manners), an artist’s first duty is to his art, which involves portraying man as he really exists, neither sanitising the world nor reveling in its filth. “No matter how much [the artist’s personal] character may be improved by the Church,” she says, “if he is a novelist, he has to remain true to his nature as one.” Anyone who sets out to write a moral allegory, or compromises his art to make it somehow cleaner, will usually fail both as an artist and as a moralist. This is why, I suspect, most popular “Christian” music is so insipid.

This is not, of course, a license for obscenity, and this is where judgment of individual works comes in. I’ve written a bit about judging anime specifically, but wasn’t prepared to discuss this angle at length. Gerry T. Neal, in his excellent article “All a Matter of Taste,” makes the useful analogy of the judging of art to judging the quality of food. We call a dish “good” not only when it is delicious and pleasing to the senses of sight, smell, and taste, but also when it is nutritious. Similarly, we often see works praised for technical accomplishment, but also worry over whether they are, say, too violent, or sexist, or perverse, or whatever other vice the critic thinks significant. To draw from another source, this is why Confucius “spoke of the Succession Dance as being perfect beauty and at the same time perfect goodness; but of the War Dance as being perfect beauty, but not perfect goodness” (Analects III.25, Waley’s translation). We can acknowledge technical skill even in a work which promotes something we consider vile; however, that vileness should prevent us from considering it as or recommending it as a great work.

I’ll emphasise again that this does not mean an artwork must have some “moral to the story.” Rather, a good example of the type of work I would consider ideal is J.R.R. Tokien’s The Lord of the Rings, which is both a well-constructed trilogy of novels, and morally uplifting.

One final question may be whether those works that are uplifting and inspire their audience to greatness (or at least goodness), like Dante’s Divine Comedy or many of the Arthurian Romances, are by that fact superior to generally neutral works, like much of Edgar Allan Poe’s work or Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels. I would generally follow Poe in saying that the most important end for a work is  to produce an effect on the audience (in his case, for example, the desired effect was often the feeling of horror), but given that a moral effect is likely, and in fact is highly important, I must answer “Yes.” As for how much weight is given to the moral effect of a work in comparison to the technical aspects, each science can only deal with the degree of precision appropriate to it, and for the arts that degree is fairly loose, so I can only answer “a lot.” I would dismiss completely a work that is outright bad, but I would also dismiss a work that’s outright bad in technical terms, as well.

There are, of course, implications in all this for things like free speech and censorship, how to judge works on this basis from widely divergent cultures, and other things, but I’ll save those topics for another time. For now, I hope I’ve laid out a solid foundation for future discussions.

2 Comments

  1. Anymouse

    A good post. This is the kind of thinking that should be the foundation of every attempt to teach literature in a college.

    This also relates to authenticity. If the attempt is genuine and well executed, and not determined by a focus group, it will shine through. I believe that is part of why so many folk stories stand the test of time so well. They are not an attempt to cash in on a temporary trend, but simply express the story teller’s basic attitude towards the world. The things describes in the stories were things the creators usually had a genuine belief in, and had experienced to some degree or another.

    Reply
    • Cheshire_Ocelot

      Thank you for commenting. I don’t write a lot of these editorial posts, so I’m always glad to see them well-received.

      I was fortunate at university to have professors who at least would’ve agreed that art can be judged on a technical level more or less objectively; a moral judgment, though, was never discussed. I don’t know whether that’s because they were moral relativists or if they just didn’t want to invite that degree of potential classroom drama. Either way, since graduating a couple years ago I’ve been trying to fill the gaps in my education, and hopefully helping others just a bit do the same.

      Your point about authenticity is well-said. People can tell whether someone believes what they’re saying, whether the speaker is an artist, a preacher, a politician, or whatever, and unsurprisingly only the genuine gain an audience.

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