Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part I – Autonomism

1.1 Introduction

In a series of articles I will explore whether a moral blemish(1.) (or virtue) in an artwork(2.) can also be said to be an aesthetic blemish (or virtue). I will start by exploring Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and aesthetic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. I will note that Autonomist’s believe that their account can explain our fascination with amoral and immoral artworks successfully and should therefore be accepted.

2.1 Autonomism

In this section I will explore the arguments for Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. Anderson and Dean explain ‘it is never the moral component of the criticism as such that diminishes or strengthens the value of an artwork qua artwork’.(3.) To the Autonomist only “aesthetic” flaws can be correctly called artistic flaws. The Autonomist asserts that moral value and artistic value are therefore two distinct ways of evaluating an artwork. In support of this position the Autonomist can highlight cases in which there is an easily distinguishable difference between moral and artistic value. Elisabeth Schellekens notes:

it seems completely appropriate with regards to artworks such as the provocative and proud prostitute that Manet depicts in Olympia to pay no attention to the moral content and perspective imposed upon us by these works when we evaluate them.(4.)

Though it may be argued that to a modern audience Olympia is no longer shocking, it seems correct that we ignore the moral stance of Olympia and judge Manet’s painting on the quality of its formal features. Another reason cited for accepting Autonomism is its explanatory power.(5.) The Autonomist argues that holding artistic and moral value to be distinct also explains features of our interaction with and the evaluation of art. The Birth of a Nation (Dir. D W Griffith, 1915) is valued as art because of its innovative formal features and interesting narrative structure. However, The Birth of a Nation is racist in both its depiction of African-Americans and its advocacy of the Klu Klux Klan. Autonomism is able to explain these two different valuations of an artwork because artistic and moral value is independent of each other.

Autonomists also argue for their position by questioning whether ethical criticism is an acceptable criterion of art. There are many forms and genres of art. Some of these forms of art, such as abstract art and orchestral music, appear to have no connection to morality. This claim does seem plausible for there appears to be art-forms and artworks – such as Poltrona Cecilia II by Victor Monserrate – that have no real moral significance or standpoint. The Autonomist believes this indicates that there are some artworks not viable for moral criticism. Noel Carroll explains the Autonomist then moves to argue that ‘whatever we identify as the value of art should be such that every artwork can be assessed in accordance with it’.(6.)As artistic value is a standard of assessment that should be applicable to all artworks then moral criticism cannot be a part of that standard because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism. The Autonomist concludes that, as all artworks aim to produce an aesthetic experience, the sole criterion of an artwork’s value (qua artwork) is their aesthetic qualities.


(1.) In this paper I will use a liberal notion of a moral blemish. I will take an artwork to feature a moral blemish if it promotes a morally reprehensible position without censure or qualification. Whether this notion is acceptable will of course be up to debate and therefore suitible for another article in the future.

(2.) It should be noted that I will be using a non-evaluative notion of art in this paper. I will take it to be that an artwork is an object conferred upon it the title of art by an appropriate institution or cultural body.

(3.) James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 1998, pp. 150-167, p. 152.

(4.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), p. 73.

(5.) Anderson and Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, p. 165.

(6.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2, Jan., 2000, pp. 350-387, p. 352.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

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