Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part II – Autonomism Cont.

2.2 Criticising Autonomism

In the previous section I explored Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. In the previous section I highlighted two arguments for their account. The first related to Autonomism’s ability to explain how we evaluate immoral art. I highlighted Schellekens example of Manet’s Olympia as an example of art of which the moral and artistic value are unconnected. The second argument for Autonomism I explored related to whether moral criticism can be an appropriate criterion of aesthetic evaluation. Autonomists assert that moral criticism cannot be a part of the aesthetic evaluation of art because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism (such as orchestral art). Although it seems correct that some forms of art are inappropriate for moral criticism, this does indicate why some forms of art, such as narrative fiction, which explicitly elicit moral responses and readings, are not open for moral evaluation. As Carroll asserts:

it is appropriate to do so with respect to King Lear or Potemkin, since those works of art are expressly designed to elicit moral reactions, and it is part of the form of life to which they belong that audiences respond morally to them on the basis of their recognition that that is what they are intended to do(1.)

Some genres and forms of art explicitly rely on arousing emotional and moral responses for their success. This indicates that, at the very least, genres such as narrative fiction are viable for moral evaluation.

A significant criticism of Autonomism centres on whether we really value art just for its aesthetic qualities. This line of argument has been developed in several ways. One approach is to show that even in the everyday admiration of canonical works we value them for more than their aesthetic qualities.  Imagine that we are faced with two visually identical works, one by Francis Bacon and the other an art student. If we consider which one is artistically superior we will argue for Bacon’s original. One of the reasons why we value Bacon’s artwork over the student’s effort is that Bacon’s shows originality and is historically important in the continued evolution of modern and post-modern art. Beyond an artwork’s formal aesthetic features we value art for its originality and historical value. The early works of Alfred Hitchcock are decent, though often plodding and lumber-some. However, they are admired because they show the emerging style of Hitchcock and often contain innovative, though crude, uses of cinematic techniques. Murder! (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1931) features the first use of voice-over but by modern standards the technique is clumsy and strained. Murder! is valued as art as much for its historical significance as it is for its aesthetic qualities. In response to this criticism the Autonomist could attempt to defend a purely “formalist” approach and re-assert that art’s value is solely an aesthetic affair. However, rather than have to articulate and defend a formalist approach the Autonomist could concede that historical value is an important part of our evaluation of art but that, like moral evaluation, it is separate from how we evaluate art’s value as art.


(1.) Noel Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 36, No. 3, July 1996, p. 223-238, p. 226.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

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