Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part III – Autonomism Cont.

2.3 Further Criticisms of Autonomism: How Moral Value can affect Artistic Value

A second approach to criticising Autonomism is to show how moral value can effect an artworks value as an artwork. This approach is advocated by Carroll who argues that many fictions explicitly derive their value from producing emotional responses based on moral assessments.(1.) Carroll starts by asserting that ‘Artworks are incomplete structures – at least in the special sense that they need to be filled in by audiences’. (2.) By this Carroll means that fictions often require readers to assume that the characters have the normal biological make-up of a human and infer that they travel between two points by car or walking rather than just transporting through time and space. As well as these physiological inferences, Carroll asserts that ‘Audiences must also fill in the novel with the appropriate emotional responses, if they are to follow it correctly’.(3.) To Carroll, for a romantic comedy to be artistically successful the readers must desire the two protagonists to fall in love and “live happily ever after”. If those protagonists are uninteresting, immoral or dull then the audience will not invest emotionally and the romantic comedy will fail to be a successful artwork. Carroll calls this the intended “emotive uptake” and asserts that it is an aesthetic defect if an artwork fails to produce it in its audience. Carroll asserts that one of the central ways that the audience can fail to have the correct emotional uptake is if the artwork invites its audience to share in an immoral perspective. To understand what Carroll means here imagine a film which intends the audience to sympathize with and admire the former President of Yugoslavia and war criminal Slobodan Milošević. Through interviews with former comrades and dramatic reconstructions the film portrays Milošević as a humanitarian, brilliant tactician and worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. By supporting Milošević this hypothetical film advocates a whole plethora of immoral positions (such as genocide). It is clear that most audiences would fail to adopt the film’s intended emotional uptake (admiration for Milošević). Therefore, as well as being morally defective, Carroll would argue that the film is artistically defective. (4.) This is because it fails in its aim to produce sympathy and admiration for Milošević.

Carroll attempts to establish that to be successful art (1) needs its audience to have certain moral and emotional responses and (2) that it is an artistic defect if the audience does not experience the intended moral and emotional responses. In response to Carroll’s argument the Autonomist could reassert that there is no connection between the moral disgust and the film’s failure as art. The Autonomist could concede that the Milošević film is morally flawed and this moral flaw stops its audience from engaging with the film. However, the Autonomist will bring into question whether Carroll conclusively illustrates why that moral flaw is an artistic one. The Milošević film may be beautifully filmed with masterful control of editing, colour, sound and mise en scene which, when shown to the right audience (one which does admire Milošević), will have the intended emotional responses. That everyday audiences would not have the correct emotional or moral response does not indicate that the film is artistically flawed.  However, if our emotional and moral engagement is central to our ability to appreciate certain artworks (such as narrative fiction) then there does seem to be an issue for Autonomism. If the moral stance of a film influences the form of representation and that form of representation fails to convey the right experience (admiration, suspense) then the moral aspect of a film appears to be aesthetically relevant. As Berys Gaut notes, evaluating George Eliot’s Middlemarch is practically impossible if one attempts to evaluate it aesthetically without taking in to account its moral elements.(5.) Gaut continues ‘One cannot set aside Elliot’s ethical stance while keeping anything remotely resembling her novel before one’s view’.(6.)  If some forms of art explicitly derive their aesthetic qualities from their moral stance then moral value appears to be important to some forms of art. If that moral value adds to, or detracts from, that artwork’s coherence or aesthetic qualities then moral criticism can be said to be artistically relevant. A vivid example of this is Tintin au Congo. Tintin au Congo features a morally reprehensible representation of Congolese “natives” whose characterization and depiction was inspired by an immoral, racist, colonial understanding of Africans. This (naïvely) racist depiction of the Congolese informed the aesthetic nature of the Congolese characters (how they looked) and their blundering actions (how they acted). Every element of Tintin au Congo is informed by the awful depiction of the Congolese and this insensitive representation makes the plot less vivid (Tintin’s victory over a large band of nitwits is hardly awe-inspiring), less interesting (it is harder to engage with the story) and therefore aesthetically worse. In regards to some forms of art, moral flaws also appear to be aesthetic flaws. The single most important criticism of Autonomism regards whether moral criticisms can be shown to be artistic criticisms too. I have argued that the moral component of an artwork appears to enhance (or diminish) an artwork’s value (qua artwork) and therefore Autonomism is false. However, what remains to be seen is to what extent moral value effects artistic value.


(1.) Noel Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism Versus Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 38, No. 4, October 1998, pp 419-424, p. 420.

(2.) Ibid, p. 419.

(3.) Ibid, p. 420.

(4.) Ibid, p. 421.

(5.) Berys Gaut, ‘Art and Ethics’, in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (ed), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 341-352, p. 345.

(6.) Ibid, p. 345.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

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