Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part VII – Variablism

4.1 Variablism

 

In the previous section I highlighted a criticism of Moralism which centred on the claim of Immoralists that sometimes a moral blemish may contribute positively to an artwork’s value as art. I explored the cognitive argument for Immoralism. This argument holds that immoral art’s ability to allow us to explore other beliefs and worlds, often radically different to ours, produces a more vivid aesthetic experience. I concluded that the Immoralist’s argument appears to give us good reason to accept that moral blemishes can positively influence an artwork’s value qua art (and therefore reject Moralism). However, rather than adopt the Immoralist account completely I will argue for a Variablist account. In the context of the ethical criticism of art Variablism is the position that moral value can vary in its influence on an artwork’s value qua art. Variablism holds that in some instances an artwork’s moral blemish is also an aesthetic blemish. The Variablism account also holds that sometimes a moral virtue can positively influence an artwork’s value qua art. However, like the Immoralist, Variablism holds an artwork’s moral blemish may positively contribute to an artwork’s value as art. What distinguishes my account (Variablism) from Immoralism is that I also assert that sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw. In this section I will provide another argument for accepting the possibility of a moral flaw improving an artwork’s value as an artwork. I will then illustrate that sometimes a moral virtue can cause an aesthetic defect in an artwork. I will therefore conclude that a Variablist account should be accepted.

            As well as the cognitive argument for Immoralism another reason to accept that moral blemishes may positively influence an artwork’s value is the “increased entertainment” argument. This argument holds that many morally dubious artworks are so successful because they dispense of moral norms and allow us to revel in immoral actions. Speeding down a motorway at twice the limit would undoubtedly be exciting but it would also be highly dangerous and potentially harmful. Although imagining it, or playing a computer game, will not have the same thrill there is something attractive about these activities because they allow us to simulate activities (such as speeding down a motorway) we wouldn’t do in the real world. Narrative fictions allow us, in our imagination, to live lives that we would not really want to live (but wouldn’t mind role-playing occasionally). In the same way that couples role-play to “spice up” their love life, we read fictions and watch films that let us imagine and engage with other worlds and moral possibilities. Many Hollywood films are successful and engaging because of, rather than despite, their immoral characters and actions. These films can let us experience, in limited fashion, a world without constricting morals, red tape and many consequences of action. One such film is Ocean’s Eleven (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2001) which features a group of thieves, confidence tricksters and criminals who con a group of casinos out of $150 million. The film’s charismatic crew draws us into revelling in their immoral actions and the film is much more exciting because we pull for the protagonist’s to get away with robbery. The aesthetic experience provided by this film is enhanced by its immoral characters.

            In section 2.3 I explored Carroll’s argument that a moral defect is an aesthetic defect if that moral blemish causes an artwork to fail to produce the intended emotional or moral responses in its audience. I agreed with Carroll that it seems possible that moral defects that inhibit an audience’s ability to engage emotionally and morally with an artwork are also aesthetic defects. Something that Carroll, and Immoralists, do not consider is that a moral virtue may function in a similar way. That is, sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw. The moral correctness of some artworks, their characters and narrators, inhibit us from responding how the artwork intends us to. These artworks may also inhibit our ability to engage with the artwork. One instance of this could be George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1.). The fussy, moral correctness of the novel’s narrator, who colours the whole novel with their opinions, clouds the readers’ ability to engage fully with the characters. Rather than allowing the characters personality and depth emerge naturally, Middlemarch’s morally correct narrator continuously informs the reader what emotional and moral responses they should have towards the characters and situations. The narrator is correct in many of their estimations however; the moral correctness of their observations inhibits the readers from being able to engage with the intended emotional and moral responses. Therefore, Middlemarch inhibits its readers from having the intended emotional and moral responses: Middlemarch’s moral correctness is an aesthetic flaw. The moral correctness of an artwork may also inhibit the range of perceived potential actions for a protagonist. If the audience believes that the morally virtuous protagonist won’t act in certain ways – certain ways that the artwork claims are viable options of action – then the artwork will be less interesting and offer a lessened aesthetic experience. This is because the audience may not believe that a certain character will act in a morally dubious way and will therefore not feel any suspense when they are told, in the artwork, that the character is under suspicion of acting immorally. Therefore the moral correctness of some artworks, their characters and narrators, inhibit us from responding how the artwork intends us to. Sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw.

(1.) If you didn’t find this to be the case in your reading of Middlemarch then imagine a similar novel but one in which the extreme moral correctness inhibits our ability to engage with the narrative.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

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