The Paradox of Suspense X – Early Steps of a Solution

In the previous sections I provided my characterisation of suspense. I held that uncertainty is integral to suspense. Whether in regard to a particular scene or a complete narrative uncertainty concerning how it will be resolved is essential to experiencing suspense. However, because I hold that suspense requires uncertainly I am threatened by the paradox of suspense. As I noted here, the paradox of suspense can be stated like this:

1. Suspense requires uncertainty.

2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any   uncertainty

3. We feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcome of

All of the individual elements are acceptable in isolation however; in conjunction they pose a problem for my account of suspense (because it holds that suspense requires uncertainty).  To escape the paradox of suspense I will illustrate that knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation does not necessarily preclude uncertainty. I will argue that the function and processes of our attention is responsible for this ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out.

            We are able to experience uncertainty in response to scenes, situations and narratives we know the outcome to because we do not (automatically) use prior knowledge (stored in our long term memory) when processing the information provided by a particular narrative. That is, when we are reading a suspense thriller we are not obliged to recall our knowledge of how a scene turns out. To establish whether we are obliged or not to recall specific information Richard J Gerrig conducted several experiments. These experiments attempted to gauge whether we do use prior information about former president George Washington when reading a short narrative about his life. In order to judge whether we are or are not obliged to access specific information about George Washington Gerrig introduced an obstacle to our comprehension of the well-known story of his acceptance of the role of first president of the USA. Gerrig explains:

In our experiments, we created small emendations to nonfictional aspects of American history and culture. We began with assertions that were selected to be unproblematic, such as George Washington was elected first president of the United States. We then wrote stories that presented obstacles to these well-known outcomes.[1]

The obstacle in the first experiment was changing the narrative to conclude that George Washington had rejected the presidency because he was too frail and that John Adams has become the first president. If we are obliged to utilize prior knowledge we have about George Washington then there should be no difference between the time needed to respond to questions by readers given the truthful story and those with the altered ending. The results of Gerrig’s experiments were staggering.[2] In some cases the altered stories produced an increase of nearly 50% in processing time required to answer the question correctly. Gerrig explains:

The results of this experiment indicate that uncertainty can be induced by immersing readers in story episodes. Verification latencies suggested that the subjects entertained the implied conclusions of the [narratives], even when they had information available in memory that directly contradicted these conclusions.[3]

Gerrig concluded that this evidence shows that there is ‘a limit on the way that prior knowledge is put to use in moment-by-moment understanding’.[4] That is, Gerrig’s experiment illustrates that we can be momentarily uncertain about outcomes or situations we have prior knowledge of because we do not automatically utilise prior knowledge of a scene (or situation or narrative) when processing the information provided by that scene. Gerrig’s experiments affirm then that it is quite possible to be uncertain about a scene, scenario or narrative even if we know how that particular scene, scenario or narrative turns out. What remains to be explained is why and how this natural ability comes about and how exactly it can explain features of our experience of repeat suspense. I will show that it is our attention which is responsible for our ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out. That is, it is a feature of the way our attention works that we are able to (and do so frequently) prioritize processing new, important or vivid information over recalling previous encounters from the long-term memory. So, when we re-watch Die Hard we are not obliged to recall how particular scenes turn out with the consequence that we can experience uncertainty and ultimately suspense.

McClain hanging from tower

[1] Richard J Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the absence of Uncertainty’, Journal of Memory and Language, Vol. 28, No. 6, (December 1989), p. 633-648, p. 634.

[2] For brevity I will not copy the numbers created by Gerrig’s experiment though it is important to note that the difference in latency between true stories without obstacles (2.33 seconds) to stories that were false with obstacles (3.12 seconds) is a massive difference in response to a story with very little counter-factual information to process.

[3] Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty’, p. 639.

[4] Ibid, p. 645.

The Paradox of Suspense VI – Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I explained that Carroll held that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event  (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. In this section I will start by evaluating and analysing his account of suspense. I will then consider whether his solution to the paradox of suspense is successful. I will conclude that neither his account of suspense or solution to the paradox of suspense are acceptable and should therefore be rejected.

The first criticism of Carroll’s account concerns whether we are able to experience suspense in response to immoral characters and situations. Carroll argued that fictions engender suspense by creating a situation where only two logically opposed outcomes, one moral and the immoral, appear possible. However, many fictions include immoral, or at least morally dubious, characters and situations of which we support, sympathise and root for and whose actions do not appear to offer a simple dialectic between moral and immoral action. One vivid example of this is Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990). Goodfellas is primarily about the protagonist Henry Hill’s career as a gangster in the Italian Mafia. Throughout the film we witness Henry’s rise from street-kid to violent gangster. Rather than see his acts (beatings, robberies and hold-ups) as horrific we identify with him, his glamorous lifestyle and his desire to become a “made man”. In one scene Henry comes home to find his wife distressed. This is because her neighbour has made a pass at her and when Henry’s wife refused the neighbour’s advances he hit her. When Henry comes home we are unsure how he is going to react (will he hit/kill his neighbour or his wife or both!) and we experience some suspense in response to this scene. When, in front of his wife, Henry pistol whips the neighbour we are relieved and enjoy the rough treatment the neighbour receives. In regard to this scene it appears that there is no choice between two logically opposed outcomes. That is, the suspense we experience in response to this scene springs from two possible options both which appear to range from the immoral (hitting the neighbour) to the extremely immoral (dispatching his wife and the neighbour).

Another similar issue for Carroll regarding his notion of two logically opposed moral outcomes is that he holds that we pull for the moral outcome over the immoral outcome. However, this doesn’t appear to be correct. An instance of this can be found in The Godfather (Dir., Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). In one scene the central protagonist Michael attends a meeting with two rival gangsters who have previously attempted to kill his father. On the surface Michael’s reason for attending the meeting is to discuss a truce but he actually intends to kill both gangsters. The two rival gangsters set up the meeting in a neutral restaurant and frisk Michael as he enters to ensure he hasn’t brought a weapon. Because of this Michael has an accomplice hide a pistol in the bathroom before he arrives. Later in the scene when Michael leaves the bathroom with the pistol he stands in front of the two gangsters and hesitates. This moment is immensely suspenseful and we are led to wonder whether Michael will kill the two gangsters. Once Michael kills both of the gangsters we stop feeling any suspense and are relieved that they both get their just deserves. In regard to this scene then, we pull for the immoral outcome (murder) over the moral outcome (the truce or reporting them to the police). That is, we experience suspense because we are unsure whether Michael will go through with the immoral act (the murder of which we want him to do).

In the next section I will include some possible replies to these criticisms and add some further issues with Carroll’s account.

The Paradox of Suspense IV – Noel Carroll’s Account of Suspense

In the previous sections I explained the paradox of suspense as well as several features any satisfactory account of suspense must be able to explain. In this section I will explore Carroll’s proposed account. Carroll starts by explaining that his account concentrates exclusively on suspense as ‘an emotional response to narrative fictions’.[1] Even though Carroll makes this move he asserts that “real-life” suspense is produced by uncertainty regarding future events we have a stake in.[2]  Carroll starts his account of suspense by claiming that suspense is a “prospect emotion”. By this Carroll means that suspense is an emotional reaction to unfolding action. Carroll explains ‘suspense takes as its object the moments leading up to the outcome about which we are uncertain… Once the outcome is fixed, however, the state is no longer suspense’.[3] A vivid example of this can be found in a scene in L’Avventura in which Sandro catches up with the woman he believes to be his missing (and presumed dead) girlfriend Anna and realizes it is just a similar looking stranger. When this scene or situation’s outcome is fixed we stop feeling suspense and start to experience a sense of frustration and disappointment. To Carroll then, we only experience suspense in response to an outcome we are uncertain over. Once we are certain of a scene or situation’s outcome suspense is replaced with other emotional responses (such as joy, relief or disappointment). However, suspense is not the only response we have when we are uncertain about how a narrative will unfold. Detective fiction is one such genre in which we experience uncertainty regarding how a particular narrative will unfold.

Carroll attempts to differentiate the uncertainty that engenders suspense from the uncertainty we experience in “mystery” fiction by highlighting a possible temporal difference between mystery and suspense. Carroll explains ‘in mysteries in the classical detection mode, we are characteristically uncertain about what has happened in the past, whereas with suspense fictions we are uncertain about what will happen’.[4] However, though it is true that our experience of mystery narratives is tied-up with uncertainty about important past plot details, there does seem to be instances of uncertainty over future or unfolding plot developments in mystery narratives. An example of this could be when, in Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher gathers the prime suspects together with the intention of revealing the who, why and how of the murder. We do not normally experience suspense in response to this scene even though we are uncertain about how the scene will unfold. That is, even though we are uncertain about the unfolding action, we experience something like curiosity, puzzlement and eager anticipation rather than suspense. So, it appears that Carroll is wrong that the difference between suspense and mystery narratives lies with its temporal nature. Carroll highlights another potential difference between suspense and mystery narratives. Carroll explains:

A mystery of the classical whodunit variety prompts us to ask a question about whose answer we are uncertain and about which we entertain as many possible answers as there are suspects. But suspense is different. With suspense, the question we are prompted to ask does not have an indefinite number of possible answers, but only two. Will the heroine be sawed in half or not?.[5]

To Carroll, whereas suspense has two possible outcomes (the heroine is killed or not) mystery narratives are characterised as having almost infinite possible outcomes. That is, the cause of uncertainty which engenders suspense differs from the cause of uncertainty which mystery narratives produce. To Carroll, suspense is created by having only two logically opposed outcomes (life/death capture/escape). In contrast to this limitation of possibility, the uncertainty engendered by the mystery narrative is brought about by the possibility of there being as many possible answers as there are suspects. Therefore, Carroll holds that suspense is created by a state of uncertainty over the outcome of an unfolding event which has two logically opposed outcomes.

In the next section I will continue to examine Noel Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense.

[1] Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 74.

[2] Ibid, p. 76.

[3] Ibid, p. 74.

[4] Ibid, p. 75.

[5] Ibid, p. 75.

The Paradox of Suspense III – The Problem Cont.

As well as providing a convincing reply to the paradox of suspense, any account of suspense must be able to coherently explain several other common features of our common experience of suspense. The first feature is called “diminishing returns”. Diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense (or any emotional reaction to fiction). On repeat viewings or readings of narrative fiction we often experience less vivid emotional responses. On our first viewing of the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (Dir., Nora Ephron, 1993) we may experience a strong emotional reaction to the plight of  Annie Reed and her attempt to meet (and start a relationship with) the widower Sam Baldwin. However, on future viewings the emotional experience we feel may suffer from diminishing returns. That is, we experience a less vivid or powerful emotion response to the narrative of Sleepless in Seattle. Though we may still pull for Annie and Sam to finally get together, the emotional impact of the film is diminished and may diminish even further on future viewings. In regard to suspense this also appears to happen. On our first viewing of Patriot Games (Dir., Phillip Noyce, 1992) we may be gripped on the edge of our seats but on subsequent viewings we may still feel some suspense but not so intensely. Any adequate account must therefore also be able to satisfactorily explain diminishing returns of suspense.

            The final two features any satisfactory account of suspense must explain are “absent suspense” and “second-instance suspense”. Absent suspense is the simple phenomenon where we experience no suspense at all. In the haste to solve the paradox of suspense an account must not preclude the possibility that we may just fail to experience suspense even though most of the conditions of suspense are met. That is, on our second viewing of Patriot Games we may just fail to feel suspense. Second-instance suspense is the irregular cases in which we feel suspense on second viewings (or viewings after our first) but not on the first instance or encounter of suspense. On our first instance of viewing a film like L’Avventura we may feel lost, confused and perplexed. As the film differs so radically from conventional narrative fiction this reaction is normal. On our second viewing of the film we may however experience some suspense – especially in response to the scene in which Sandro believes he has just seen the missing Anna in a crowded room. Therefore, another feature any good account of suspense must explain is our ability to experience suspense on secondary viewings when we haven’t on our first.

In the next post I will explore Noel Carroll’s account of suspense.

The Paradox of Suspense II – The Problem

From out and out thrillers such as The Fugitive (Dir., Andrew Davis, 1993) and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to European art-house films like L’Avventura (Dir., Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), suspense is an integral element in our experience of fiction. Suspense is so important in certain genres (thrillers) that the financial and artistic success or failure of a film or novel depends entirely on creating constant and repeated instances of suspense as well as suspense on repeated viewings (motivating repeat sales of cinema tickets and DVDs). Not only do people re-read or re-experience suspense fiction routinely, they do so with the understanding that they will experience the same, or similar, grip of suspense. Carroll claims that he feels suspense even on the fiftieth viewing of King Kong (Dir., Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933).[1] However, this regular and common repeat consumption of suspense fiction (and fiction that creates suspense) sits at odds with common-sense and psychological notions of suspense. As Peter Vorderer notes, a large majority of theorists support the hypothesis that uncertainty regarding a scene or events outcome is essential to suspense.[2]But if suspense requires uncertaint,y why is it that Carroll testifies to still feel suspense on the fiftieth viewing of King Kong?. Obviously there will be frequent forgetting and misremembering of scenes to naturally explain a decent quantity of repeat suspense. Just how exactly John McClain, in Die Hard (Dir., John McTiernan, 1988), escapes from some terrorists after accidentally alerting them by bumping his head on a table is not something we will pay much attention to remembering. Carroll agrees noting that ‘our propensity to be recaptivated by an already encountered suspense fiction may be explained by the fact that we have forgotten how it ends. This happens often’.[3]  However, though it is conceivable that many instances of repeated suspense may be due, at least in part, to fallible memory, it cannot explain a large amount of repeated suspense. That is, it would be surprising if after the seventy-fifth viewing of King Kong there is any scene that Carroll would experience uncertainty over. So, beyond Carroll’s obsession with giant gorillas, there does seem to be frequent cases of repeated suspense not being caused by forgetting. The problem for accounts of suspense then is that familiarity with a fiction seems to preclude uncertainty yet, we still seem able to experience suspense. This issue is called the paradox of suspense. The paradox of suspense can stated like this:

1. Suspense requires uncertainty.

2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty

3. We feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcome of

All of the individual elements are acceptable in isolation however; in conjunction they pose a problem for the traditional account of suspense requiring uncertainty.  To escape the paradox of suspense, an account of suspense must reject one of the three elements. Carroll and Smuts both deny that (1) suspense requires uncertainty. I offer an alternative solution by denying that (2) knowledge of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty (Richard J. Gerrig also produces this type of account). Another solution is to deny that (3) we can feel suspense on repeated viewings (Robert J. Yanal).

[1]Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 71.

[2] Peter Vorderer, ‘Toward a Psychological Theory of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 233-254, p. 234.

[3]Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, p. 73.

The Paradox of Suspense I – Introduction

In this new series of research papers I will attempt to produce a philosophically and psychologically plausible account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I will start by explaining what the paradox of suspense is and several features any plausible solution must account for. I will then consider Noel Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I will note that he holds that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event  (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense is therefore that rather than actual uncertainty all we required to experience suspense was entertained uncertainty. I will then argue that Carroll fails to adequately explain several features of our common experience of suspense and that his account should therefore be rejected. I will then put forward my account of suspense. I will argue that suspense is a (i) negative emotion (ii) arising from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as. I will then put forward my solution to the paradox of suspense. I will argue that we are able to prioritize processing new, important or vivid information over recalling previous encounters from the long-term memory. The consequence being that when we reencounter suspense narratives we are not obliged to recall how particular scenes turn out. I will argue that this ability allows us re-experience suspense. I will then consider some possible criticisms of my account in section but I will conclude that my account can explain the relevant features of our experience of suspense. I will conclude that my account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense is both psychologically and philosophically plausible and should be adopted.

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.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part V – Moralism Cont.

3.2 Criticisms of Moralism

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s claim that moral virtues and flaws are sometimes aesthetic virtues and flaws. In this section I will explore some criticisms of Moralism. One of Carroll’s central claims was that his account allowed there to be artworks with moral flaws to remain artistically unblemished. In support of this claim I noted that we seem able to enjoy artworks such as Rebecca and Red Heat regardless of their morally questionable nature (sexism, racist stereotypes). As Schellekens notes, Carroll’s claim is therefore that ‘moral character only takes on importance in relation to our overall assessment when it somehow impedes our capacity to engage with the artwork or to respond to it appropriately’.(1.) According to Carroll if a moral flaw doesn’t impede the audiences’ capacity to engage with the artwork then it isn’t an artistic one too. However, if as I noted in section 2.3 the theoretical Milošević film is shown to the right audience – one which does admire Milošević – they will have the intended emotional responses. If all that is required for a moral blemish to escape being an aesthetic one is that an audience experience the intended emotional and moral responses then the Autonomist could easily conjure up a potential intended audience for every immoral artwork.(2.) In reply to this Carroll holds that even if an actual audience (the pro-Milošević lobby) is not impeded from engaging with an immoral artwork the artwork may still be aesthetically flawed. Carroll asserts that a moral blemish:

will also count as an [aesthetic] blemish even if it is not detected – so long as it is there to be detected by morally sensitive audiences whose response to the work’s agenda will be spoilt by it. A blemish is still a blemish even if it goes unnoticed for the longest time.(3.)

Carroll attempts to sidestep the criticism by holding that it is not whether a particular audience is impeded (or not) from engaging with the Milošević film. The film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one if an ideal morally sensitive audience is unable to respond with the intended emotional and moral responses. Responding with sympathy and admiration to the Milošević film is not something a morally sensitive audience would do – as it entails advocating genocide. Therefore the Milošević film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one.

            Carroll’s use of an idealized morally sensitive audience allows Moralism to sidestep issues arising from morally insensitive or unaware audiences. However, if Moralism relies on an idealized audience then there needs to be further clarification on how idealized and morally sensitive that audience should be. Many films feature minor defects in a film’s representation of race, gender or sexuality. Therefore if Carroll’s notion of a morally sensitive audience is too idealized them it appears unlikely that they would forgive the sexism of Rebecca, the racist stereotypes in Red Heat or the explicit rape scenes in the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir., Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) or Deliverance (Dir., John Boorman, 1972). The consequence being that many good and great artworks would be found to be aesthetically flawed. If the notion of a morally sensitive audience is hardly idealized at all then it remains to be seen why the audience could not be conceived of easily enjoying many immoral films without issue. If the idealized audience is an average one then artworks like the hypothetical Milošević film will fail to produce the intended emotional and moral responses but morally questionable films such as Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990) will be successful in their intention to produce sympathy and admiration for gangsters who commit murder and other hideous crimes. The issue for Carroll is that any account which calls itself Moralism and doesn’t find artworks like Goodfellas morally and aesthetically defective is in serious danger of losing its Moralist credentials.

(1.) Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 69

(2.) This criticism doesn’t come close to saving the Autonomist position – as moral elements may still positively contribute to an artworks value qua artwork – but it is an important query that the Autonomist can raise in regard to the success of Moralism as an account.

(3.) Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, p. 234.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part IV – Moralism

3.1 Moralism

In the previous two sections I explored some criticisms of Autonomism. I highlighted that with certain art forms (such as representative art) it appears that the moral stance directly influences the quality of an artwork’s representation. In this section I will explore an account advanced by Carroll called (Moderate) Moralism (1.). Moralists hold that moral character is central to our appreciation and assessment of artwork. (2.) They also hold that a moral flaw (or virtue) can be an aesthetic flaw (or virtue). An immediate criticism that is levelled against Moralism is that there are many artworks that are morally questionable that we seem able to appreciate without issue. If moral defects are always aesthetic defects then why is it that we can appreciate sexist films such as Rebecca (Dir., Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). However, Carroll asserts that his form of Moralism escapes this criticism because he does not hold that every moral flaw is an aesthetic one. Carroll asserts that:

Moderate Moralism does not claim that every moral defect in an artwork is an aesthetic defect. Artworks can be immensely subtle in terms of their moral commitments. Morally defective portrayals may elude even morally sensitive audiences and may require careful interpretation in order to be unearthed. (3.)

There are many artworks that feature unflattering stereotypes. Artworks that portray morally insensitive stereotypes are often also aesthetically flawed (such as Tintin au Congo) but there are many Hollywood films which contain stereotypes which are not diminished aesthetically. One such film is Red Heat (Dir., Walter Hill, 1988) which features a stereotypical Soviet character Capt. Ivan Danko who joins up with smart-ass American cop Det. Sgt. Art Ridžić to thwart a drug smuggling enterprise. The film achieves a good level of drama, action and comedy despite Danko being a classic cold-war Soviet stereotype. Therefore, there are certain artworks that feature morally questionable elements which do not influence artistic value. According to Carroll this is because the audiences’ intended emotional and moral responses are not inhibited by the depiction of stereotypes in these cases. So in cases such as Rebecca and Red Heat the Moralist can argue that the audience is able to have the intended emotion and moral responses despite the morally questionable elements of these artworks.

            As I noted in section 2.3 Carroll asserted that it is an aesthetic defect if an artwork fails to produce the intended emotional or moral responses in its audience. If a thriller doesn’t thrill its audience then it would be seen as aesthetically defective or inferior.  If the reason for the thrillers lack of success is because of some moral feature of the work – the audience just can’t engage with such a racist depiction – then that moral feature (defect) can be said to be an aesthetic defect. Similarly, if an artwork is more vividly dramatic due to the artwork’s moral elements then that moral element (virtue) can be said to be an aesthetic virtue. One particular instance of this is Casablanca (Dir., Michael Curtiz, 1942) which explores the issue of self-sacrifice over personal profit. In Vichy-controlled French Morocco Casablanca’s central protagonist Rick Blaine struggles to choose between staying neutral and reigniting a past relationship or getting involved on the side of the Allies and sacrificing both his successful nightclub and any chance of a relationship with his former love. Through the film’s development of this issue the audience responds by desiring that Blaine reignite his relationship with his former love whilst also accepting that he must sacrifice that relationship for the greater good. Therefore, the film’s central moral element not only provides impetus to the film’s narrative but it also produces complex contradictory desires in its audience enabling a more powerful aesthetic experience. That is, the moral element of Casablanca contributes considerably to how much tension and drama the audience experiences. Therefore, moral virtues and flaws can sometimes be aesthetic virtues and flaws.

(1.) Although Carroll calls his position Moderate Moralism I will only call it Moralism. The forms of Moralism that assert that artwork’s moral defects are always aesthetic defects are so strong that they are better known as Extreme Moralism or Severe Moralism.

(2.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 68.

(3.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, p. 378

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.

A Couple of Squared Circles, Sarris and Kael – Part II

Part Two: ‘Circles and Squares’ – Pauline Kael


Pauline Kael’s acerbic reply to Andrew Sarris’s ‘Notes on The Auteur Theory in 1962’ starts by examining the basic method or concept of the proposed auteur theory. Kael explains:

Sarris has noticed that in High Sierra (not a very good movie) Raoul Walsh repeated an uninteresting and obvious device that he had earlier used in a worse movie. And for some inexplicable reason, Sarris concludes that he would not have had this joy of discovery without the auteur theory.(1.)

Kael is asserting that the auteur theory venerates directors who repeat uninteresting and obvious devices. The supposed “joy” of the auteur theory, to Kael, is the celebration of a director’s usage in a bad film of a technique used in another earlier worse film. Kael also takes exception at the tone that Sarris uses in relation to the importance of the auteur theory in examining a director’s work as an organic whole. Kael asserts:

In every art form, critics traditionally notice and point out the way the artists borrow from themselves (as well as from others) and how the same device, techniques, and themes reappear in their work. This is obvious in listening to music, seeing plays, reading novels, watching actors; we take it for granted that this is how we perceive the development or the decline of an artist.(2.)

As Kael notes artists have always re-used older material. Leonardo di Vinci reused several sketches in many of his paintings and reputedly used a sketch of a young man as a template for the face of the ‘Mona Lisa’ – even though the Mona Lisa was based on a woman. What Kael seems to be asking is whether this is really a good criterion for the critique of film. Although noting the continued development of increasing technical ability, or competence in Sarris’s words, over an artist’s lifetime is important it is not often the only criterion of judgement. To Kael, a better area of critique, and the ultimate function of a critic, is ‘perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see’.(3.) To Kael, Sarris concentrates on what is established, unoriginal in a work and ignores new ideas, one-offs and innovations. Kael asserts that the auteur critic only identifies how a film relates to a director’s past canon or filmography and ignores the new elements: what is “important” and makes something a new or original film.

Kael proceeds by exploring the three premises or criterion of judgement that Sarris sets out. Sarris’s three premises are:  

  1. The technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.(4.)
  2. The distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value.(5.)
  3. Interior meaning… the tension between a director’s personality and his material.(6.)

To Kael the “outer circle”, or first premise , of a director’s basic technical competence, is either a weak premise, a commonplace attitude of artistic judgement – and therefore the auteur theory is not as radical or as “fresh” as it seemed to be as a critique of film in 1962 – or a complete misunderstanding of the necessarily talents required for the production of art. Kael notes ‘sometimes the greatest artists in a medium bypass or violate the simple technical competence that is so necessary for hacks’.(7.) Kael explains further that ‘the greatness of a director like [Jean] Cocteau has nothing to do with mere technical competence: his greatness is in being able to achieve his own personal expression and style’.(8.) Kael seems to arguing that although technical competence is important to a director its use as a criterion of judgement “misses the point” in the evaluation of director’s ability to make art. Cocteau once remarked that the only technique, in any art, one needs is the technique you invent for yourself and in relation to this Kael argues that ‘if [a director] can make great films without knowing the standard methods, without the usual craftsmanship of the “good director”, then that is the way [the director] works’.(9.)

The second criterion, and according to Kael the actual premise of the auteur theory, relates to the director’s distinguishable personality. Kael, in characteristically sardonic and bitchy style, explains that:

Traditionally, in any art, the personalities of all those involved in a production have been a factor in judgement, but that the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgement. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?. (10.)

In essence Kael is arguing that the distinguishable personality of a director is a poor choice for criterion of judgement. One may be able to more distinctly distinguish the gaudy, accidental, clumsy hand of a second-rate director than the light, delicate hand of a first-rate director but it does not, or should not, indicate the better director between the two. Kael goes on to add:

When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not mush else to watch. (11.)

Kael is asserting that the touch of a director – the evident touch – is an indicator of a poor film or at least a symptom of boredom and apathy towards the film’s narrative. If we can distinguish the director’s personality then it is not really a ‘part of the texture of the film’ and therefore it overrides and dominates the film itself.(12.) Kael also criticises Sarris’s second criterion of judgement, and the auteur position in general, by arguing that ‘it is an insult to an artist to praise his bad work along with his good; it indicates you are incapable of judging either’. Kael asserts that this form of analysis and criticism is similar to attitudes to fashion labels ‘this is Dior, so it’s good’.(13.) Kael position is that the auteur theory cannot, once a director is given the title of auteur, discriminate between the director’s good and bad work – especially if the director fulfils the criterion or premises of the auteur theory.

The third premise, or inner circle, is, according to Kael, ‘the opposite of what we have always taken for granted in the arts, that the artist expresses himself in the unity of form and content’.(14.) To Kael the auteur theory glorifies “trash”, ‘the frustrations of a man working against the given material’.(15.) The conflict of a director’s style with the content is what produces great art to the auteur, or at least to Sarris, but to Kael is it a weakness of a film. According to Kael if a director does not unify his style, the form, with the content of the script, then the director does not produce good art. Kael explains:

Their ideal auteur is the man who signs a long-term contract, directs any script that’s handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots. If his “style” is in conflict with the story line or subject matter, so much the better.(16.)

The consequence of admiring the directors who shove style up a script’s crevasse is that ‘the director who fights to do something he cares about is a square’.(17.) This statement is related to Sarris’s criticism of Ingmar Bergman’s later work which Sarris felt had declined due to the absence of any progression of ‘technique’ which directly related to Bergman’s ‘sensibility’.(18.) Kael responds harshly – rather too angrily for a really rational debate – but does pose an interesting question wondering whether ‘writer-directors are disqualified by [the] third premise?’.(19.) Kael sums up her criticism by wondering why the auteur theory prefers certain commerical films – a saving grace of the auteur theory some will say. Kael expands on this point by asserting that ‘those travelling in auteur circles believe that making [a] purse out of a sow’s ear is an infinitely greater accomplishment than making a solid carrying case out of a good piece of leather’.(20.) Kael’s harsh criticism of the auteur theory continues into the very last vitirolic paragraph when she argues:

These [auteur] critics work embarrassingly hard trying to give some semblance of intellectual respectability to a preoccupation with mindless, repetitious commercial products… They’re not critics: they’re inside dopesters.(21.)

The auteur critic, according to Kael, prefers products made out of inferior products: mindlessly repetitious commercial films. Kael’s article is an angry, sardonic, reply to Sarris’s auteur theory – she even questions whether an auteur critic is a critic at all –  she has highlighted some problems and flaws in his conception of the primary criterion of judgement an auteur critic makes. In my next article (part III) I will conclude by examining both Sarris and Kael’s position. I will indicate where I feel both critics have got things right and got things wrong.

1. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 666-679. p. 667.

2. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 667-668.

3. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

 4. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 650-665, p. 662.

5. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

6. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 663.

7. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

8. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

9. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 670.

10. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

 11. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

12. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 672.

13. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 673.

14. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

15. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 674-675.

16. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

17. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

18. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, pp. 662-663.

19. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 676.

20. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 678.

21. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 679.

Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Ontology Of The Photographic Image


Andre Bazin is undoubtedly a famous figure in film criticism and film theory. Bazin was a co-founder of the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, a mentor and friend of Francois Truffaut and firm supporter of realism. A large collection of Bazin’s writings were complied and published posthumously and entitled What Is Cinema?. In a series of articles I will explore Bazin’s essays. The first article will be:


The Ontology of the Photographic Image1

If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex. The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. Thus, by providing a defence against the passage of time it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time. To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life. It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bone.2

What Bazin is arguing here is that at the heart of the plastic arts – painting and sculpture – is a need to make immortal the mortal; to turn the image of our flesh into clay, steel and paint is to transform ourselves and preserve our being beyond its physical existence. Bazin is not, as some critics have argued, asserting that all art is solely defined by an attempt at immortalising the mortal. But that one of the defining characteristics, or innate motivations, in the production of art and artefacts, be it the mummification of Pharaohs, portraits of Kings and Emperors, is the ‘preservation of life by a representation of life’.3Bazin’s position is that the plastic arts, and I would also assert Bazin’s personal opinion in what makes art attractive, attempts to ‘have the last word in the argument with death by means of the form that endures’.4

It should be noted that Bazin died at the age of forty and death stalked him continuously throughout his life. Bazin’s attraction to realism, and an idea of art as a production of the eternal, seems inherently linked to his psychological and physiological state. The attempt to cheat or outlast death through the preservation of one’s image and world seems very close to Bazin. As Bazin explains ‘the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death’.5Just like F. Kafka’s fiction, which is infused with fears of and struggles with consumption, Bazin’s conception of the psychology of the plastic arts seems to be his own.6 That said the foundation of much art is linked to attempts at ensuring an ever-lasting legacy. From statues, palaces, portraits to tombs influential men have commissioned and produced art to represent themselves and the world they live in.


Bazin explains that painting, attempting the production of realism, encountered a problem in combining both the representation of the ‘spiritual’ real or emotionally real and the representation of the physical real.7Bazin notes that painting can successfully represent the emotionally real but that the reproduction of the physical real will always lean towards ‘illusion’.8This ‘illusion’, I believe, to Bazin meant the inability, of painting, to truly represent the outward appearances of things; a painting of a cart doesn’t really refer to a cart but rather refers to the painters painting of a cart. The cart refers back to the painter and his paint. And to Bazin not only was this a flaw of painting, in its attempt at reproducing reality, but also the main reason photography and film is so successful in the reproduction of reality. Bazin explains ‘Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. No matter how skilful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image’ is unavoidable. Film, in contrast allowed, for the first time, allowed the image of the world to be:


formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of his painter. All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence. Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.9

The painter is unable, due to his medium, to escape the appearance of his touch. Photography, according to Bazin, evaporates the human touch: photography removes the artist’s fingerprint evident in the medium of painting and sculpture. Bazin also believes that, because of the technical and scientific method of photography, the aesthetic experience derived is much more in-line with personal perception. Photography and cinema replicates the physically real without the barrier that one encounters when admiring a painting or sculpture. It should be noted however that Bazin invests far too much faith in the technical process of developing film as an objective and not subjective process. The production of film is open to that very same human touch Bazin felt paintings contained. With the birth of photography came the birth of photo modification and editing and films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari show this trend with certain scenes being coloured differently. And with digital film it is hard to really locate an image that hasn’t been altered somewhat for aesthetic reasons. I think Bazin, even if he accepted that film is often modified, would argue that the best cinema would attempt to capture reality as it is. However this position will be further explored in Bazin’s other essays and other articles concerning them.


Bazin may have argued, however, that the counter-position – that photography is not objective – incorrectly translates his proper position. Bazin uses the French word objectif, which means the lens of a camera, and overtly, in the French text, plays on this meaning. Bazin may therefore be arguing that by the objective nature of photography he means that the physical appearance of brush marks, the fingerprint of the human touch, are not apparent in film and therefore photography, unlike painting or sculpture, reproduces “reality” without direct reference to an artist or photographer. Bazin therefore may not mean objective as not-subjective but rather “through an object”. Photography removes the appearance of the touch of humanity rather than the touch of humanity.


To Bazin the process of photography ‘confers on [an object] a quality of credibility’.10Bazin explains that we ‘accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space’.11Bazin is arguing that photography and cinema communicates an items existence to us and we believe it. A point is often made here that Bazin seems to believe in the naïve position that “the camera never lies”. However I believe that this point is too harsh. Bazin uses the word ‘confers’ which indicates Bazin’s position to be that the sense of real is attached or attributed to the image – this is not the same as saying “the camera never lies”. Bazin is arguing that the reproduction of reality, through the camera, is imbued with an advantage because, unlike a painting or sculpture, a photograph is not an ‘ersatz’.12Painting, or sculpture, is a replacement for an object, a photograph the reproduction. And Bazin believes that this reproduction is treated, commonly, as if it is the object.


There does seem to be some truth to Bazin’s position. People often accept cinematic worlds without question and often photos modified, or “photo-shopped”, are accepted as true and real until people are promoted to believe otherwise – Piers Morgan losing his job over now discredited Iraq photos is a distinct instance of this. This common, or regular, acceptance of photography and films’ realism is often targeted by “viral” marketing campaigns and I am reminded of a film – whose name I currently can’t remember – which circulated a simulated, but realistic looking, office fight in order to gain surprise and attract people unknowingly towards the film’s website. It is not that “the camera never lies” but rather that we often accept photographs and films’ visual representation to be unadulterated and true (even though we known it isn’t – a psychological state known as ambivalence).


Bazin goes on to argue that ‘the aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare… realities.13Bazin comes to the conclusion that:


Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love.14

To Bazin photography makes us see the world anew. Realism strips bare those preconceptions which, to Bazin, we accumulate through the passage of time like dust settling on furniture. Therefore to Bazin photography and Cinema, in the realist style, is a gust of wind which blows away the dust that settles on our way of seeing. A problem with Bazin’s conclusion, that realism blows away our preconceptions, is that it moves from explanation to conclusion without exploration of the logical sequence which would indicate how realism would blow away our preconception. Bazin imbues the realist style, and photography, with magical qualities like the ones he noted in the Egyptian cultures motivation for mummification. However Bazin fails to establish the reason why and how the realist style blows away the dust of preconceptions and it seems rather, contradictory to Bazin’s intended position, that realism relies on preconceptions. Realism is not so much presenting ‘virginal purity’ but rather relying on regular conceptions and perceptions of reality – this reliance is in fact why one would argue realism is imbued with the power of truth. Realism encounters a problem as it seems to rely on “common-sense” perceptions – and those “common-sense” perceptions tend to be a naturalised ideological position.15In ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ Bazin cannot support the conclusion he comes to however he does provide a groundwork for arguing that the film is a powerful medium with a technical process of production which allows it to represent an object rather than replace it – which painting and sculpture does – therefore ensuring a sense of verisimilitude to attached to the medium of film. Bazin does go on to argue for realism in further essays and I will cover these in the attempt to uncover his motivation for his assertion that realism is the optimum style of film.



1‘The ontology of the photographic image’ is an inquiry and assertion by Bazin on the differences between film, and painting/Sculpture. On a wider note Bazin’s ‘ontological’ approach is an inquiry into “what is”, “could be” – and most important to Bazin’s What is Cinema? – and “what should be” in cinema.

2Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in Andre Bazin, Hugh Gray (trans), What Is Cinema?, Vol. 1, London: University of California Press Ltd, (1967), pp. 9-16, p. 9.

3Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

4Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

5Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 10.

6 It should be noted that, although it is evident that Kafka’s fiction is imbued with the personal fear of death and his physical state, there is great humor and joy even in the struggle and fear.

7Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 11.

8Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 12.

9Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, pp. 12-13.

10Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 13.

11Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, pp. 13-14.

12Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 14.

13Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 15.

14Andre Bazin ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, p. 15.

15See Barthes’ Mythologies or Althussers’ Ideological-State Apparatus

If no one can tell two works of art apart, can there be an aesthetic difference between them?

The remit of this journal will be expanding slightly to include the disciplines Aesthetics, Art, Critical Theory – although this will still be primarily a film journal, the odd article and analysis of Art and other cultural texts will be included. This expansion is added because it allows me to add my work concerning the institutional theory of art that i will concentrating on in the summer and to provide a forum in which to work through this – as well as other articles.

In this article I will attempt to answer the proposed question by exploring whether an identical forgery shares the shame aesthetic properties as an original. I will answer the question in the negative and argue that there cannot be an aesthetic difference between two visually identical pieces of art. I will indicate that this is not necessarily a negative outcome because it is an indicator that art is appreciated for more than just an artwork’s form. I will explain that art is appreciated both aesthetically and for its innovation: its position in the history of art. In this essay I will first explore N Goodman’s position that there can be an aesthetic difference between the two identical pieces of art. I will come to the conclusion that Goodman is incorrect in his belief that aesthetic appreciation is affected by knowing that an artwork is either a forgery or an unoriginal artwork produced by someone other than the artist. I will then illustrate why there is not an aesthetic difference between a forgery and an original piece of art.

Goodman proposes that there is an aesthetic difference between a forgery (B) and an original (A). The original (A) is a work of art by a historically important artist such as Henri Matisse and the forgery (B) is an identical work produced by a knowledgeable art student. Goodman contends that knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery ensures one perceives (B) differently. Goodman claims this difference to be aesthetic. In the article Art and Authenticity Goodman explains that once one is told that (B) is a forgery then ‘the pictures differ aesthetically… even if no one will ever be able to tell them apart merely by looking at them’.1 Goodman contends that being told that an artwork is a forgery affects the way we are able perceive it; he explains that knowing (B) is a forgery ‘makes consequent demands that modify and differentiate my experience’.2 Goodman believes that aesthetic appreciation is the complete experience we gain from our interaction with art and that this experience is distorted by the knowledge an artwork is a forgery. Goodman believes that although both (A) and (B) are visually identical they differ in the aesthetic experience they offer – once one is told that that (B) is a forgery.

One major problem with Goodman’s position is his understanding of the aesthetic. The aesthetic is not the whole lived experience we feel we when engage with art but an appreciation of the formal qualities of an artwork. The aesthetic experience is produced by appreciation of the art object’s intrinsic formal qualities. Goodman falsely attributes the object, artwork (B), with his knowledge that it is not artwork (A) the original. Goodman’s aesthetic difference is produced not in the art object but in the subject. If we tell Goodman that (X), A late period Picasso, is a forgery he would be forced to say that it is inferior aesthetically. However the knowledge that (X) is a forgery is external to the aesthetic nature of the work; it doesn’t affect the brush marks, colours and shapes that produced the artwork. Goodman’s understanding of the aesthetic is at odds with the way we appreciate an artwork aesthetically. The art object (B)’s colours, shapes or brush marks are not changed by the knowledge that it is a forgery; evaluation of (B)’s aesthetic quality is not affected by the knowledge it is a forgery. Goodman’s aesthetic is flawed because he asserts that anything that affects his perception of an artwork constitutes an aesthetic difference. In his article it is not clear why drunkenness, short-sightedness, colour-blindness or even racial prejudice would not entail an aesthetic flaw on the part of the artwork. It is evidently incorrect that an artwork should be seen as aesthetically inferior just because the viewer is drunk or colour-blind. Lessing explains that knowing that an artwork is a forgery ‘is a fact about the painting which stands entirely apart from it as an object for aesthetic contemplation. The knowledge of this fact can neither add anything to nor subtract anything from the aesthetic experience’.3 Knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery does not alter the form of the object; (B) still contains its original aesthetic features.

What changes when one knows an artwork is a forgery is that one approaches the artwork with a different understanding of the artwork’s place in the history of art. The knowledge that the artwork (B) is a forgery alters our perception of the artwork as a whole: it does not alter the artwork’s aesthetic features or our appreciation of them. Lessing continues to explain that ‘the fact that a work of art is a forgery is an item of information about it on a level with such information as how old the artist was when he created it, the political situation in the time and place of its creation’.4The aesthetic quality of (B) would not be said to be diminished if one gained knowledge of the place of (B)’s creation, or the political situation it was created in. The knowledge that artwork (B) is a forgery is on par with biographical and cultural information; information unimportant for appreciation of the artwork’s aesthetic qualities. The aesthetic quality of artwork (A) and (B) are equal; there is no difference between them in that category. The category which produces a different valuation between artworks (A) and (B) is the judgement made from knowledge of the historical, biographical and sociological background. As Lessing points out ‘A few authentic pen and ink scratches by Picasso are for more valuable than a fine landscape by an unknown artist’.5 Aesthetic judgement of an artwork is only one category or aspect of evaluation of art. Artworks are also valued for their historical significance, moral position, social critique and biographical matter. A painting of Descartes may be aesthetically uninteresting, however being a painting of an important historical figure the painting is valued for its historical and biographical significance. Artworks (A) and (B) contain the same aesthetic value because knowledge that artwork (B) is a forgery is not an aesthetic issue; there is not an aesthetic difference between the two identical pieces of art.

In attempting to answer the proposed question “If no one can tell two works of art apart, can there be an aesthetic difference between them?” I explored whether an identical forgery shares the shame aesthetic properties as an original. Goodman argued that they do not share the shame aesthetic properties. To Goodman the artworks (A) and (B) differ aesthetically because (B) is a forgery. According to Goodman’s position aesthetic appreciation is affected by the knowledge that an artwork is a forgery. I illustrated that this position is flawed. The aesthetic is not altered by knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery; the way we perceive the artwork in relation to the history of art is. Goodman’s position argues that the difference in the aesthetic valuation is because the way he experiences the aesthetic is altered by knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery. However Goodman does not make it clear why being drunk, short-sighted or colour blind would not also entail an aesthetic flaw on the part of the artwork. It is evidently false that an artwork’s aesthetic evaluation should suffer because the viewer is drunk, short-sighted, colour blind or racially prejudiced. Artworks (A) and (B) are visually identical and I illustrated that they do not differ aesthetically because (B) is a forgery; therefore there is no aesthetic difference that arises between (A) and (B). However this does not entail that we judge (A) and (B) equally as artworks. (A) would be seen as more important in regards to the history of art. In response to the proposed question there is no aesthetic difference between two visually identical pieces of art, but there may be historical, biographical, social or moral reasons why one piece of art is seen as more significant or important.


N, Goodman. ‘Art and Authenticity’ in N, Goodman, Languages of Art, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976) pp. 99-112. p. 106.

N, Goodman. ‘Art and Authenticity’ p. 105.

Alfred Lessing, ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 23, No. 4, (Summer, 1965), pp. 461- 471. p. 464.

Alfred Lessing, ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ p. 464.

Alfred Lessing, ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ p. 463.



Goodman, N. ‘Art and Authenticity’ in Goodman, N. Languages of Art, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976) pp. 99-112.

Kennick, W.E. ‘Art and Inauthenticity’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 44, No. 1, (Autumn, 1985), pp. 3-12.

Kulka, T. ‘The Artistic and Aesthetic Status of Forgeries’ Leonardo, Vol. 15, No. 2, (Spring, 1982), pp. 115-117.

Morton, H. L. and Foster, T. R. ‘Goodman, Forgery and the Aesthetic’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 2, (Spring, 1991), pp. 155- 159.

Lessing, A. ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 23, No. 4, (Summer, 1965), pp. 461- 471.

Sagoff, M. ‘The Aesthetic Status of Forgeries’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 35, No. 2, (Winter, 1976), pp. 169- 180.

Wreen, M. ‘Goodman on Forgery’ The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 133, (Oct., 1983), pp. 340-353.




Shallow Focus and the Aura of Authenticity in Gamorra



Gamorra the film selects several stories from investigative journalist Roberto Saviano’s best seller of the same name. All set in or around the Camorra’s (Mafia of Napoli and its surrounding towns) territories and business interests. Gamorra includes several interesting formal features in which the film communicates the violence, despair, and seemingly unavoidable fate of the central character’s struggle to survive in Europe’s most violent neighbourhoods. The technique of shallow focus is important in Gamorra in communicating this poisoned atmosphere.


Shallow focus is the cinematographic technique which shows one plane of field clearly while the deeper plane of field is blurred or out of focus. The shallow focus technique would show a face close up in perfect detail but the background or location out of focus. Deep focus, shallow focus’s antithesis, is the technique which shows an entire image in focus. In exposition shots we see the use of deep focus to clearly identify depth and position. Gamorra uses the shallow focus technique to foreground certain elements important in the communication of the toxic heritage that living in the Camorra dominated south entails.


The shallow focus technique is used to indicate, in part, the attempt in the characters to ignore and distance themselves from the violence they are surrounded by. This is indicated in a scene where a money-carrier walks suspicious and fearful of his well-being after he has a gun pointed at his head. As he walks away hastily the background moves out of focus, he attempts to block out the violence he just saw, yet a voice shouts out his name and follows him until he reluctantly stops and engages with the voice that has been stalking him. As he does the film returns to a deep focus. This indicates the futile attempt that is ignoring the context or situation the character’s find themselves in; one cannot step out of Camorra controlled life. The aesthetic of the shallow focus communicates a sense of a constant, ungraspable, unknowable violence which envelops and blurs clear and distinctive perception. The use of shallow focus reminds the viewer that the violent acts and characters are borne out of the poisonous toxic context. The sense of the unknowable and paranoid, added to by the style of death of Maria, also alludes to the actual feelings of the author of Gomorra who lives under protective custody; the truth comes with a terrible price.


[[[SPOILER: At the end of the film as these boys are killed the Camorra boss commented that it was a waste of youth but it had to be done. The Camorra blunt and destroy youth and the very little of it that Italy has left are being chewed up and spat out. Gamorra seems to say that unless corruption is destroyed then every generation, in this region, will continue to have a large waste of youth.]]]


Gomorra has been linked to, and commented, to be in the Italian Neo-realist style [I have decided to create a full article concerning this statement however one element of the Neo-realist style is relevant enough here to merit bringing it up now; the use of non-actors in significant roles]. Andre Bazin commented concerning Italian Neo-realism ‘It is not the absence of professional actors that is, historically, the hallmark of social realism nor of the Italian film. Rather, it is specifically the rejection of the star concept and casual mixing of the professional’ and amateur. (1.) Bazin argues that this ensures the audience brings with it no pre-conceptions concerning character – the opposite to what Jean-Luc Godard did in Alphaville (1965); that is play with those pre-conceptions. Bazin explains ‘the result is… that extraordinary feeling of truth that one gets from [Italian Neo-realism]’. (2.) In Gomorra several significant, or rather nearly all, roles are played by amateurs and non-actors and this attributes to a sense of authenticity and realism. Skinny young men, fat overweight looking men litter the film; average-looking people, as opposed to the stylised look of Hollywood, imbues the aesthetic of Gamorra with an ‘atmosphere of authenticity’. (3.) This is added to outside of the film by the film’s official website which doesn’t list the actors beside pictures unlike Hollywood film where actor recognition is important.


Staying outside of the films’ digesis the aura of authenticity of Gomorra has been further added to by events outside of the film. One of the central messages of the film, and book, is the infectious dominating control the Camorra has in everyday life from the most basic domestic sphere to the world of industrial waste and fashion design. Recently Bernardino Terracciano, who plays a boss, has been ‘arrested on suspicion of extorting protection money and having ties to the Casalesi clan, part of the Camorra Mafia’. (4.) Two other actors, one a boss and the other a hitman in the film, have also been detained by the police. These facts add to the sense that the non-actors are just playing-out their day to day lives but in front of the camera just this once but it also rams home the central message of the film that you cannot escape the touch of the Camorra.




(1.) Andre Bazin ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism’ in Andre Bazin, What is Cinema?, California: University of California Press, (1971), pp. 16-40 p. 23.

(2.) Andre Bazin ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism’ p. 24.

(3.) Andre Bazin ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism’ p. 24.