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.
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
In a series of articles I will explore whether a moral blemish(1.) (or virtue) in an artwork(2.) can also be said to be an aesthetic blemish (or virtue). I will start by exploring Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and aesthetic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. I will note that Autonomist’s believe that their account can explain our fascination with amoral and immoral artworks successfully and should therefore be accepted.
In this section I will explore the arguments for Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. Anderson and Dean explain ‘it is never the moral component of the criticism as such that diminishes or strengthens the value of an artwork qua artwork’.(3.) To the Autonomist only “aesthetic” flaws can be correctly called artistic flaws. The Autonomist asserts that moral value and artistic value are therefore two distinct ways of evaluating an artwork. In support of this position the Autonomist can highlight cases in which there is an easily distinguishable difference between moral and artistic value. Elisabeth Schellekens notes:
it seems completely appropriate with regards to artworks such as the provocative and proud prostitute that Manet depicts in Olympia to pay no attention to the moral content and perspective imposed upon us by these works when we evaluate them.(4.)
Though it may be argued that to a modern audience Olympia is no longer shocking, it seems correct that we ignore the moral stance of Olympia and judge Manet’s painting on the quality of its formal features. Another reason cited for accepting Autonomism is its explanatory power.(5.) The Autonomist argues that holding artistic and moral value to be distinct also explains features of our interaction with and the evaluation of art. The Birth of a Nation (Dir. D W Griffith, 1915) is valued as art because of its innovative formal features and interesting narrative structure. However, The Birth of a Nation is racist in both its depiction of African-Americans and its advocacy of the Klu Klux Klan. Autonomism is able to explain these two different valuations of an artwork because artistic and moral value is independent of each other.
Autonomists also argue for their position by questioning whether ethical criticism is an acceptable criterion of art. There are many forms and genres of art. Some of these forms of art, such as abstract art and orchestral music, appear to have no connection to morality. This claim does seem plausible for there appears to be art-forms and artworks – such as Poltrona Cecilia II by Victor Monserrate – that have no real moral significance or standpoint. The Autonomist believes this indicates that there are some artworks not viable for moral criticism. Noel Carroll explains the Autonomist then moves to argue that ‘whatever we identify as the value of art should be such that every artwork can be assessed in accordance with it’.(6.)As artistic value is a standard of assessment that should be applicable to all artworks then moral criticism cannot be a part of that standard because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism. The Autonomist concludes that, as all artworks aim to produce an aesthetic experience, the sole criterion of an artwork’s value (qua artwork) is their aesthetic qualities.
(1.) In this paper I will use a liberal notion of a moral blemish. I will take an artwork to feature a moral blemish if it promotes a morally reprehensible position without censure or qualification. Whether this notion is acceptable will of course be up to debate and therefore suitible for another article in the future.
(2.) It should be noted that I will be using a non-evaluative notion of art in this paper. I will take it to be that an artwork is an object conferred upon it the title of art by an appropriate institution or cultural body.
(3.) James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 1998, pp. 150-167, p. 152.
(4.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), p. 73.
(5.) Anderson and Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, p. 165.
(6.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2, Jan., 2000, pp. 350-387, p. 352.