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.

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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 VI – Immoralism

3.3 Further Criticisms of Moralism: Challenge of Immoralism

In the previous section I explored two criticisms of Moralism. I noted that Carroll used the notion of an idealized, morally sensitive audience to sidestep issues arising from morally unaware audiences. I then examined how Carroll could conceive of that morally sensitive audience. I noted that Carroll was open to being either too strict, and therefore condemning many good and great artworks, or too moderate (losing any sense of being moralist). In this section I will explore another problem for Moralism. I will question whether Moralism is correct that moral blemishes, when they contribute to an artwork’s value, are always aesthetic blemishes. In section 2.3 and 3.1 I argued that it seems plausible that the moral elements of an artwork can affect the coherency and quality of an artwork’s aesthetic qualities. However, if a moral blemish can positively contribute to an artworks value qua artwork then Moralism is false. Therefore, I will argue that some immoral artworks are aesthetically superior because of their moral blemishes and that Moralism should be rejected.

The position which holds that an artwork may be valuable as art because of, rather than despite, its moral blemish is called Immoralism. One argument for Immoralism holds that the imaginative experience afforded by immoral artworks can be more rewarding because of their immoral nature. This is called the “cognitive argument” for Immoralism. The cognitive argument for Immoralism starts by highlighting the difference between how differently we seem to judge actions in fictions (compared to those same actions in normal life). Daniel Jacobson asserts that ‘we routinely feel things in response to works of art that would be appalling, were they responses to real-life people and events. Yet we typically don’t notice’.[1] In our everyday interaction with artworks, especially narrative fiction, we do seem to respond to fictional situations in ways that we wouldn’t if those situations were real. In Commando (Dir., Mark L. Lester, 1985), after a hard fought hand to hand battle, the protagonist John Matrix finishes his nemesis off by throwing a pipe through his stomach. As he does this the pipe goes through the antagonist’s stomach and into a steam pipe causing steam to fill the room. In response Matrix quips “time to let off some steam”. In the context of the film we find this remark funny and even strangely appropriate. However, if we witnessed that very scene in real life we would be horrified by the act and by Matrix’s callous nature – as well as the fact he did it in front of his young daughter. Therefore, in our interaction with fiction we are able to imagine, engage with and approve of many counter-factual, bizarre and immoral characters and situations that we wouldn’t in normal life. The cognitive argument for Immoralism holds that this is common feature of our engagement with art. A further claim the Immoralist makes is that a benefit of much art is that we are able to, monetarily, suspend many of our real beliefs and desires and explore, in imagination, the beliefs of other people.[2] Immoral art’s ability to allow us to explore other beliefs, often radically different to ours, is both liberating and cognitively beneficial. This is because Immoral art lets us entertain different perspectives and approaches to life. Kieran asserts:

Works which commend or fail to condemn characters and states of affairs that we would judge to be morally bad can, through getting us to take up a perspective we would not otherwise entertain, enhance the value of the imaginative experience afforded.[3]

Artworks such as Goodfellas, which glamorises the gangster lifestyle and the Omerta[4] moral code, allows us to glimpse briefly into the Mafioso world. We see the attraction of living by a strict honour code such as the Omerta and by allowing us to experience the desire to be one of the “goodfellas” we emerge with a fuller understanding of the reasons behind their actions. Obviously a counter criticism that could be levelled against this argument is that any lessons that we learn from art would be at best trivial. However, even if the lessons we learn from immoral art are short lived or superficial, immoral art is able to get us to see the world anew from another perspective. Allowing us to see the world with fresh eyes or from another perspective, radically different to our own, is what great art can do and some morally questionable art can allow us to do that in ways morally appropriate artworks cannot. As Kieran notes, one way we value an artwork’s ‘value as art is the intelligibility and reward of the imaginative experience proffered by the work’.[5] The experience offered by certain immoral artworks is emotionally powerful precisely because the experience offered is one that we wouldn’t even consider in the real world. We do not enjoy films such as Goodfellas despite their immorality; we enjoy their aesthetic experience precisely because of their immorality. Therefore, the immorality of some artworks contributes directly to its ability to offer a distinct imaginative experience unavailable to morally correct artworks. Some artwork’s moral blemishes may contribute positively to their value as art. Therefore, the cognitive argument for Immoralism gives us good reason to reject Moralism because it appears that sometimes a moral blemish in an artwork can contribute positively to an artworks value qua art.


[1]Daniel Jacobson, ‘Ethical Criticism and the Vice of Moderation’, in Matthew Kieran (ed), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006), pp. 342-357, p. 354.

[2]For an account of how our cognitive architecture allows for this see Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich, ‘A Cognitive Theory of Pretense’, Cognition 74 (2000): 115-147

[3]Matthew Kieran, ‘Forbidden Knowledge: The Challenge of Immoralism’, in Jose Luis Bermudez and Sebastian Gardner, Art and Morality, (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 56-73, p. 63.

[4]Omerta is the code that any member of a Mafia clan cannot talk to the police or agent of the state on the pain of death.

[5]Kieran, ‘Forbidden Knowledge’, p. 63.