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
2.2 Criticising Autonomism
In the previous section I explored Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. In the previous section I highlighted two arguments for their account. The first related to Autonomism’s ability to explain how we evaluate immoral art. I highlighted Schellekens example of Manet’s Olympia as an example of art of which the moral and artistic value are unconnected. The second argument for Autonomism I explored related to whether moral criticism can be an appropriate criterion of aesthetic evaluation. Autonomists assert that moral criticism cannot be a part of the aesthetic evaluation of art because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism (such as orchestral art). Although it seems correct that some forms of art are inappropriate for moral criticism, this does indicate why some forms of art, such as narrative fiction, which explicitly elicit moral responses and readings, are not open for moral evaluation. As Carroll asserts:
it is appropriate to do so with respect to King Lear or Potemkin, since those works of art are expressly designed to elicit moral reactions, and it is part of the form of life to which they belong that audiences respond morally to them on the basis of their recognition that that is what they are intended to do(1.)
Some genres and forms of art explicitly rely on arousing emotional and moral responses for their success. This indicates that, at the very least, genres such as narrative fiction are viable for moral evaluation.
A significant criticism of Autonomism centres on whether we really value art just for its aesthetic qualities. This line of argument has been developed in several ways. One approach is to show that even in the everyday admiration of canonical works we value them for more than their aesthetic qualities. Imagine that we are faced with two visually identical works, one by Francis Bacon and the other an art student. If we consider which one is artistically superior we will argue for Bacon’s original. One of the reasons why we value Bacon’s artwork over the student’s effort is that Bacon’s shows originality and is historically important in the continued evolution of modern and post-modern art. Beyond an artwork’s formal aesthetic features we value art for its originality and historical value. The early works of Alfred Hitchcock are decent, though often plodding and lumber-some. However, they are admired because they show the emerging style of Hitchcock and often contain innovative, though crude, uses of cinematic techniques. Murder! (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1931) features the first use of voice-over but by modern standards the technique is clumsy and strained. Murder! is valued as art as much for its historical significance as it is for its aesthetic qualities. In response to this criticism the Autonomist could attempt to defend a purely “formalist” approach and re-assert that art’s value is solely an aesthetic affair. However, rather than have to articulate and defend a formalist approach the Autonomist could concede that historical value is an important part of our evaluation of art but that, like moral evaluation, it is separate from how we evaluate art’s value as art.
(1.) Noel Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 36, No. 3, July 1996, p. 223-238, p. 226.
In a very familiar scene and situation the wooden Steven Segal explains to his unwilling sidekick that his main concern in his attempts at freeing the train from terrorists is the hostages’ safety and wellbeing. However, Segal’s initial act of defiance (he fails to surrender) causes the brutal death of three chefs (who appear to be his friends). Segal’s reckless and violent individualism causes three innocent lives – something his attempt tried to save – to be wasted brutally. One could easily argue that the utility (forthcoming happiness) which arises out of his action is eventually beneficial because it enables him to stop the entire train – it robs the terrorist of the deadly weapon. However, it is also as easily argued that Segal’s brand of reckless egoism and self-survival causes the destruction of innocent lives at a comparable rate. The very same expertise and egoism which Segal’s character displays can also be found in his antithesis “Travis Dane”. Dane is a former weapons designer whose technology was utilized by the American Government – without the credit being given to Dane. Although Dane is clearly “evil” in his goal to be rich and powerful – breaking all manner of invisible codes of conduct – his actions display the same reckless individualism as Segal. Both characters use whatever means possible to achieve their end, and the only difference being that at the end of the film Segal wins. This contradiction is common in the action genre however it is often overlooked that both good and evil employ an ethics of “anything goes” because of the cathartic effect of violence metered out upon the evil characters. The ethical stance found within this film and the traditional action genre is interesting and seems to employ a Utilitarian understanding of right and wrong. I will write further upon this issue in the coming year.