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Moralists have no place in an art gallery

January 30th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Recently a debate came up and I was asked two different questions: are there ethical limits on the public expression of art; is there nothing that is unethical in art.

**(Note, the response below is my initial response.  I’ve since read of some things that have very much shaken my notion, which I explain at the end.)

I think the only proper sphere for determining what is unethical in art is the public sphere.  I believe, as well, it is the only place where art should be limited.  I think this is the exact role that the public sphere performs.  I am inclined to agree with Supreme Court rulings on obscenity, which state that the object in question must be obscene by community standards.  I think putting up a piece of art of the Virgin Mother that uses as a part of its medium elephant dung will find a different reception in New York City than in my home town (village, really) of Fredericktown, OH.  The community standards are very different.  I believe very much that a community has the right to make decisions regarding what is acceptable for it and what is not—part of this is my Libertarian streak.  In politics, I’m very much a libertarian and believe in personal responsibility and respect for an individual’s decisions.  An individual has a personal stake in his or her own affairs and his or her judgment should not be overthrown unless very serious circumstances demand such an overthrow.  I feel this same way about communities—after all, the people making the decisions are the ones living in the community.  Caveat: this, so long as the community decision does not alter or infringe, fundamentally, the rights of another group of people (i.e. Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, etc.).  Thus, again, the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in Fredericktown, OH, would not be acceptable.  I am unsure the ratio of gays or lesbians as a percentage of the population there (probably much the same as anywhere else), but most people I know are Joe-average, beer drinking, Sunday church-going rural Americans who overwhelmingly voted for John McCain and George W. and Bob Dole.  They are not likely proponents of homo-erotic photography—at least not publicly.

With regard to art itself, my response is that ethics/morality and art cannot and should not co-exist.  They should not be concerned with one another.  Art that concerns itself with morality is journalism—or worse, propaganda.  The 20th century has well proven how art can be used as a “moral” tool to bludgeon people.  In my opinion, at the deepest moment of creation there is a spirit that enters the artist—some have referred to it as being possessed, other as having voices speak through them (muses in essence)—but there is a connection made between the artist and something very deep and inexpressible by words—the unconscious, perhaps?  This “voice” for lack of a better word, should come through pure and untouched.  It is an afterthought by the artist to deal with what this voice has said and any activity in this regard is a shaping, a filtering, and a censorship—it is also the work of a writer.  (Which brings up the very funny quip made by Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”)  The problem of how to “craft” a work from the unfiltered stream that just poured through is a great problem and greater minds than mine have struggled with it. (For instance, Wallace Shawn mentions this in a recent American Theatre article—April 2008.)  To filter your voice as it comes through results in crappy art; crappy art is incapable of striking people—it’s a bland paste that’s met with indifference.  Paintings become those of Thomas Kinkade.

I think, really, this is an argument about ‘what is art’.  I remember reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I probably should read again—for here you have the character (Roark) that embodies true and uncompromising artistic integrity—integrity to a “personal vision”—but note, not to a societal vision, as that is corrupt.  I am reminded of Ellsworth Toohey, the art critic in The Fountainhead, who was a failed artist so his admitted goal was to glorify, through his criticism, mediocrity, so as to confuse the general public with regard to what great art really is. This to me is where the true question lies—whether something is art or not—not whether it is ethical or moral.  Another piece that came to mind is Neil LaBute’s play The Shape of Things, there is an excellent review that draws out what LaBute was saying—but it deals with the same problem: is there such a thing as immoral art?  LaBute’s piece is interesting because the art object in this case is another human being, which certainly raises ethical/moral questions—and certainly he uses the physical re-shaping of a person as a metaphor for the intellectual re-shaping that happens through art as well.  But what cannot be left out, here, is the role of the artist, which in LaBute’s play is intentional—that returns me to the whole art as journalism/propaganda.  One example that LaBute raises in his play, no doubt from personal experience, is an argument two characters have about a performance art piece they go and see. In the art piece a woman uses her finger as a paintbrush and her vagina as an ink well and finger paints a portrait of her father in her own menstrual blood.  Is this art?  Is this just disgusting?  Is it a form of mental depravity?  Is it foisting your own psychological problems on the public?  Truly it depends on who you are.  For some women—feminist, outraged, etc., this might be a compelling statement regarding a patriarchal society, as it might be for victims of sexual abuse, perhaps.  To a person like Jesse Helms, this would be absolute trash, depraved, and nothing more than filth.  Who’s right depends on who is looking.  And this is a debate of our own making.  But beyond the intellectual reaction, there is also the sensory reaction—does it strike you, affect you?  This matters too, but again, depending upon your sensitization or desensitization individuals will be affected differently.

Frederich Nietzsche, in the Genealogy of Morals goes at great lengths to show that the original definitions of the words for “good” and “evil” were associated strongly with the nobility and the powerful: the kings, queens, ruling class, etc.  All definitions of beauty and strength and health and wisdom, in short, all that was moral.  Then he describes how Christianity—a revolution sponsored by the Jews, he notes (and though not an anti-Semite purely, Nietzsche’s writings did find use by Nazis for this emphasis)—led to an inversion of the moral system: such that in the New Testament one reads that the meek shall inherit the earth, the poor and the diseased—these are the good.  The wealthy are the bad and cannot get through the eye of a needle.  Here in two strokes one can see how utterly opposite views on morality can be.  I am reminded of Joseph Campbell who quotes Heraclitus as saying, “To God all things are beautiful, good, and right; human beings, on the other hand, deem some things right and others wrong…”  God is beyond good and evil; God is beyond duality.  God is unity.  It is only to people that things are either right or wrong—and even that can vary in a person’s life time.  I know there are many people who yearn for absolutes, but to my mind there are none.  Each person is ruled by his own beliefs and these are imparted by parents, family, churches, community, etc.  To prove how far a foul these things can go, one need but only look at slavery, or the Ku Klux Klan, or Nazis, or any number of societies where certain forms of belief and behavior are perfectly acceptable but morally repugnant to many others—or in retrospect.  And no more timely point can be made than our struggle with some over-zealous Islamic groups today, which view the United States as the “great Satan.”  Are we?  I think not, but to their moral system we certainly are for a host of reasons.  Nietzsche said “God is dead.” A quote that has become a mantra for many atheists and exuberant left wing types, but as Alan Bloom notes in his book The Closing of the American Mind, Nietzsche was not happy about this.  He just observed it.  To Nietzsche the death of God meant the death of Good and Evil and with it the definitions that all people use to establish what in life is the highest, noblest, and best achievements to which a person can aspire—and those which are debased and foul and repulsive.  Instead, Nietzsche observed, we have replaced Good and Evil with Values.  And as Alan Bloom notes, Nietzsche was the first to use the term—and that in the 1860s.  To see how right his vision was, we need only look at code words in our cultural system: we have different values; his values are not mine; we don’t share the same values; family values.  What are values?  To think about it is almost absurd.  Saying it enough times makes the word disappear and become silly.  What are we saying when we say, “I value this” or “this thing I value”?  “I value honesty.”  One thing is certain; it has not the ring of “that action is evil.”  William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, said somewhere that evil is when something is out of harmony with itself.  Others might say that evil is something that destroys the fabric of a culture—is toxic to it—unwinds the web that the Fates weave.  Can art be evil?  Can it have a toxic effect on the mind, the psyche, or undermine the morals of a people?  It is odd that Plato answered yes, given what happened to his mentor.  At what point does “art that challenges our perception of society” become “art that is dangerous to society”?  And what’s more, who is endangered?  Whose moral system are we to use in evaluating art?  The President?  The Congress?  Religious leaders? (Which ones?) A mayor? A mob?

Speaking of Plato…not only did Plato want to throw out all the poets, but Plato’s vision was fascist and very offensive—don’t forget, he felt that there should be no family and that all children should be raised by the state—expressly so there would be no emotional attachments, the bedrock of family and, in my opinion, human life—which to him were no more that threats to the political success of his ideal.  Interestingly, he is also the first to propose women as leaders, remarkable in a society that was terribly misogynistic. There is one conservative radio commentator, Michael Savage, who always quotes The Republic, which I find fascinating, considering much of what The Republic stands for is antithetical to “conservative values” in America.

In terms of ethics and morality, I think America is at a place where these are or have been legislated.  Top to bottom.  America has overthrown the religious basis of its moral beliefs, despite media statistics demonstrating a high percentage of belief in God.  (And there are arguments regarding whether religion and morality align anyway.) We have become a country that legislates morality.  Robert Bly, in his book Iron John, asserts that America has become a society of adolescents.  For the most part, there is no more a strong religious or moral character.  There is no more a “ritual” of “rebirth” for young men into manhood.  There is no clear indication that the great percentage of males even have an idea of what it means to be a “man” in society.  I often hear men my age (38) talk about playing their X-Boxes or Playstations and it makes me think of myself at age 13.  I wonder how it is that 38 year-old men can do nothing more with hours out of their day than play video games.  These are the same people who have 2-dimensional world views and who, when I discuss political issues, have little concern, empathy, or understanding of others and focus almost exclusively on generalizations and broad statements, knowing specifics only about political issues that touch their take-home pay.  I don’t know to what extent this has always been true, but I feel that we as a society are much less literate, much less thoughtful, much less concerned with each other, and much more isolated.  Going back to the opening discussion, I think ethics and morality are community values.  And with community withering, so too is any sense of those accompanying values. 

So this is where Art becomes important.  It confronts.  It challenges.  It asks questions that many people don’t care to ask, or points to things that people would rather not look at.  So I agree with the comment of my ethics professor, Steve Feldman, that art is important to a civil society, and the above statement, I feel, is why.  Art asks questions  because the artist is himself/herself asking questions.  It is true art if it has power, and, as Joseph Campbell points out in Primitive Mythology, acts as a “sign stimulus” to release emotions and repressed psychic truths or experiences.  Kitsch cannot do this. Knowing truths and having meaningful experiences is central to identity: core identity, not just trivialities: “I’m Tom Hayes, I live in Cleveland, I have a house, a car, etc.”  I’m not suggesting Art is the only venue for the formation of core identity, but it is a part of it.  Dr. Feldman formed a question in terms of Kafka‘s In the Penal Colony, where “one character is the Explorer, a man who goes around the world seeking new meaning. We are all explorers now. The penal colony (a metaphor for culture) is run down and falling apart.” So, what is more important, “exploring” versus “identity?”  In playwriting one question that recurs is that of which is more important: character or plot.  One unique answer that I’ve found is that character is plot and plot is character.  They cannot exist independently of each other.  The choice a character makes reveals much about him, and it moves plot in a different direction.  The action of a plot causes a character to make a choice.  I think exploration and identity are equally bound.  For example, for me, the question of dung on the Virgin was more about the artist’s value of dung.  What you learn if you bother to dig below the surface (i.e. shit on the Virgin Mother), is that Chris Ofili used dung all the time as a media form in his art and came from a culture that valued it highly. Now, he also used cut outs of women’s sexual organs in the piece, but the irony should be plain: sex organs and virginity—the sex organs lead to birth—and yet here is this woman (re-branded by Holy Mother Church) as bearing a child without a good romp for her effort!  My interpretation of his use of dung is that it was not done with the intent to offend or infuriate, nor was it done as an act of sacrilege.  Further, perhaps it caused some people to think about the mortality and humanness of Mary; after all, wasn’t that the point of Christ being made man?  To demonstrate his knowledge and experience of this human, mortal body? (Which has some rather unsavory ‘administrative’ duties attendant on it.)

Having two small children it’s amazing to me how active, aware, and interested they are.  How everything is new and fresh and an object of curiosity.  I contrast this with the depressing awareness of how asleep many people I know seem to be.  How asleep many in our nation seem to be…world perhaps?  It is no accident that films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) are critiques of American society that portray the mass of the population as zombies.  My temporary depression at this observation deepens at the thought that my children may grow up to be equally as asleep, passive, and disinterested.  At the very least, I think, Art wakes people up: even if the effect is only temporary.  To Plato I say, ‘your Republic is filled with cowards.’  What good are philosopher kings who cannot confront or sound the depths of human exploration/creation?  The Republic is the first Utopia, filled with mindless children and a few supervising adults; one can ask, I think, if they are truly out of the cave or still staring at shadows.  Art, I feel, confronts shadows and makes them real or dispels them.  In this way it has a sort of transubstantiational quality. 

Perhaps the great question here is: do we (as a collective culture) have an identity anymore?  And maybe this is what frightens people.  Should we have a collective identity—that is, isn’t pluralism more exciting with greater opportunities, perspectives, etc.?  I think this is not only a central challenge we face.  Some might ask if we aren’t out of harmony with ourselves and so Yeats might consider us evil, and thus validate the accusations of fundamentalist Islamists.  Of course, a more whimsical Joseph Campbell might say that we’re in a transitional phase and are searching for a new mythology, which will confer upon us a new identity, one that will be acceptable to us all?

**Follow-up note

I was recently watching a Clockwork Orange and somehow got off on a tangent that included the aestheticization of violence.  This also included a conversation about Kill Bill and how Tarantino achieved what some consider to be the highest form of an aesthetic of violence—one which our Humble Narrator envisioned in his gulliver in said Clockwork.  In that same Wikipedia article there is the following:

Laurent Tailhade is reputed to have stated, after Auguste Vaillant bombed the Chamber of Deputies in 1893: "Qu’importent les victimes, si le geste est beau? [What do the victims matter, so long as the gesture is beautiful]."

This is where my notion of art and morality really stumbles… as if the LaButian notion of art with the intent of reshaping a person isn’t enough…the outright killing of people for an aesthetic is terrible.  I mean, I can see what is meant on a highly visceral level—of pure or raw experience; but the sociopathic objectification of people such that their lives are meaningful only in one vain act of art is, to my mind, evil.

  1. Rodrigo
    April 27th, 2014 at 20:46 | #1

    Very good points to think about it.

    Art must transcend with mastery, dominion and talent in order to create a deep good feeling and hence communicates something special. If the work of art is unable to do that, then it is not a work of art, because it is unable to transcend. It therefore fails.

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