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said emotions and our disposition to undergo these affective states in the right cir-
cumstances are enhanced.
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And, of course, the problem with the Lacanian Marxists, our contemporary
Platonists, is even easier to pinpoint. For insofar as they identify structural features
of mass communication “ such as film projection7 “ as the source of all evil, they
are in the embarrassing position of lumping every attempt at moral and political
progressiveness along with Triumph of the Will.
Utopianism confronts rather the same problem, but from the other direction.
Given certain conceptions of the nature of art, the utopian is driven to put Tri-
umph of the Will in the same boat as genuinely progressive art, because of the
utopian conviction that, simply by virtue of being art, Triumph of the Will has
something morally positive about it. Or, to put the matter in more fashionable jar-
gon, all art must have its emancipatory moment.Thus, the utopian approaches the
artwork with a research program “ namely, find the emancipatory moment.This
can lead to some fairly long stretches of interpretive fancy. I once heard a critic of
this persuasion locate the emancipatory moment in The Godfather as its yearning
for community “ after all, everyone wants a family.
Utopianism seems highly improbable. It appears entirely too facile and conve-
nient that the ontology of art should be able to guarantee that all art is morally
ennobling. Indeed, I find the conclusion that art is necessarily complicit in moral
progress, since by its nature it acknowledges that things can be otherwise, to be a
deduction that appears to go through simply because its central premise is so
vague and amorphous.The notion that art shows that things can be other than the
way they are is too indefinite and unspecified a hook, to my mind, upon which to
hang art™s moral pedigree. Nor, even if we accept this rather obscure, if not equiv-
ocating, derivation of art™s moral status, can we be satisfied that its conclusion
coincides neatly with reality, since pre-theoretically it is rather apparent that there
are irredeemably evil artworks.
Finally, I would protest that the utopian position strikes me as unduly senti-
mental. Basically, the utopian is committed to the view that art is always morally
valuable. But the conceit that art should always turn out to be among the forces of
light is nothing but a pious, deeply sanctimonious wish-fulfillment fantasy. (Per-
haps a less tendentious way of framing this objection is to complain that utopians
make art a category of commendation rather than of classification.)
If it were only the Platonic and utopian traditions that stand in the way of the
commonsensical observation that the moral assessment of art can be variable, we
could easily affirm common sense. However, as already noted, there is the even
more comprehensive objection to moral discourse about art, namely the view of
the autonomist who claims that there should be no moral assessment of art what-
soever “ indeed, that moral discussion of art is of the nature of a category error.
This, of course, flies in the face of ordinary critical and discursive practice with
respect to most literature, film and theater, and a great deal of fine art. But the
autonomist remains unconcerned by this anomaly, convinced that art is categori-
cally separate from morality and politics.
Nevertheless, the acceptability of this conviction is hardly self-evident; and the
fact that art, or at least much art “ including, for example, art in the service of reli-
276 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
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gion, politics, and social movements “ does not appear disjoined from the realm of
moral value, in conjunction with the fact that autonomists are not very good at com-
ing up with a satisfying, clear-cut principle with which to demarcate the bound-
ary between art and everything else, makes autonomism a far from
overwhelmingly persuasive doctrine.8 For in a great many cases of art, the putative
impermeability of art to other sorts of practices, including morality, seems coun-
terintuitive.What credibility can the autonomist position have when one realizes
that simply in order to comprehend literary artworks, one must bring to bear
one™s knowledge of ordinary language and verbal associations, as well as one™s
knowledge of “real-world” human nature and everyday moral reasoning?9
And yet autonomism has some strong intuitions on its side, too “ intuitions with
which any philosophical attempt to develop an account of a general relation between
art and morality must come to terms. Those intuitions include the following:
1. Not all artworks have a moral dimension, and it is therefore unintelligible to
attempt to assess all art from a moral point of view.
2. Art is not an instrument of morality and so should not be assessed in terms
of its moral (a.k.a. behavioral) consequences. It is not the function of art to produce
certain moral consequences, so it is a mistake to evaluate art in light of the behav-
ior to which it gives rise, either actually or probably.Art is not subservient to ulte-
rior purposes, such as morality or politics.
Furthermore, in addition to this putatively conceptual point, it can be added
that we still understand virtually nothing about the behavioral consequences of
consuming art. For example, we have no precise, reliable account of why the inci-
dence of violence is high in Detroit but low in Toronto, where the respective pop-
ulations are exposed to the same violent entertainment media, nor do we have
anything but exceedingly general ideas about why there is less violent crime in
Japan than in the United States, despite the fact that Japanese programming is far
more violent than ours. At this point, the notion of a difference in cultures may be
solemnly intoned, but that is not an explanation. It is what needs to be explained
if we are to determine the differential behavioral responses to popular art. Thus,
given this, it may be argued that since we don™t know how to calculate the behav-
ioral consequences of art for morality, we should refrain from evaluating art in
light of moral considerations.
3. It is not the function of art to provide moral education.This is not merely a
subsidiary of the preceding point. It can also be bolstered by the observation that if art
is supposed to afford moral knowledge of a propositional variety, then the maxims
that are generally derivable from artworks are rather trivial.They are so commonly
endorsed that it makes no sense to suppose that artists discover them, or that readers,
listeners, and viewers come to learn them, in any robust sense from artworks.

I would like to develop a philosophical account “ by which I mean a general
account “ of one of the most important and comprehensive relations of art to
morality.This account, moreover, is meant to accord with our practice of mak-
ing variable moral assessments of artworks. I should also like to explain why,
ART, NARRATIVE, MORAL UNDERSTANDING 277
AND


with certain types of artworks, it strikes us as natural, rational, and appropriate
that we tend to talk about them in terms of morality. But, at the same time, I
will try to develop this account in such a way that it confronts or accommodates
the objections of the autonomist.
Autonomism is an attractive doctrine for anyone who approaches the question
of the nature of art with essentialist biases, that is, with the expectation that every-
thing we call art will share a uniquely common characteristic, one that pertains dis-
tinctively to all and only art. This is the card that Clive Bell plays when he
announces that unless we can identify such a common, uniquely defining feature
for art, then when we use the concept, we gibber.
Of course, by declaring art to be utterly separate from every other realm of
human praxis, the autonomist secures the quest for essentialism at a stroke, if only
by negation, by boldly asserting that art has nothing to do with anything else. It is
a unique form of activity with its own purposes and standards of evaluation, gen-
erally calibrated in terms of formal achievement. That those standards do not
involve moral considerations, moreover, can be supported, the autonomist argues,
by noting that moral assessment cannot be an appropriate measure of artistic
value, since not all artworks possess a moral dimension.We have already called this
the common-denominator argument. It presupposes that any evaluative measure
that applies to art should be applicable to all art. But since certain kinds of works
“ including some string quartets and/or some abstract paintings “ may be bereft
of moral significance, it makes no sense, so the argument goes, to raise issues of
morality when assessing artworks. Moral evaluation is never appropriate to art-
works, in short, because it is not universally applicable.
Moreover, that we are willing to call some artworks good despite their moral
limitations “ despite the fact that their moral insights may be paltry or even flawed
“ fits as nicely with the autonomist posit that art has nothing to do with morality
as does the fact that with certain works of art, questions of morality make no sense
whatsoever.The autonomist accounts for these facts by saying that art is valuable
for its own sake, not for the sake of morality, and that art has unique grounds for
assessment.Art has its own purposes and, therefore, its own criteria of evaluation.
But however well autonomism suits some of our intuitions about art, it also
runs afoul of others. Historically, art seems hardly divorced from other social activ-
ities. Much art was religious and much art has served explicitly political goals.Are
illustrations of the exemplary lives of saints, or biblical episodes, or pictorial
biographies of Confucius, or celebrations of the victories of empires and republics
to be thought of as utterly disjunct from other realms of social value? Such works
are obviously designed in such a way that viewing them from the perspective of
“splendid” aesthetic isolationism renders them virtually unintelligible. Such works
are made in the thick of social life and demand to be considered in light of what
autonomists are wont to call nonaesthetic interests as a condition of their compre-
hensibility. Thus, though a taste for essentialism may create a predisposition for
autonomism, the history of art and its reception makes the thesis that art is cate-
gorically separate from other realms of human praxis somewhat suspect.
278 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


To understand a literary work, for instance, generally requires not only that
one use one™s knowledge of ordinary language and verbal associations, drawn from
every realm of social activity and valuation, but also, most frequently, that audi-
ences deploy many kinds of everyday reasoning, including moral reasoning, simply
to understand the text. How can the negative claims of autonomism “ that art is
divorced from every other realm of social praxis “ be sustained in such a way as to
render literary communication intelligible?
Or, to put the matter differently, much art, including literary art in particular
and narrative art in general, has propositional content that pertains not only to the
worlds of works of art, but to the world as well. In the face of such an indisputable
fact, it is hard, save by an excess of ad hocery, to swallow the autonomist convic-
tion that art is always divorced from other dimensions of human practice and their
subtending forms of valuation.
If the negative claim of autonomism “ that all art is in pertinent respects sepa-
rate from other social practices “ seems problematic, its positive project is desper-
ately embattled. For no one, as yet, has been able to come up with a
characterization of what is uniquely artistic that resists scrutiny for very long.
Here the notion of disinterestedness plays a large role, one too complicated for me
to rehearse here. Suffice it to say that talk of the aesthetic dimension is perennially
popular, but after two centuries of discussion still inconclusive.That is, no one can
give a persuasive account of what it might be in a sufficiently comprehensive way
that would provide a model for art as we know it. Thus, since no autonomist
seems to be able to say successfully, in a positive way, what art “ its nature, purpose,
and schedule of evaluation “ is, the hypothesis seems like so much posturing.
What persuasiveness it commands appears to rely upon a promissory note, drawn
on the conviction that a certain preconception of essentialism is an unavoidable
desideratum, though, as I hope to show, the preconception in question may mis-
construe the nature of at least certain kinds of art.
Autonomism rides on the unexceptionable observation that art appears to
aim, first and foremost, at being absorbing. The so-called aesthetic experience is
centripetal.Thus, if the artwork essentially aims at our absorption in it, then it is
valuable for its own sake.The thought that art is valuable for its own sake, in turn,
is believed to entail that it is not valuable for other reasons, especially cognitive,
moral, and political ones. However, this conclusion is a non sequitur. For, in ways
to be pursued at length in what follows, some art may be absorbing exactly
because of the way in which it engages, among other things, the moral life of its
audience. That is, just because we value art for the way it commands our undi-
vided attention does not preclude that some art commands our attention in this
way just because it is interesting and engaging cognitively and/or, for our pur-
poses, morally.
The autonomist is certainly correct to point out that it is inappropriate to
invoke moral considerations in evaluating all art. This premise of the common-
denominator argument is right. Some art, at least, is altogether remote from moral
considerations. And, in such cases, moral discourse with reference to the artworks
ART, NARRATIVE, MORAL UNDERSTANDING 279
AND


in question “ say, a painting by Albers “ may be not only strained and out of place,
but conceptually confused. Nevertheless, the fact that it may be a mistake to
engage moral discourse with reference to some pure orchestral music or some
abstract paintings has no implications about whether it is appropriate to do so
with respect to The Grapes of Wrath, Peer Gynt, The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina,
1984, Potemkin, The Ox-Bow Incident, Antigone, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and
Beowulf, since artworks such as these are expressly designed to elicit moral reac-
tions, 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, given the relevant social practices.These works have moral agen-
das as part of their address to the reader to such an extent that one would have to
be willfully blinkered to miss them.
The common-denominator argument presupposes that there must be a single
scale of evaluation that applies to all artworks.Whether or not there is such a scale
“ a controversial hypothesis if there ever was one “ can be put aside, however,
because even if there is, that would fail to imply that its underlying property was
the only evaluative consideration that could be brought to bear on every artwork.
For in addition to, for example, formal considerations, some artworks may be such
that given the nature of the works in question, it is also appropriate to discuss
them in terms of other dimensions of value.
We may evaluate eighteen-wheelers and sports cars in terms of their capacities
to locomote, but that does not preclude further assessments of the former in terms
of their capacity to draw heavy loads or of the latter to execute high-speed, hair-
pin turns.These additional criteria of evaluation, of course, are related to the kinds
of things that eighteen-wheelers and sports cars respectively are. Similarly, the
conviction that there may be some common standard of evaluation for all art-
works, even if plausible, would not entail that for certain kinds of artworks, given
what they are, considerations of dimensions of value, beyond the formal, such as
moral considerations, are out of bounds.
It is my contention that there are many kinds of art, genres if you will, that
naturally elicit moral responses, that prompt us to talk about them in terms of
moral considerations, and that even warrant moral evaluation. The common-
denominator argument cannot preclude this possibility logically, for even if there
is some global standard of artistic value, there may be different local standards for
different art genres. Moreover, with some of these art genres, moral considerations
are pertinent, even though there may be other genres where bringing them to
bear would be tantamount to a category error.
Certain kinds of artworks are designed to engage us morally, and, with those
kinds of artworks, it makes sense for us to surround them with ethical discussion and
to assess them morally.Thus, in order to deflect the autonomist™s common-denomi-
nator argument, we need simply adjust the domain of prospective theories about the
relation of art to morality to the kinds of artworks in which ethical discourse and
moral assessment are intelligible. Consequently, I will restrict the scope of the theo-
retical framework that I am about to advance to narratives, specifically human nar-
280 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
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ratives (including anthropomorphized ones like The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte™s
Web, Animal Farm, and Maus). This is not to suggest that narrative is the only art
genre or category where moral assessment is pertinent “ portraiture may be another
“ but only that it is a clear-cut case.That is, narratives like Lord of the Flies,To Kill a
Mockingbird,Vanity Fair, Pilgrim™s Progress, Beloved, L™Assomoir, Germinal, and Catch-22
are such obvious, virtually incontestable examples of morally significant art that they
provide a useful starting point for getting out from under autonomism.
The common-denominator argument cannot be taken to have shown that it is
never appropriate to assess artworks morally, but only, at best, that it is not always
appropriate to do so.This allows that sometimes it may be intelligible to assess art-
works morally and, I submit, that artworks that are narratives of human affairs are
generally the kind of thing it makes sense both to talk about in ethical terms and
to assess morally. Moreover, there are deep reasons for this.
As is well known, narratives make all sorts of presuppositions, and it is the task
of the reader, viewer, or listener to fill these in. It is of the nature of narrative to be
essentially incomplete. Every narrative makes an indeterminate number of pre-
suppositions that the audience must bring, so to speak, to the text. All authors
must rely upon the audience™s knowledge of certain things that are not explicitly
stated.Authors always write in the expectation that the audience will correctly fill
in what has been left unsaid. Shakespeare presumes that the audience will not sup-
pose that Juliet™s innards are sawdust and, with respect to Oleanna, David Mamet
assumes that the audience will suppose that his characters possess the same struc-
ture of beliefs, desires, and emotions that they do and that the characters are not
alien changelings possessed of unheard-of psychologies. When the author of a

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