<<

. 53
( 82 .)



>>

Not only can the clarificationist meet the objection that we cannot assess art
morally because we lack the wherewithal to gauge the behavioral consequences of
art. The clarificationist can also explain how art might have something to teach,
even though the maxims and concepts it deals in are so often routinely known.
For narrative art can educate moral understanding and the emotions by, in gen-
eral, using what we already believe and feel, mobilizing it, exercising it, sometimes
reorienting it, and sometimes enlarging it, rather than primarily by introducing us
to interesting, nontrivial, new moral propositions and concepts.29
292 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


Since I have attempted to ground moral assessments of narrative artworks in
what might be broadly construed as a learning model, it may appear that I have
walked into the cross hairs of the autonomist™s contention that artworks cannot be
instruments of moral education, or have it as their function to promote moral
education. However, though I think I have shown how moral learning can issue
from commerce with narrative artworks, I have not proposed the reduction of
narrative art to an instrumentality of moral education. For the learning that may
take place here, though it emerges because of the kind of work a narrative artwork
is, need not be the aim of the narrative artwork, but rather a concomitant, one of
which the author may take no self-conscious notice. If it is the purpose of the nar-
rative artwork to absorb the audience in it, to draw us into the story, to capture
our interest, and to stimulate our imagination, then it is also apparent that by
engaging moral judgment and moral emotions, the story may thereby discharge
its primary aim or purpose by secondarily stimulating and sometimes deepening
the moral understanding of the audience.
It is not the function of a narrative artwork to provide moral education.Typi-
cally, the purpose of a narrative artwork is to absorb the reader, viewer, or listener.
However, frequently the narrative may bequeath moral learning to the audience
while in pursuit of its goal of riveting audience attention and making the audience
care about what happens next, by means of enlisting our moral understanding and
emotions. That is, what the author explicitly seeks is to engage the audience. And
engaging the audience™s moral understanding may be a means to this end.
The autonomist is correct in denying that narrative art necessarily serves such
ulterior purposes as moral education. Nevertheless, that does not preclude there
being moral learning with respect to narrative artworks. For in those cases, which
I believe are quite common, moral learning issues, in a nonaccidental way, but
rather like fallout or a regularly recurring side reaction, as the author seeks to
absorb readers in the narrative by addressing, exercising, and sometimes deepening
our moral understanding and emotions. This need not be the author™s primary
intention, but it happens very often in narratives of human affairs where it is our
moral interest in the work and our moral activity in response to the work that
keep us interested in the object.
In conclusion, I have tried to show why we are naturally inclined to advert to
morality when we discuss narrative artworks, and I have also attempted, in the teeth
of autonomist objections, to ground the variable moral assessments we make con-
cerning narrative artworks in our experience of the work.30 Throughout, I have
focused on one very important relation between morality and the narrative artwork,
specifically on the way in which the narrative artwork unavoidably engages, exercises,
and sometimes clarifies and deepens moral understanding and the moral emotions.
Indeed, it is my contention that this is the most comprehensive or general relation we
can find between art, or at least narrative art, and morality.
Undoubtedly, there may be other relations between art and morality. Some
narratives, like the story of the Roman general Regulus, are designed to make
virtues, such as honesty, more and more attractive (in a way that might suit Plato™s
MODERATE MORALISM 293

suggestions about the moral education of the young), while other narratives, like
“The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” are meant to make vices, like dishonesty, seem pro-
foundly ill advised. However, such overt moral didacticism is not the mark of most
narratives, but only of a limited segment, often dedicated to children.
Likewise, some narratives are devoted to extending moral sympathies by
inducing some of us to see things from foreign or alien points of view. For exam-
ple, in Beloved, Toni Morrison invites us to understand why a slave mother might
prefer to kill her child rather than to have the child grow up in bondage. But
though this is an undeniable way in which a narrative might address its audience,
it is not a phenomenon operative in all or even most narratives of human affairs,
since not all narratives typically possess viewpoints that differ in any appreciable
degree from those of their audiences.
Thus, I have stressed the way in which narrative artworks generally, given their
nature, unavoidably bring moral understanding into contact with narrative art-
works as virtually a condition for comprehending them. I have pursued this line
of attack because it seems to me to rest on the most pervasive stratum of the rela-
tion of morality to narrative art “ though, of course, I would be the first to agree
that other strata also welcome further excavation.
Throughout this essay, I have tried to indicate why we are so naturally inclined
to considerations of morality when we think about, discuss, and evaluate narrative
artworks. I have argued that this disposition is connected to the nature of narrative
artworks that concern human affairs. In this respect, I wish to urge that it is not a
category error to talk about morality with reference to narrative artworks, given the
kinds of things they are. Moreover, contra autonomism, since narrative artworks are
designed to enlist moral judgment and understanding, morally assessing such works
in light of the quality of the moral experience they afford is appropriate. It is not a
matter of going outside the work, but rather of focusing right on it.




M O D E R AT E M O R A L I S M

I . I N T RO D U C T I O N

For almost three decades, public discourse about art has become increasingly pre-
occupied with moral issues. Indeed, the discussion of literature in some precincts
of the humanities nowadays is nearly always in terms of morals, or, as its propo-
nents might prefer to say, in terms of politics (though here I must hasten to add
that the politics in question are generally of the sort that is underwritten by a
moral agenda). Moreover, the artworld itself has begun to reflect this preoccupa-

From: British Journal of Aesthetics, 36, no. 3 (July 1996), 223“38.
294 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


tion to the extent that disgruntled critics have started to wonder aloud when
artists are going to become interested in making art again and are going to give up
preaching. Remember the fracas over the 1993 Whitney Biennial? Or, look at vir-
tually any issue of the New Criterion.
Of course, by remarking that this is a tendency recently come to the fore, I
mean to signal that things have not always been this way.Within living memory,
or, at least, within my memory, I still recall being admonished as an undergraduate
not to allow my attention to wander “outside the text” “ where such things as
moral questions lurked, as if, so to speak, on “the wrong side of the tracks.”
My own initiation into the artworld occurred during the heyday of minimal-
ism, which was understood alternatively as a project of aesthetic research into the
essential conditions of painting or as an exercise in the phenomenology of aes-
thetic perception. In either case, it went without saying that the appropriate focus
of one™s attention was what was imprecisely called formal problems rather than,
say, moral or political ones. In those days, it remained a common article of faith
that the artistic realm is autonomous, somehow hermetically sealed off from the
rest of our social practices and concerns.To talk about art from a moral point of
view belied a failure of taste or intelligence, or, more likely, both.
The changes in criticism and artistic creativity to which I have already broadly
alluded are, in part, explicit departures from and rebellions against the belief in the
autonomy of art. Though admittedly often excessive, if not sometimes even
downright paranoid, these developments, I feel, provide a generally healthy cor-
rective to formalism and its corresponding doctrine of artistic autonomy.Yet of all
the disciplines ready to acknowledge the limitations of the presupposition of art™s
autonomy, contemporary analytic philosophy of art has been the slowest. A brief
examination of the philosophical literature that has been produced since the end
of World War II easily confirms that the relation of art to morality is a topic that
has received and that continues to receive scant attention.
Perhaps one reason for this temporal lag is philosophy™s status as a second-
order discipline; the owl Minerva needs a functioning runway from which to take
off. But, in any event, the recent resurgence of moralistic art and criticism should
remind us, as Plato,Aristotle, and even Hume already knew, that there are intimate
relations between at least some art and morality that call for philosophical com-
ment. One of the purposes of this essay is to contribute to the discussion of the
relation of art to morality.
Moreover, it is my conviction that philosophy has a useful job to perform
within the context of renewed interest in the moral dimension of art. For,
although a great deal of contemporary criticism presupposes that art can be dis-
cussed and even evaluated morally, little effort has been devoted to working out
the philosophical foundations of moral criticism beyond loudly and insistently
protesting that the doctrines of formalism and artistic autonomy are obviously
wrongheaded, repressive and undoubtedly pernicious. But this stance, it seems to
me, simply ignores the powerful intuitions that underlie the claims in favour of
artistic autonomy. Thus, in this essay, I will review two forms of autonomism “
MODERATE MORALISM 295

what I call radical autonomism and moderate autonomism “ in order to argue
dialectically for an alternative position that I call moderate moralism.1

I I . R A D I C A L AU T O N O M I S M

Radical autonomism is the view that art is a strictly autonomous realm of practice. It
is distinct from other social realms that pursue cognitive, political, or moral value. On
this account, because art is distinct from other realms of social value, it is inappropri-
ate or even incoherent to assess artworks in terms of their consequences for cogni-
tion, morality, and politics. In fact, according to Clive Bell, perhaps the best known
radical autonomist, it is virtually unintelligible to talk of art qua art in terms of non-
aesthetic concerns with cognition, morality, politics, and so on.2
Autonomism of any sort provides an attractive antidote to the views of Plato,
Tolstoy, and innumerable other puritanical art critics. Opposing them, the auton-
omist maintains that art is intrinsically valuable, and that it is not and should not
be subservient to ulterior or external purposes, such as promoting moral educa-
tion. In this, autonomism appeals to the intuition, though maybe it is only a mod-
ern intuition already informed by autonomism, that artworks can be valuable,
perhaps in virtue of the beauty they deliver to disinterested attention, irrespective
of their social consequences.
We value artworks for their own sake, it is said “ that is, for the way in which
they engage us, apart from questions of instrumental value. Autonomism squares
with the intuition that what is valuable about our experiences of art is the way in
which artworks absorb our attention and command our interest, which, in turn, is
part of the reason that artworks associated with obsolete systems of belief, both
cognitive and moral, can nonetheless remain compelling. For, the autonomist
claims, it is the artwork™s design rather than its content that holds our attention.
In addition, autonomism is a satisfying doctrine for anyone who approaches
the question of the nature of art with essentialist biases “ that is, with the expec-
tation that everything we call art will share a uniquely common characteristic that
pertains distinctly 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 practice, the autonomist secures the quest for essentialism at a single
stroke, if only by negation, by bolding 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, generally calibrated in terms of formal achievement.
That those standards do not involve moral considerations, moreover, can be sup-
ported, autonomists argue, by noting that moral assessment cannot be an appropriate
measure of artistic value, since not all artworks possess a moral dimension. I call this
the common denominator argument. It presupposes that any evaluative measure that
can be brought to bear on art should be applicable to all art. But since certain works
of art “ including some string quartets and some abstract visual designs “ may be alto-
296 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


gether 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
artworks, in short, because it is not universally applicable.
Likewise, 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 nicely with the autonomist contention 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 putative facts by saying
that art is valuable for its own sake and that it has its own unique grounds for
assessment; art has its own purposes, and, therefore, its own criteria of evaluation.
Autonomism rides on the unexceptionable observation that art appears to aim,
first and foremost, at being absorbing. The so-called aesthetic experience is cen-
tripetal.Thus, if the artwork essentially aims at our absorption in it, then it is valu-
able for its own sake. The thought that art is valuable for its own sake, in turn, is
believed to imply 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 pur-
sued later, some art may be absorbing exactly because of the way in which it
engages, among other things, the moral life of its audiences.That is, just because we
value art for the way in which it commands our undivided attention, this does not
preclude that some art commands our attention in this way just because it is inter-
esting and engaging cognitively and/or, for our purposes, morally.
The autonomist is certainly correct to point out that it is inappropriate to
invoke moral considerations in evaluating all art. Some art, at least, is altogether
remote from moral considerations. And in such cases, moral discourse with ref-
erence to the artworks in question may not only be strained and out of place,
but conceptually confused. Nevertheless, the fact that it may be a mistake to
mobilize moral discourse with reference to some pure orchestral music or some
abstract painting has no implications about whether 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, given the relevant social practices.That
is, with cases like these, it is not peculiar, tasteless, or dumb to talk about the art-
works in question from a moral point of view, but normatively correct or
appropriate, given the nature of the artworks in relation to the language game in
which such talk occurs.
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 vexed question if there ever was one “ can be put to the side, however, because
even if there is such a scale, that would fail to imply that it is the only evaluative
consideration that it is appropriate to bring to bear on every artwork. For in addi-
tion to, for example, formal considerations, some artworks may be such that, given
the nature of the artworks in question, it is also appropriate to discuss them in
terms of other dimensions of value.
MODERATE MORALISM 297

We may evaluate sledge hammers and jewelery hammers in terms of their
capacities to drive nails, but that does not preclude further assessments of the for-
mer in terms of their capabilities to deliver great force to a single point in space or
the latter to deliver delicate, glancing blows. These additional criteria are, of
course, related to the kinds of things that sledge hammers and jewelery hammers
respectively are. Similarly, the conviction that there may be some common stan-
dard of evaluation for all artworks, even if plausible, would not entail that for cer-
tain 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 artworks “ genres, if you will
“ that naturally elicit moral responses, that prompt talk about themselves in terms
of moral considerations, and even warrant moral evaluation. The common-
denominator argument cannot preclude this possibility logically, for even if there
is some global standard of artistic value (a very controversial hypothesis), there
may be different local standards for different genres.This much is obvious: decibel
level has a role to play in heavy metal music that is irrelevant to minuets. More-
over, with some genres, moral considerations are pertinent, even though there
may be other genres where they would be tantamount to category errors.
Though no autonomist to date has been able to offer a positive characteriza-
tion of the essence of art, the autonomist frequently relies on some conception of
the nature of art in order to back up the common-denominator argument.That
is, art, given its putatively generic nature, supposedly yields generic canons of
assessment. However, we can challenge this appeal to the nature of art with
appeals to the natures of specific artforms or genres that, given what they are, war-
rant at least additional criteria of evaluation to supplement whatever the autono-

<<

. 53
( 82 .)



>>