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Should a work of art - painting, writing, drama, film, music, etc – be unbounded in its scope or unfettered in its subject? Are there moral dimensions – and so, limits – to artistic expression?


Dear lovers and patrons of art,


Whenever this knotty question arises, we tend to get exercised and artistsof divergent stripes tend to feel a need to defend their talent against the straitjacketing of expression that the insertion of “spurious” or “subjective” moral codes in the conversation often implies.


And so, fellow art consumers, I decided to re-visit the old contentious issue of the Philosophy of Art. Please do not misread me. I, schooled as I was in the ultra-rigid technical disciplines, do not purport to lecture you on the finer points of Art and Creativity. I only intend to share my thoughts, albeit aloud, with you.


How does one measure the quality of art? Different systems are proposed, as you well know. However, by and large, one broad approach usually receives agreement, and it is well explained by Malcolm Budd in his book, Values of Art. A work of art could have several values, like its cognitive, social, economic, historical, religious, therapeutic, educational etc. values. There could be as many of these values as there are viewpoints from which the work is evaluated. Call these its “instrumental” values.


Yet, there is another value more intrinsic to the work itself, which is its value, precisely, as a work of art (of its particular genre, whether literature, painting, music, etc.). In poetry, for example, this can be evaluated by such indices as structure, meter, rhythm, imagery, and so on. This value we might call the “artistic” or “intrinsic” value. It would be distinct from the suitability or otherwise of the work. In other words, from whether the effect the work has on people is valuable or harmful as a result of their experience of it. That belongs more properly to the aforementioned “instrumental” value of the work of art.


I recall an exhibition at a New York museum years ago, where works on display – mainly paintings and sculptures - caused controversy because some deemed them to be religiously offensive. That scenario plays out quite often these days and we – the absorbing public – tend to compartmentalize opponents and supporters of that manner of expression into two holes: the conservative-right and the liberal-left.

Exhibition in Art Gallery

"Conservative and liberal are not accurate designations here: neither side is appealing to a system of moral or religious codes that precludes a discussion of the matter within the bounds of art and its own system of evaluation."

Really, though, conservative and liberal are not accurate designations here: neither side is appealing to a system of moral or religious codes that precludes a discussion of the matter within the bounds of art and its own system of evaluation. What one side is saying is that they hold the artistic value of a work of art as of overriding weight (or consequence) compared to its other values. The other side holds, instead, that the work’s instrumental values (particularly the moral and religious ones) should be primary, and so, whatever their “artistic” merits, when works of art “offend” – that is, impinge upon a person’s (or society’s) legitimately held moral or religious code – this fact ought to outweigh other merits of that work.


This is a conundrum, and a difficult one. After thinking about this long and hard, I begin to see the point of the instrumental values side (that is, the “effects” of the work). But you might no doubt counter – and many might rail - about freedom of speech and expression. A dichotomy contemporary society often confronts is that these arrows are shot when expedient, but they’ll keep in their quiver for as long as it isn’t. For example, does this system allow for the other person’s right to self-respect? Say, how would it apply to my hauling insults on my neighbor’s mother, even if this “offence” were not actionable legally? No one would begrudge that neighbor their right to feel hurt, nor me the duty of self-restraint; nor would they determine my action not to be in bad taste or not to constitute desultory behavior. Pray, why should it be a different parameter with artists, or a different assessment when that insult is transmitted through the vehicle of an art genre? Would the fact that the medium of transmission is a work of art confer upon such communication an immunity cloak and a consequent unbridled liberty to offend or antagonize?


Another query results from this and it is spurred by a response common among some artists when this curtailment is put to them. They affect a bohemian detachment: their work of art is an expression of their feelings and state of mind and they will not be drawn into the squabbles about other people’s interpretation of said work. The query is: am I responsible for the results of my action even when these are not directly willed by me? Few moral philosophers or legal jurists would reply that enquiry with an unqualified no. If the artist does not care how his work affects the consuming public, he need not have it displayed or performed or otherwise made available publicly. He (or she, of course) should by that token be content with contemplating that work in the privacy of solitude.

"What is the use for art that does not ennoble, that does not enhance the figure and beauty and dignity of nature, that does not inspire respect for nature, the human being and society?"

Woman in Art Gallery

In the end, at the bottom of all this is the complicated doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, even if no one can unambiguously state what it means. A bona fide work of art cannot be a world onto itself. It is impractical and impossible – besides being unnatural – that a spectator’s response to a work of art should be disconnected from that spectator’s own beliefs and values system, or his attitude to whatever other evaluative point of view the work expresses. We would not be exalting art in its lustrous colors if we were to ascribe that identity to anything, so long as it is an “expression of self”. What is the use for art that does not ennoble, that does not enhance the figure and beauty and dignity of nature, that does not inspire respect for nature, the human being and society? Art must have a place for the respect for values other people hold, even when it may not share them. Why need it be or open itself to be construed as malevolently provocative?


Where art glorifies a pedophile or murderer, or portrays a Hitler in heavenly halo, where is the use in that? Where art gratuitously insults belief systems, where is the reason to that? The artist sometimes claims to mean to deplore the perversion by appearing to glorify it; her work purports by being unmistakably oblique to really be quite plain. Which might be a legitimate course, were it readily recognizable as such, as is the case of the satire genre in literature. But such a claim would not be valid, where the overriding perception of that work is the opposite, no matter the artist’s intent.


Morality in art? Henry James: “To deny the importance of the moral quality of a work of art strikes us as, in two words, very childish… To count out the moral element in one’s appreciation of an artistic total is exactly as sane as it would be (were the total a poem) to eliminate all the words in three syllables, or to consider only such portions of it as had been written by candlelight.”


I remember agreeing ardently with a friend who suggested that these conflicts between art and morality (and much else) arise when art is understood exclusively in terms of “individual creativity”, which is a relatively recent, and decadent, understanding of art. Works that obdurately charge down that path do not help the cause of artistic expression; they slur it.


Sincerely yours,

a fellow art lover.

© Tony Okoromadu   This site is an aggregation of some of my work, and they are - as such - protected under extant copyright law.
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