Art and Morality



Art and Morality


Morality itself has nothing to do with art, but art is the primary means of expressing morality.[1] This conundrum doesn’t apply to other subjects: physics has nothing to do with art, but it doesn’t recruit art as its primary mode of expression. We don’t learn physics by studying or enjoying art, but we do learn morality by means of art: why? What is it about morality and art that brings them together? I mean “art” in a broad sense: literature, poetry, plays, film, pictorial art, music, anecdotal tales, and stories of personal drama. We are exposed to these forms from an early age and they saturate our moral sensibilities. It would be hard to preserve our moral attitudes if all these art forms were subtracted from our lives. Morality lends itself to artistic expression and communication even though it is not strictly an art form—any more than physics is (or any other science, or system of laws, or practical endeavor). Plato thought morality should steer clear of art, knowing full well that in fact art and morality are deeply enmeshed in our lives. Why should morality appropriate art as its chief weapon—why does this come so naturally to us? What is it about morality that invites artistic expression? If we came across people who made no such association, what would we think—are they missing a vital connection? Morality certainly can be expressed non-artistically, as in a system of laws or a work of philosophical ethics, so why does it rely so heavily on art? Just think of Western art and Christian ethics: where would the latter be without the former? And consider the contribution of the novel to morality as we have it today. The arts are clearly a powerful vehicle of moral education (despite what some aesthetes have maintained). Even the humble pop song is full of moral material.

            You might say that morality is all about emotion (unlike physics) and so is art. But (a) psychology is also about emotion but doesn’t seek out artistic expression, and (b) morality is not all about emotion (unless you are a diehard emotivist)—just consider Kantian ethics. Nor is all art dedicated to emotion. Is it because art is concerned with the specific and particular? Again, that is neither necessary nor sufficient (and is not really true): some moral knowledge concerns abstract universal principles, and being about the particular is not sufficient for being part of morality. Nor is art always about the particular. Is it that art is concerned with beauty and beauty leads the soul to the good (to put it Platonically)? This may sound on the right track, but the beauty of art is not confined to its moral dimension and not all of morality is aptly compared to the beautiful (what about boring everyday duties?). What about the idea that art and morality have the property of narrativity in common? But not all art with moral content is narrative in form (pictures, music), and morality is not really a narrative structure intrinsically, though it can be expressed in narrative form. Might it be that ethics is basically fiction and so is art? If you think there is no such thing as moral truth and that morality is a cultural construct, you might be tempted by this idea, but it is stretching the concept of fiction beyond reasonable limits and clearly depends on a contestable claim about morality. And in what sense are pictorial art and music “fictional”? Can we get anywhere with the concept of unity? Is it that art works have a unity that corresponds to the unity of the good? The trouble with this is that it is too vague: lots of things have unity without locking onto art as a main vehicle of expression (one might say embodiment). What kindof unity? Is the unity of the moral (“the Form of the Good”) anything like the unity of a poem or novel or painting? Does art make morality more concrete and imaginatively accessible? That sounds intuitively correct, but many things are abstract and hard to grasp without inviting art to express them—physics, mathematics, and philosophy. We are not finding any property of morality that particularly joins it with art—something that only art can do, and do well. How exactly does art aid our apprehension of the right and good? What does it add (or possibly take away: see below)? What makes it an appropriate means for representing the realm of good and evil?

            That last word provides a clue: when we think of morality we think about right and wrong—evil as well as good. This will involve us in contemplating the horrors of the world: suffering, cruelty, death, disease, misery, despair, etc. None of this is easy to bear; indeed, it might be said that we never contemplate these things in their complete reality—or if we do it is through half-closed eyes. The moral world is an unbearable world. Yet we live in it—we have to respond to it. Children dying of starvation in foreign lands, the unjustly imprisoned, the murder of innocents, animal cruelty—the stuff of the nightly news. We are aware of all this, dimly and reluctantly, and of our own complicity in it. But we shield ourselves from this awareness: we keep it at a safe distance. In addition, morality is a demanding mistress: she is constantly rebuking us for our weakness, cowardice, selfishness, and so on. We are highly ambivalent when it comes to morality; we don’t unequivocally love the good (it doesn’t love us as much as we would like). Morality is a problem for us not a soothing presence (as is God). So we avert our eyes from moral reality while being forced to confront it. This does not sit well with us: the human psyche (soul) is not cut out for morality—not up to its demands. The world is too horrible and we are too weak and selfish. We thus live in a state of cognitive dissonance when it comes to morality; there is a distinct lack of psychological harmony in our dealings with right and wrong, good and evil. Morally, we are a mess. We need protection from morality, some sort of filter or reducer. Plato said the good is like the sun in not being easy to stare at: we need to view it under suitable viewing conditions when its glare is not so overpowering. At full strength our faculties can’t cope with it, so we wait for clouds or sundown to mask its natural brilliance. By analogy, we need a way of apprehending morality that removes or masks its more disagreeable aspects—its resistance to unfiltered contemplation. What better way to do this than by clothing it in aesthetic robes? Then we can gaze at it in a form acceptable to us. We can gaze at picturesof the sun, and we can gaze at pictures of the good (i.e. the whole moral sphere). Art provides that picture: a way of seeing the world in all its horror without having to endure the full impact of that horror. Paintings can be beautiful (even of a crucifixion), novels amusing and gripping, music enlivening, poetry exquisite, movies entertaining—even when the subject matter is excruciating. The art form renders the unbearable bearable. It also deflects us from the grim task of doing what is right (where is the fun in that?). Art makes morality humanly acceptable: it embeds the moral in the aesthetic. It makes being a moral being a little bit easier. It is the equivalent of wearing dark glasses when you stare at an eclipse. True, it is a sign of weakness, of cowardice even, but at least you get to see the eclipse. Analogously, without the filter of art we would avert our gaze from morality altogether—because it is just too much to bear. As they say, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Art shields us from the reality of good and evil (the former too demanding, the latter too upsetting), but at least it allows us to open our minds to it. If you give a creature a moral sense, you had better give it a means of coping with that sense. Other animals have neither art nor morality, but we have both—and there is a reason we have both, viz. one allows us to live with the other. God gave us art so that we could face up to morality, at least fitfully. At the most primitive level storytelling is our way of dealing with the rigors of moral knowledge: at least we can creatively report the horror we just witnessed. Suppose a primitive man, recently endowed with a moral sense, witnesses the violent death of a beautiful animal: he feels the animal’s pain and fear and is suitably affected. He comes back to camp and makes a drawing of it or tells the story around the campfire: he has transposed the moral into the artistic, rendering it easier to bear. Looked at this way, art evolved from the need to soothe the moral sense—to render its deliverances bearable.[2] It’s either that or studiously avoid the horrors of the world, or develop a moral callousness that has its own difficulties. Art is the solution to the awful burden of moral consciousness, which has a dual nature: the reproachful character of morality, and the reality of suffering and death. It is the human mind trying to manage its awareness of right and wrong, good and evil. Sure, it’s a kind of cheat, but it beats the alternative, viz. a refusal to engage with morality at all. Art is better than callous nihilism. We don’t have this kind of problem with physics and other subjects: here we can gaze at the subject matter with nary a twinge of guilt or distress—we have no need of art to cope with knowledge of the physical world. But knowledge of the moral world is a very different proposition: in this case the knowledge carries inbuilt sources of disquiet and distress, requiring some coping mechanism. If we didn’t have art to fall back on, we would be faced with a choice between amoral indifference and moral despair—rejecting morality or being crushed by it. We could refuse to look at the sun or we could blind ourselves by looking too intently, or we can put on the dark glasses. Art gives us the kind of moral knowledge we can bear: not too intimate, not too searing, not too real. Could any human soul survive full awareness of the suffering that happens every day on planet earth? Instead we read Shakespeare or Tolstoy, or listen to music, or take in a movie. Art gives us a transformed awareness of morality, one that caters to our moral limitations. Sometimes it brings us uncomfortably close to moral reality as it really exists (as in King Lear) and artistic form only just renders it bearable; but mostly the reality is kept at a safe distance. In the case of bad sentimental art the blinders are fully on and nothing of moral reality seeps through, only an untruthful depiction of human (and animal) life. The best art lets moral truth shine through but with enough artifice to avoid total repugnance (War and Peace is a good example, or Madame Bovary): tremendous suffering but shaped by the devices of the artist.[3] Thus we can read a beautiful book about horrifying events; and the same can be said of other artistic forms (Guernica is the obvious example in the case of painting). Perhaps poetry is the purest form of this, because it deals with disturbing subjects in the most condensed and explicit artistic form—though music might claim to arouse the moral emotions from the most morally attenuated material (morality from sheer sound). If we include comedy as an art form, then too we can say that the joke presents morality in a form that makes us laugh: we laugh at what would otherwise make us cry.[4] All of this is immensely problematic and teetering on the brink of moral degradation, but if I am right this is the price we pay for engaging with morality at all. We really aren’t equipped to deal with morality (beyond its most elementary forms[5]), but we find in art a possible approach to it that we can tolerate. Compare a fine picture of the crucifixion with a detailed point-by-point description of crucifying a man (or seeing it actually done), or reading Flaubert’s account of Emma Bovary’s death with actually witnessing it. Morality has nothing intrinsically to do with art, but we can see how it might need art to become humanly feasible. The conundrum becomes intelligible. Moral consciousness is more easily borne when suffused with aesthetic consciousness.[6]


[1] This essay arose from reading Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). She talks a lot about the relation between morality and art. My own interest in the topic goes back to Ethics, Evil and Fiction (1997).

[2] This is not to say that art might not serve other functions too. Something as complex and multi-faceted as art might have evolved for several reasons. Perhaps it was repurposed at some point in order to help with the fallout from our moral sense, having first served some more mundane function (say, indicating the whereabouts of food or predators).

[3] Homer’s Iliad is an interesting case: the violence and bloodshed is so extreme and relentless that the real world of war seems to enter the artwork in naked form. Perhaps we have progressed morally beyond Homer’s world to such a degree that we need more art to cover the awful reality. The same might said of the Old Testament, which can only shock modern sensibilities. In the case of a work like Lolita a tremendous amount of artistic effort has to go into clothing and distancing the moral vileness on display: here art is called on to perform miracles.     

[4] Tragedy is the most difficult form to pull off because it comes perilously close to reality (no one would want to read a factual account of a murder like Othello’s murder of Desdemona). Perhaps this is why tragedies are often placed in an exotic context so that we don’t read them as reports of actual happenings: we can keep them safely at the level of fantasy. Perhaps too this explains the double use of “tragedy” to refer to a fictional work and a real-life event: the distinction becomes blurred.  

[5] Much of moral philosophy deals with such elementary cases (repaying debts, keeping promises, etc.). There is nothing wrong with dwelling on this mundane material, but we miss a lot in moral psychology unless we widen our vision to include more serious matters. Then we see how morality challenges and grieves us, and how we struggle with it. Being a moral being hurts (or ought to).

[6] The question of why humans evolved such a fraught faculty remains unanswered: why do we have a form of consciousness (cognition, emotion) that requires this kind of massaging? It seems like a kind of cosmic sadism (wonderful though it undoubtedly is). Animals are blissfully free of it. We have been colonized by the aesthetic-ethical complex.

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