In examining the ethical criticisms of art, we are left with a curious puzzle, and one that deserves some attention. Why is art that manifests ethically reprehensible attitudes generally not perceived to be “good art”? Or perhaps, why does “good art” tend to be art that has goodness. While each of these terms, in turn, can cause us problems on a definitional basis (after what makes for good or bad art?), once this is accounted for the question remains. We should first set out to clarify our language to ensure we know what we are discussing and how it is relevant to our question. We will then take up the considerations of what prevents ethically bad art from being good and set out some examples which can help us to put the question in context. Finally, we will discuss how this is relevant to the artist and what the artist can do to ensure their art has the greatest chance of lasting.
Ethically Reprehensible Attitudes
To say that something manifests ethically reprehensible attitudes, we can expect that it will have one of several properties. In general, we can expect that these attitudes will offend a viewer that doesn’t hold a positive stance of this reprehensible view. We can also expect that art which doesn’t offend our sense of goodness doesn’t fundamentally manifest these attitudes, not merely that we can’t discern them. This is highlighted in Ethicism, a term coined by Berys Gaut describing this concept.
We naturally come to a problem whereby the viewer of a work of art is one who has views outside that of the norm. This can be easily solved with the consideration that most people in a culture share belief on most relevant attitudes. If this were not the case, the society would be prone to division, breakdown, or dissolution as the members could not fundamentally agree on which views are reprehensible. Consider, for example the America of the 1860’s. Some hold positive views of slavery, others negative. This naturally needs resolution and while a war is not the only resolution mechanism, it was effective at putting back in equilibrium what views were acceptable, namely that slavery was not. So, the art that is bad is bad to the majority, or in the case of political upset, to the winning side.
If we know that reprehensible attitudes seem to disqualify a work from being “good”, what then, is “good art”? If a piece of art is considered ‘good’ it might be because of any number of the qualities it has. It might have precise brush strokes. It might portray a beautiful subject. It might have importance of capturing some moment, event, symbol, or icon. In the event of abstract or the avant-garde, it might be new and exciting. It might evoke a feeling be it happiness, sadness, longing, envy, or hate. It might make us remember a happy thought or relive a sad moment. Whatever it might be that makes the viewer accept the position “this art is good” it is rarely (if ever) that it is because it manifests a reprehensible attitude. We can expect then, that if reprehensible attitudes represent badness, and good art is never reprehensible, then good art will generally represent goodness, that is art with goodness in it. What is the relationship here though? Does the goodness or badness entail the value of “good art” or “bad art”?
We may consider some examples to derive a richer sense of the question and to frame what we have discussed so far:
- In a society where cannibalism in not in vogue, it is generally not within the bounds of polite society to generate works of art with glorify the consumption of other humans. In a society where cannibalism is readily accepted, this will not provide a unique perspective and is not likely to generate the same attitudes of reprehensibility. It is the sense of reprehensibility that barrs the acceptance of the in one society and not in another “good”.
- In a society where it is perfectly acceptable to enter into a same-sex relationship, it would be expected that a viewer might be offended by the attitudes manifested by a work which paints this in a negative light, but this would not be the case in most Western societies in the 19th and 20th This same art today, however, will be seen verry differently.
In our first example we see that with respect to the viewer, art may be disqualified from the good. From one culture to another, the opinions might change. This is not necessarily surprising. Japanese origami has meaning and significance far beyond the casual appreciation of the work that goes into it that most Americans hold, if that. In our second example we see a case of a culture changing its opinions about the art with respect to time. As if by magic a piece of art which is ethically reprehensible in one generation and thereby disqualified from being considered “good art” is transformed into something meritorious and the things which make it good can be brought back into focus and the artistry, quality, etc. can be considered.
Art That Lasts
Art that has stood the test of time as “good art” is, if what we have discussed is true, that which doesn’t manifest a reprehensible attitude. Or it atleast is that which anifests a noncontrovercial attitude. Consider Michelangelo’s David, which was sculpted around 500 years ago and still pulls hordes of tourists visiting Florence every year. What are the attitudes manifested? At worst some element of biblical superiority, but more likely something much less interesting. David was powerful. David was athletic. David was worth sculpting. None of this stands any significant chance of falling out of favor with the general public and is therefore a safe bet. Does this mean that the artist should avoid issues of significance that might stir up a controversy?
There is wide criticism of the idea that ethics play any role in the evaluation of art at all. While the objections aren’t directly lobbied to the claim that bad attitudes rule out goodness of art, they do take a position on whether the goodness or badness can sway the consideration of that art. In Truth, Fiction, and Literature Lamarque and Olsen make reference to some of the common views of ethical criticism in, predominantly that many choose to avoid it. Those that don’t however, such as Nussbaum who says the explorations of the ethical presentations within a work of art, especially literature for Nussbaum, are part of what makes the art good (Lamarque, 1994). This seems to suggest that the stance taken is not as important as it might seem if the exploration of ideas, even distasteful ideas are interesting to the “high and fine mind.”
In another example of necessary disapproval, we see that these reprehensible attitudes can also be tools of a work designed to evoke a certain feeling. This is not an endorsement of these views. Lawrence Hyman writes on Shakespeare’s King Lear “the moral effect requires moral disapproval.” (Hyman, 1984) referring to the incident where Lear makes fun of Gloucester who is blind. While this is distasteful it is there to show a side of both characters and is not in itself an endorsement of making fun of the blind.
What does this mean for Good Art?
If a piece of art is considered “good” today, we can expect that it doesn’t violate any of the common ethical considerations of our time. Is this the case for all art? It seems to be the case that most human’s share similar feelings about domestic Cats, which has gone largely unchanged for centuries. With history as an indicator, it is not likely to change dramatically in the next century. So, the likelihood then that the artwork of Louis Wain will be seen as reprehensible isn’t very high. While it is much more likely that the eclectic nature of the art itself will fall out of favor.
We are left with the conclusion that good art is independent of what positive attitudes it might manifest but this is not the case for its negative manifestations. For a work that manifests reprehensible attitudes those attitudes will be quite relevant to the work. It may be the case that in a given time, or even in a given culture, the things which might qualify or disqualify it as “good art” merely present these attitudes as a prima facia quality, but this is not to say that the judgement of whether or not the art is actually good or bad, but whether the viewer can reasonably engage with the art.
- Lamarque, Peter., & Olsen, Stein Haugom. (1994). Truth Fiction, and Literature. Oxford University Press.
- Hyman, Lawrence (1984.) Morality and Literature: the Necessary Conflict. British Journal of Aesthetics 24.