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For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy. Much contemporary art seems morally out of control. Yet, philosophers seem to have trouble finding the right way to morally evaluate works of art. The debate between autonomists and moralists, I argue, has turned into a stalemate due to two mistaken assumptions. Against these assumptions, I argue that the moral nature of a work's contents does not transfer to the work and that, if we are to morally evaluate works we should try to conceive of them as moral agents.
Ethical autonomism holds that art's autonomy consists in its demand that art appreciators take up an artistic attitude. A work's agency then is in how it merits their audiences' attitudinal switch. Ethical autonomism allows for the moral assessment of art works without giving up their autonomy, by viewing artistic merit as a moral category and art-relevant moral evaluation as having the form of art criticism.
It is no coincidence that artists who are on the front end of art, like Stockhausen and Hirst, should compare the expressive effects of the attack on the World Trade Centre with those that even a masterpiece like Picasso's "Guernica" has. Within our culture, art is considered to be a practice both important and autonomous. Within the limits of art or in its name we endorse events and actions that would be subject to judicial constraint in everyday life.
Some artists, however, in their search for the front line, go a long way in what seems to be the wrong direction. Hence their often rather impertinent intrusions into real life.
The motivation to morally evaluate works of art seems to follow no more than three routes. First, one may find out that in the creating of a work immoral activities were involved. Secondly, one may assume that certain works cause immoral conduct, either directly-e. Motivations for moral condemnation such as these are heteronomous, and fairly clear-cut.
In contrast with their denouncing a work because of actions preceding or following upon it, one may, thirdly, morally denounce a work because of what it is within the limits of art.
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These moral judgments are my subject matter. Philosophically, the position that I defend, ethical autonomism, holds a middle ground between moralism and autonomism, positions that have produced a stalemate in the relevant contemporary debates and that seem unfit, due to certain assumptions, to deal with cases such as those cited above.
I argue, contra moralism, that moral flaws in events represented in works do not, as such, count morally against the artistic merit of such works, since art assumes that the beholder takes on an artistic attitude which allows him to think and feel morally relevant thoughts about the represented without being obliged to act according to these thoughts and feelings.
This is what I take art's autonomy to consist in. Contra autonomism, I argue that, since it is not morally neutral for a person to have morally relevant thoughts and feelings and not act according to them, i. This rather abstract level of moral agency is then filled in by reference to how material choices on the part of the artist have perceptual and experiential consequences on behalf of the audience.
Works of art act upon their audiences, as members of the moral species, i. This 'semantic agency' can be assessed morally, but only by doing art criticism, because the nature of a work of art's agency derives from just how it makes use of the potential inhering the artistic material, the relevant art form, and genre, and, more generally, art history and the work's social and historical, i. In a recent debate in The British Journal of Aesthetics more than ten positions are put forward with regard to art-internal moral evaluation.
The confusion seems due to an old dualism in aesthetics: defenders of autonomism are supposed to deny the inappropriateness of moral evaluation, whereas one who defends moral evaluation presumably denies art's autonomy. No middle way seems to be available.
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The reciprocal exclusion of art's autonomy and art's moral evaluation points to the premise that moral evaluation is about propositions those that are incorporated in or supported or expressed by the work of art, or are caused in the work's beholder. Yet both concentrating on a representation's contents or, alternatively, neglecting those contents, leads one to disregard many relevant aspects of works, thus adding to the uneasy rapport between aesthetic and moral values. In contrast, I submit that it is individual actions that form morality's proper subject matter-albeit in the light of their relevant similarities to other acts, which can be expressed in propositions.
Taking agency itself as the exemplary object of moral judgement motivates my effort to treat works of art as moral agents and their effects as the effects of an agency. I hope that this provides an escape route for the aesthetic dualism between autonomism and moralism. Both these positions also share an enemy, radical moralism, i. This view assumes that an event's moral qualities transfer to its representation.
Why does the radical moralist not object to articles in the papers reporting murders and rapes? Maybe, he feels that with journalistic reports the moral qualities of the events do not transfer to their representation, because it is journalism's moral task and primary performance to report truthfully about the world at large. He might further argue that art can be evaluated moralistically exactly because in it the issue of truth is suspended.
This must be immoral of itself. Works have to do other things: rather than relating to the worlds they present to their audiences, they relate to their audiences. All positions in the named debate seem vehement, like I am, on denying the viability of radical moralism. However, it is evident from the names chosen by the 'moralists' among the participants-which vary from modest to more modest moralism-that they assume that what does radical moralism in is its radicality. This thesis mistakenly positions the moment of judging external to the work that is being experienced.
It argues that we can do with a moral evaluation of the world a work presents, without taking into account that work itself. Berys Gaut's ethicism holds that moral defects of works of art are pro tanto also aesthetic defects. The moral considerations concern the attitudes that a work incorporates, causes in its beholder or presupposes in its maker.
Any moral flaw in these attitudes can legitimately be held to diminish the overall merit of the work. This criterion is elaborated in Gaut's "merited response argument," which says that the relevant attitudes must be merited. This is an interesting demand because, surely, not just any attitude will be relevant for the assessment of a work of art, but only those that are somehow appropriate to the work. This, however, is not what Gaut means. He is not interested in whether or not someone's pleasure in a presentation of "sadistic cruelty" is merited by the relevant novel , i.
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Gaut on p. Gaut, rather, judges morally the pleasure itself, arguing that a pleasure in "sadistic cruelty" can never be merited. That seems wrongheaded on several counts. First, the attitudes that some work of art really presupposes in its audience may be more nuanced, subtler than Gaut makes out, and they may not be morally objectionable even though the attitudes the work contingently elicits in some one beholder may be objectionable.
Merely assessing the moral nature of attitudes in the audience sidesteps the issue of these attitudes' appropriateness to the work, which forms the core of the issue of art-internal moral evaluation.
Secondly, when someone values positively the film Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer John McNaughton, , does this mean that he applauds antisocial and addictive killing? If one were to judge the film because one applauds killing, then one would be judging on irrelevant grounds-perhaps to frighten off one's friends. In such a case the verdict is not merited in the sense of: not induced by the work. The history of aesthetic theory is replete with warnings against such interested, or sentimental judging.
There is, thirdly, a measure of psychological naivety in the ethics of Gaut's merited response argument. When someone enjoys a violent scene in a film that is morally to be condemned, a rape for instance, this means that he apparently has certain desires for actions that are morally to be condemned, but, on my, broadly Kantian view this does not yet mean that he fails morally-assuming that we take moral failure to concern one's actions-let alone, and this seems crucial, that the work which makes him conscious of the psychological frictions in his experience of reality is to be condemned because of it.
Fantasies are better controlled once we are conscious of them than by rejecting whatever brings them to the fore. Art allows us to entertain fantasies in reflection, even when we would rather not recognize them as ours. While thus entertaining our fantasies, we are not supposed to activate their complex psychological causality and to act upon them. If one neglects the contingency of psychological reality, one denies art's biggest potential: art can induce its audience to experience something without having to act accordingly.
With this, I return to the thought that moral judgments primarily concern actions. If we are to morally judge works of art, perhaps we must understand them as instances of moral agency. For that to succeed, we must be able, first, to view them as a realization of intentions of a moral mind, or minds. Secondly, we must conceive of that realization as psychologically real, i. Lastly, we must conceive of works as doing something to their audiences which on account of its semantic causality can then be judged morally. Of course, treating works of art as realizing intentions already is or should be the standard approach to works.
Even if we get the feeling that certain aspects in a particular work were introduced randomly, or via some mathematical algorithm, we would still resort to the idea that a human mind decided to leave these aspects where we found them, or to have the algorithm produce this work. We will also standardly view a work's intentional structure as the product of a human mind, with a psychology connecting the manipulation of the material in one particular work to other works the relevant person produced, or to works of other artists, either contemporary or from the past. Obviously, the work of art is not a moral agent in the full-fledged sense in which a person is one.
Persons have minds, which enable them to respond spontaneously, and personal psychologies, relating them internally to their parents and to other persons from their pasts, whereas art works do not.
Sure, performers are persons with minds of their own, yet they are not part of the work they present as the persons they are, but, rather, as personas, defined in terms of the work see endnote Works' psychologies-if we are allowed to use this term in an extended sense-are a function of their makers' psychologies, but irreducible to these and of a distinct nature. When I call a work a moral agent, it is not in these respects.
A work of art is an agent in the one other crucial respect that it acts upon persons. But if this agency isn't based in a mind, is a work, then, a moral agent in some metaphorical sense? I don't think so, as long as we realize that only the one aspect of acting onto persons is referred to. In this restricted sense a work of art is literally a moral agent. The reciprocal exclusion of art's autonomy and art's moral evaluation points to the premise that moral evaluation is about propositions those that are incorporated in or supported or expressed by the work of art, or are caused in the work's beholder.
Yet both concentrating on a representation's contents or, alternatively, neglecting those contents, leads one to disregard many relevant aspects of works, thus adding to the uneasy rapport between aesthetic and moral values. In contrast, I submit that it is individual actions that form morality's proper subject matter-albeit in the light of their relevant similarities to other acts, which can be expressed in propositions.
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Taking agency itself as the exemplary object of moral judgement motivates my effort to treat works of art as moral agents and their effects as the effects of an agency. I hope that this provides an escape route for the aesthetic dualism between autonomism and moralism. Both these positions also share an enemy, radical moralism, i.
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