Gaut, The Ethical Criticism of Art


1.      Ethicism

         a.      Aes evaluation of art includes ethical evaluation: Ethical assessments of attitudes manifested by artworks are legitimate aspects of their aesthetic evaluation

         b.      Immoral art is an aes defect: If work manifests ethically reprehensible attitudes it is to that extent aes defective

                   i.       Immorality counts against aes merit

         c.      Morality in art is an aes merit: If art manifests ethically commendable attitudes, it is to that extent aes meritorious

                   i.       Morality counts towards aes merit

2.      Note a weaker thesis would be that it sometimes so counts, not that it always or necessarily does

         a.      What Kieran calls “moderate moralism”

3.      Ethicism does not claim morality is necessary for good/great art

         a.      Some great art is ethically flawed

         b.      Triumph of the Will, some of T.S. Elliot’s poems are anti-Semitic


4.      Nor is a good moral sentiment sufficient to insure an artwork is aes good:

         a.      Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has admirable ethical attitudes, but is uninspired and disappointing


5.      Plurality of aes values in art require all things considered evaluation

         a.      Aes values of artworks are plural and include ethical and other values, such as beauty, strong expressiveness, formally unified

         b.      Must make all things considered judgment about whether work is good.

         c.      Could be that the ethical flaw is outweighed by other features which are aesthetically positive


6.      Narrow versus broad aesthetics

         a.      Narrow: Aes involves properties like beauty, elegance, gracefulness and opposite

         b.      Broad: Aes involves above as well as others (cognitive insight, deeply moving) (cognitive and expressive values)

                   i.       Its artistic value

                   ii.      All the values of an artwork as artwork

         c.      Not any property of artwork is aesthetic/artistic:

                   i.       Values of artworks but not qua artworks:

                            (1)    Investment value, value as status symbols

7.      Argument for including ethics in aesthetics

         a.      Narrow aes is too narrow

                   i.       Can’t limit art appreciation to narrow view as ignores important expressive and cognitive values

         b.      And if allow these, why ethics should be excluded is unclear

                   i.       Especially given Kieran’s point that one type of cognitive value is moral understanding.


         c.      Great art can be militantly ugly

                   i.       Shows that artistic (aesthetic) value goes well beyond beauty

                   ii.      (Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles)


8.      Distinction between the attitude artworks really express and those they claim or appear to express

         a.      Novel may state it condemns sexual activities it describes, but the prying manner in which it dwells on them shows an attitude of titillation


9.      Ethicism is not the causal thesis that moral art makes people better and immoral art makes people worse

         a.      Ethicism has no implications for censorship

         b.      Is this clear? Does ethicism have indirect implications for censorship?

                   i.       Fund only morally good art? No, since great art can be morally bad art


10.    Appropriate to morally assess people’s feelings even if do not affect action

         a.      People who feel sympathy for those they can’t help

         b.      People who praise you for a deserved achievement and yet harbor resentment and jealousy toward you


11.    Objection: Attitudes in art only aimed at fiction and so not properly assessable

         a.      Reply

         b.      Some art (TW) is not only about fictional things

         c.      Attitudes directed at fiction are morally assessable

                   i.       Both in own right and because have implications for attitudes about real world entities

                   ii.      Example: Rape fantasies aimed at only imaginary women


12.    Immoralism objection: Works can be good precisely because they are immoral

13.    Distinction content immoral and attitude take by art immoral

         a.      Need to distinguish between

                   i.       a work describing an immoral character (Satan, Lear) or event

                   ii.      And the work taking an immoral attitude toward the character or event

         b.      Ethicism is only claiming that work loses aes value in the latter case

         c.      We can be fascinated at the descriptions of evil, imagining such a world or world view and this is aes positive

         d.      But this is not the same as the work itself embracing that evil


14.    Some artworks (Sade’s Juliette) both represent evil and endorse it

         a.      It skillfully represents the attitude of finding sexual torture erotically attractive and this may be aes positive

         b.      But it also espouses this attitude and that’s an aes defect


15.    Critic claims that why we think this is aes good is because it approves of evil

         a.      Evil arouses our curiosity

         b.      Evil person may do/experience things we can scarcely imagine or understand

         c.      Novel’s ability to satisfy this curiosity

                   i.       to show us what like to engage in such actions

                   ii.      primary source of its aesthetic merit

16.    Reply: From fact fascinated by attitudes manifested, can’t conclude our interest is aesthetic

         a.      Our fascination with Hitler/Dahmer is not aesthetic

         b.      Our interest in Sade’s work may also stem from curiosity about psychopathic states of mind

17.    **But teaching us about what such a state of mind is like is a cognitive value and thus part of art’s value as art



18.    Ethicism is congruent (fits with) our considered aes judgments

         a.      We decry works for their insensitivity, moral crudity, lack of integrity, celebration of cruelty, slimy salaciousness

         b.      Some see ethicism as common sense

         c.      However, others find it obviously false.


19.    Cognitivist argument that cognitive dimensions of works of art (ideas expressed, including moral ideas, things we can learn from them) are necessarily aes relevant is mistaken

         a.      Art objects can tell us about the history of their time but these cognitive dimensions are not aes relevant

         b.      Moby-Dick’s information of 19th century whaling practices is not relevant to aes evaluation of Moby-Dick

         c.      Some cognitive merits of artworks do not improve those objects qua works of art

         d.      But some do, like moral knowledge/insight?



21.    Artworks prescribe (ask us to do) certain things

         a.      Prescribe imagining things (imagine acts of sexual torture)

         b.      Prescribe certain responses to fictional events

                   i.       Loud atonal music in horror film prescribes us to react to the events with fear

                   ii.      Jane Eyre prescribes imagining a love affair, to want things to go well for her, to be attracted to relationship as ideal of love

                   iii.     Juliette invites the reader to find sexual torture erotically attractive, to be aroused by it, to admire this activity and find it funny

                   iv.     Juliette’s approving attitude toward torture is shown in the responses it prescribes to its readers toward the torture

         c.      Reader is asked to have actual emotions toward imagined events


22.    That an artwork prescribes a response does not mean it is merited

         a.      Examples: Horror films may not be scary, comedies not funny, thrillers boring

         b.      Does not mean that fear, amusement, and thrills not produced in audience-might be

         c.      Claim is instead that these responses are not merited; that they are inappropriate (despite being prescribed by the artwork)

         d.      Examples:

                   i.       If I’m afraid of a harmless victim in horror movie because she resembles an old tormentor of mine, my fear is unmerited/inappropriate

                   ii.      If I admire a character in a novel based on a misunderstanding of what he did in the story, then my admiration is unmerited


23.    Art’s prescribed responses are subject to evaluative criteria

         a.      Some of these evaluative criteria are ethical


24.    Appropriate to ethically evaluate responses when directed at fictional events (as they are real responses)

         a.      If actually enjoy or are amused by sadistic cruelty in a novel, shows us in a bad light, reflects ill on our character and can be properly criticized for responding that way


25.    If work prescribes a response that is unmerited, it has failed in an aim internal to it and that is a (aesthetic?) defect

         a.      If it wants you to be afraid, but is so clumsy you are not

         b.      If it wants you to approve of sexual torture, but that is wrong


26.    Summary of argument

         a.      Work manifests an attitude by prescribing certain responses to events described

         b.      If these responses unmerited, because unethical, we have reason not to respond in way prescribed

         c.      Our having reasons not to respond in way prescribed is a failure of the work

         d.      What responses work prescribes is of aes relevance

         e.      So fact we have a reason not to respond in way prescribed is an aes failure, an aes defect in work

         f.       So work’s manifesting ethically bad attitude is an aes defect in it

         g.      And works manifesting ethically commendable attitudes is an aes merit in it


27.    Examples

         a.      A comedy presents events as funny but is asking us to be amused at heartless cruelty

                   i.       We have a reason not to be amused

                   ii.      So work’s humor is flawed and that is an aes defect

         b.      A work asks us to enjoy it but it involves gratuitous suffering then we can properly refuse to enjoy and work fails aesthetically

         c.      If work wants us to pity a character but they are unworthy because of their vicious acts, we have reason not to pity and work is aes flawed


28.    Miscellaneous

29.    People can be held morally accountable for their imagined responses, not just their real responses

         a.      When they are powerful responses expressive of the imaginer’s moral character