The effort of understanding
By Rob van Gerwen
Art's Moral Aspects
Abstract of the argument on this page
Present-day culture is in a tricky predicament. The future seems dictated by developments in technology, which is derived from so-called science. Science in itself is unstoppable, as it strives after full knowledge, of everything, the power to predict the future. Of course, this power is acquired step by step, and perhaps that is the core of hte problem, or rather: that is why there is a problem with the future. Partial prediction may be no better than the mythological understanding found in pre-modern or non-Western cultures. If you can't predict everything what good is it to predict something? Technology follows in the wake of science, but it is guided by some other power that has nothing to do with knowledge or truth: money, profit. The profit of industries guides the development of technologies based in already flawed surveys of science. Who is to stop technology? Politics. Yet, political decisions answer to deliberations, discussions between factions, and compromise. And the story gets no better when we realise that even though politics will not go against free market considerations, will not stop technologies from expanding once free choices of consumers and the free market of the industries are involved, but, time and again look towards ethicians, who in their turn refuse to cut any knots on account of the way they view their own, philosophical, discipline. As a whole culture walks on guilded splinters.
1. Previously ...
1.1 Ethical Autonomism
Previously (in 2004), I argued that contemporary apparantly immoral streaks in art depend paradoxically on art's autonomy, i.e. on art's essential (because conceptual) separation of morality. I explained this autonomy in a paper on ethical autonomism as the requirement, issuing from art practice, addressed at the audience to lay off their moral attitudes and take up an artistic attitude. What that latter attitudal switch consist in, is this: that one takes in what is presented to one, considers it, feels according to its evaluational properties, but refrain from acting accordingly. Thus, if one perceives an immoral event in art practice, this can be immoral in appearance only, because one is not held to interfere. If in contrast, one is confronted with an event that requires one to interfere morally (i.e. help, assist, rescue living creatures, or set about calling people to do as much, call 911, etc.), then, for that particular reason, it cannnot be an work of art. Thus, an immoral work of art is a contradiction in terms--the two terms are defined such as to exclude one another.
I then argued that it is morally significant that we entertain and sustain a practice that confronts people with representations of immoral scenes without inducing them to act upon the moral intuitions these sightings stir in them. Wouldn't we rather have an educational practice that teaches people what is good and bad and how to act on these insights? Positions arguing against the need for an art practice on these grounds have been forwarded. Wilhelm Reich, for instance, argued that since high culture, and art par excellence is to be understood as a sublimation of sexual drives, why not skip the sublimation and make sure the drives get satisfied directly; or the Taliban, who argued that confrontations with art are like real-life counterpart experiences only this way, i.e. via art, they are not sought out directly--and it is immediately added: as they should not; but of course the position does not require the extra normative step--as a consequence of which the confrontation is muddled.
But the latter types of iconoclams are far and beyond my argument, which was that because it is morally significant to have such a cultural practice as art practice, for one to partake in it, as an artist, museum director, what have you, saddles one with an immense moral responsibility. That responsibility, though, is not measured in moral, but in artistic terms: to be a responsible art practicioner is to either make great works of art, exhibit them in the best of possible ways, or, lastly, to experience and judge them in the least snobbish manner: honestly.
1.2 Immoral Art as the Paradox of Art's Autonomy
Referring to the present rise of immoral works of art, I recently (2008) wrote "No artist really wants to be removed from art practice and put into prison, nor do we want this to happen: for that, art practice is of too much importance for our culture." ("Geen kunstenaar wil echt de kunstpraktijk uit en het gevang in, en wij willen dat ook niet: daarvoor is de kunstpraktijk voor onze cultuur van te groot belang.").
What this means is: the rise of immoral themes, and the efforts made to inplicate audiences in them that we experience in contemporary works, all belong within this autonomous art practice---or so we want to argue. The point of this paper, now, is: can we address examples of such works, and, indeed maintain the previous claims?
2. Art Teaching Morality a Lesson or Two
At present, I am thinking of reversing the argument: by starting from the moral reasons we might have for sustaining art practice. In fact, I'll overstate these reasons.
Almost automatically, nowadays, art irritates the hell out of one. One artist drops a dead bull, filled with fireworks from a helicopter; another one changes her face to reflect traits taken from famous painted women; another has gold fish die while wriggling on a canvas after being dipped in paint; another puts pornography into art museums, or steals images from mass culture to turn kitsch into art; another one stages mutilated corpses to photograph them; the list is endless and new immoral works are added on a daily basis.