Thinking about fiction

A blog about fiction and imagination, from a philosopher


"If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story" Lorrie Moore

Oscar Wilde and Friends (the sitcom, that is)

Oscar Wilde and Friends (the sitcom, that is)

Here's a question which will perhaps strike some as puritanical. If an artwork - a novel, or a movie, say - is immoral in some way, does that make it a worse work of art, aesthetically? Of course it makes it worse ethically - that's presupposed by the question. But does the artistic value diminish too?

'Autonomists' (the terminology is Noel Carroll's) reply with an emphatic no. According to them, any ethical assessment of a work should have nothing to do with the work's aesthetic success or failure. The two realms are completely distinct. Here, for instance, is art critic Clive Bell intoning mystically in his book Art:

"[T]o appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions. Art transports us from the world of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exultation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories are arrested; we are lifted above the stream of life… Art is above morals... Once we have judged a thing a work of art, we have… put it beyond reach of the moralist."

And here is Oscar Wilde in his essay 'The Critic as Artist':

 "the critic should be able to recognise that the sphere of art and the sphere of morals are absolutely distinct and separate…"

Now, one might retort to Bell and Wilde, paraphrasing the philosopher Kant: 'ought' implies 'can'. That is, there's not much point in telling someone they should do something when they cannot actually do that thing. And in fact, it seems very difficult if not impossible, psychologically speaking, to ignore the immorality of a work of art once one recognises it, and to somehow keep one's estimation of its aesthetic value compartmentalised from this fact.

It's easy to find recent examples that effectively illustrate this point.  One source, post-Weinstein, comes from movies: cases where, we now know, actresses in a movie have been coerced into humiliating or dangerous acts which are then recorded on screen, either in outtakes (as in Kill Bill) or in the film itself (as in Last Tango in Paris, and Frida). For most people, it's now very hard to now watch these films with the same degree of imaginative transportation, engagement, and enjoyment, as you otherwise might have done. This isn't just a case of a morally neutral artwork made by an immoral person (as arguably, most Woody Allen films are). The films themselves 'contain' the immorality; due to their photographic nature, they or their close relatives are causal records of actual acts of harm. The viewer who knows this will struggle to keep this knowledge 'distinct and separate' - in Wilde's terms - from her experience of the film as a whole. 

A different case, equally problematic for autonomism, is where on reacquaintance, an older fiction reveals the morally problematic status of its plot and dialogue choices to later viewers, though viewers at the time of its original release were mostly oblivious.  This is apparently the recent fate of the sitcom Friends, available on Netflix since January, and now reappraised by the Millenial viewers who originally watched it, as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and fatphobic. I recently had a similar experience attempting to rewatch the Robert Altman film M*A*S*H - in fact, I couldn't make it past the first ten minutes, much as I wanted to. It turns out that these days, there's only so many scenes of doctors chasing shrieking nurses round shower tents I can take.

Yet another counterexample to autonomism vomited forth by the Zeitgeist is the sheer number of crime thrillers, both novels and TV dramas, which fixate on sexually assaulted, murdered women as the foil for all subsequent action. So common is this trope that someone has just launched a prize for crime fiction 'where no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited or murdered'. This is an interesting case because, unlike the earlier ones, it is only in the context of a general trend that an individual fiction which features a dead, abused female victim becomes morally questionable. The first fiction to do so (in which, no doubt, the cold lifeless body of a cavewoman lay spreadeagled in a Paleolithic copse, a knapped flint axe embedded in her throat...) was not particularly at fault for choosing a woman as its victim, one assumes; but the 40,000th might well be. By the time the trend is established, authors who write within it should presumably be aware of the cumulative message about the value of women which a relentless, prurient  focus upon VAWG arguably sends to readers (at least, when it is done unthinkingly  and instrumentally as a means to a cheap thrill). Nowadays, whenever I start a moody TV Eurodrama involving a disembodied torso found on a building site, if that torso isn't male, I'm off.

If I'm right, then for most readers and viewers, it's psychologically difficult and perhaps even impossible to separate a strongly negative moral appraisal of an artwork from one's aesthetic or artistic evaluation of it. Finding a work morally repugnant in some way will, in extreme cases, stop a reader or viewer engaging with it at all, and if not that, then at least colour her subsequent engagement negatively. Why is this? Speculatively, this seems to me to be because of, on the one hand, the fact that the most natural way to characterise positive aesthetic appreciation is, at the very least, in terms of a pleasurable experience; and on the other, the fact that strongly negative moral judgements often involve distracting negative feelings incompatible with pleasure. A viewer experiencing moral disgust at what she knows of Bertolucci and Brando's coercion of Maria Schneider during the filming of a rape scene in Last Tango in Paris is unlikely simultaneously to feel any sustained pleasure at the acting, cinematography, plot, or editing of that scene, for instance; for her sensation of moral disgust will likely inhibit much pleasure at all. Theorists, like Bell and Wilde, who argue in terms of whether we 'should' or 'ought' to let moral evaluation colour artistic appreciation are missing the point: assuming we have strong moral emotions at all, we cannot in fact do much else. 

Why then, did Bell and Wilde feel so assured in their respective autonomist positions?  Both are associated, at least ostensibly, with a prior position, aesthetic formalism, which in some sense explains their autonomism. On a basic version of this view, roughly, the only properties of an artwork relevant to aesthetic or artistic appreciation are formal properties (shapes, colours, sounds, textures, marks, structure, word-choice, and so forth). Strictly speaking, what an artwork represents, as well as any contextual historical properties or relationships of the work, is excluded as artistically irrelevant. (Of course this view is impossible to apply seriously to literature, and Wilde couldn't possibly have thought it did, but let's ignore that here). Now, since the (im)moral aspects of a work are nearly always generated by its non-formal features, it isn't surprising that autonomism quickly follows. To return to earlier examples: if a movie like Last Tango is thought of as just a visual and sonic display, composed only of formal features, then facts about how the images were causally produced will be irrelevant to appreciation of the film as such. And if a crime novel about a dead, abused woman is to be artistically assessed only in terms of formal features such as its structure and word-choice, then both its author's choice of plot line, and the historical context of the genre, must equally be irrelevant to appreciation. 

In a sense, though, that Bell and Wilde were also formalists doesn't yet explain why, in their lifetimes, no cases of immoral art ever seemed to seriously trouble their autonomism. For, had they come across such a case, and if I'm right that strong moral disapproval inevitably interferes with aesthetic appreciation, presumably that case would have challenged both their formalism and their autonomism equally. (That is, it would have demonstrated that properties of artworks other than merely formal properties are also relevant to appreciation).

Perhaps part of the explanation is psycho-sociological, rather than philosophical.  (I'll focus on Bell here because the case of Wilde is much, much more complicated, as this great biography by Richard Ellman makes clear). Perhaps Bell rarely if ever came across any art which genuinely tested his commitment to autonomism (and so nor, by implication, his commitment to a prior formalism) because none of the art he ever interacted with genuinely caused him moral disgust or other real discomfiture.

This could be for a number of reasons. (Warning: complete speculation follows! Again!) It might be because his late Victorian upbringing constituted him to dissimulate or even repress all strong positive or negative emotions. After all, Bloomsbury repression is well-documented; not least, in Angelica Garnett's angry account of her upbringing with Bell, Deceived by Kindness. And it might also be because nearly all of the so-called 'immoral' art Bell came across or theorised about, was 'immoral' only in the sense that it outraged public decency, rather than in the sense that it caused him personal moral horror. What counted as 'immoral' art in the late 19th and early 20th Century was that which represented sex, 'fallen women', homosexuality, and so on.  Bell the socialist, pacifist, practitioner of free love was highly unlikely to find much in the way of real outrage at any of this. After all, he was male, white, wealthy, public school and Oxbridge educated, and in some sense still a member of the Establishment, though he fought against it in his way.The real immorality of art or fiction at the time - in terms of who it threatened,  misrepresented, or stereotyped; or in terms of who had to be harmed in order that it be produced -  was likely hidden to him, or else a matter of indifference. To put it in a nutshell: he had no skin in the game. For contrast, compare Bell's fellow Bloomsbury habitué Virginia Woolf, writing powerfully about the harmful stereotyped idealisation of women in fiction, in her essay A Room Of One's Own:

"Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant".

 How women are represented in fiction mattered to Woolf, as a woman harmed by those representations, in a way it arguably never really could to her brother-in-law Clive.


NB This post was inspired by various great discussions with students in my Aesthetics class this week at the University of Sussex.

Photo credit: Oscar Wilde,  by Napoleon Sarony, Albumen Silver Print, 1882, Metropolitan Museum of Art.




Naked in the rushes

Naked in the rushes