Have you ever noticed how closely-related art and emotion are? Curious, also, that emotion and ethics are so closely related as well. It is no surprise, then, that art and ethics are also closely bound.
This intimate triangle might not be immediately apparent to you, but read on and perhaps I can demonstrate the interrelationships and how these three things essentially add up to humanity.
Art has an interesting relationship with emotion. Much art, especially the work of passionate people that demonstrate their emotions freely, owes its very existence to the powerful motive forces of emotional states. When an artist is feeling joyful, grieving, frustrated, angry or loving, that feeling alone can compel them to write a poem, compose a song, or paint a picture. Art made in an emotionless state is also possible, but that absence of emotion says something too, in its own way. Very few human actions take place without an emotional driver and so it is with the making of art.
What emotion do you struggle with and what is the feeling behind that emotion? Artistic struggle is something that artists all immediately recognise. The very process of creation can result in a struggle against the limitations of the medium or your own skill and abilities. There may be some struggle involved in expressing your emotions adequately in the work, too.
For example, you may experience the emotion of anxiety, anger, frustration, heartbreak, grief, sadness, creative blocking or depression at various times, but do you know that there’s a specific feeling hidden behind that emotion such as fear, loss of self-determination, sexual frustration, lack of nurturing, isolation, alienation, lack of significance, inadequacy, loneliness, to name a few? Emotions have root causes.
The other side of the coin is that a work of art has the capacity to evoke an emotional response in the viewer, listener, reader or audience. Art is powerful. It can upset and disturb you. It can force you to re-examine and question your assumptions and even change you, if you let it. It also has the power to celebrate our most cherished convictions, to pacify us and to appease us. The power of art makes it the recurrent subject of high ethical hopes, but also of deep ethical and moral concern.
Leo Tolstoy, who I admire as a prototype John Lennon, argued that the criterion for a great work of art is that it communicate the artist’s feelings of joy and of spiritual union, and so morally elevate its audience. I think there is something to this idea.
We’ve been arguing the ethical import of art for a very long time. The controversy reaches all the way back to Plato, who warned about the ethical dangers of poetry. Plato was so wrong about so many things, but his influence on Western thought and literary tradition has been potent, pervasive and long lasting. Plato’s warning about the dangers of poetry set the framework and agenda for the debate subsequently.
In “The Republic”, Socrates says that poetry has the power to corrupt. For Plato, mimetic art was a double assault on reason, in that it exalted irrational emotions and it crippled genuine knowledge. Poetry “waters” the growth of the passions, he asserted. Nowhere is it explained why passion is bad, or why recounting or reproducing former emotional states is in some way false, compared to the artist’s current, true emotional state. If we were to always adhere to our current, truthful, honest emotional state, then we would only show our art only at moments when the emotion embodied in the work corresponded and coincided with our current emotional state. Why is that desirable?
The disconnect between the emotional state evoked by the poet and his actual emotional state as a human being are in conflict, according to Plato and hence poetry fosters irrational emotions (irrational in the sense that the disconnect exists). Plato believed that knowledge was universal, pure and of the Forms, but that the poet peddles beliefs only about particulars and about the shifting shadows of mere appearances.
Given the importance of poetry in general, to human kind and in particular, in the land of Homer and in classical Greek education (pertinent to Plato’s time), his condemnation of poetry as corrupting challenged fundamental assumptions of Greek culture and continues to challenge the modern human condition. To me, there is a greater disconnect in condemning art that is so important to people than there is in demonstrating a “false” emotion, while acting out a poem. This position, nevertheless, put the relationship of art to emotions and the relationship of art to knowledge at the centre of the ethical debate that resonates even in the present time.
Aristotle, a man who was often right, defended a proper place for emotion in response to poetry, honouring poetry as a source of genuine knowledge. Philosophical rebuttals to Plato have continued ever since. The Puritans, however, embraced him, closing down theatres and obliterating paintings in churches.
Refutations of Plato fall into three main camps, two of which are, in my opinion, bunk because they deliberately avoid the connection to humanity inherent in their arguments. Regrettably, these two refutations to Plato, which are in denial about their connection to humanity, have held sway in recent times. The three thematic rebuttals to Plato are:
Humanism holds that all art is about people. Artists communicate with other people, through the conduit of their art. The artist is affected by his own emotions and thus expresses these emotions through his art and the people that regard this art are similarly emotionally affected, as if the artist were directly communicating with these people, rather than through the conduit of his art. The art is just the channel. Animals don’t respond to art as humans do. They tend not to make art as an expression of their emotions either. Art is rooted in humanity and is and of the human condition.
Art without people is sterile. If there is nobody to appreciate it, then making it is a waste of effort, really. Indeed, it can’t even be made without people. Plato thought rational knowledge and emotion to be mutually exclusive, but they are intimately connected. You can’t know anything without feeling something about it, even if the feeling is one of intellectual superiority at having risen above irrational emotions, ironically. If you could know without feeling, what use would such knowledge be anyway? I’d say such knowledge is actually potentially dangerous to humanity and deeply unethical. It’s pure denial, in any case. You may think that creating an atom bomb is an exercise in theoretical particle physics (pure knowledge) and that you need not have any emotional involvement in the exercise, but it’s a lie. The atom bomb will kill thousands and you will have that on your conscience, such as it is, whether you want it to or not.
Aestheticism, as an objection to Plato, is the idea of “art for art’s sake”, transcending both the emotions and ethics. In this school of thought, art has power independent of humans (it doesn’t) and you should not burden art with emotional and ethical concerns, to avoid prostituting the power of art. But the essence of aesthetics is experience. Without people, beauty has no meaning. Beauty is experienced emotionally. Beauty causes us to feel joy, awe, connection, love. Art cannot transcend emotion, in my view. Aestheticism is in denial about the human dimension in aesthetics, beauty and, indeed, power. The ethical concerns are unavoidable, even if you state that art is a pure form of beauty.
The idea behind Transgression, the third major objection to Plato, holds that art can be good precisely because it transgresses our moral assumptions, making us question received wisdom and challenge conventional attitudes. Agreeing (as he saw it) with Plato that art is a form of lying, Oscar Wilde, in “The Decay of Lying”, stood Plato on his head, arguing that art was in decay because lying was. We just weren’t as convincing as liars, anymore. Our dishonesty lacked its former integrity.
So much of the self-identified avant-garde in art has taken the idea of wantonly flouting conventional morals and good taste as its central goal. Dadaism is a case in point. Surrealism can also be accused of this, to some degree. Art, it is thought, is there to scandalise. If you scratch beneath the surface of these avant-garde artists, however, you find them as deeply conventional and traditional as the next man. Transgression, too, is a crock of denial. Shock is emotion. Is it ethical to shock?
Hollywood films have had an incalculable influence on people’s lives. They establish fashion and consumption patterns, but also weightier matters like articulating notions of what it is to be a hero (e.g. participate in a reckless, destructive car chase), of showing how to react to a perceived wrong (e.g. by gunning them down in cold blood), of describing the ideals of romance and love, of setting the political agenda and the bounds of acceptable debate and otherwise conditioning our self-conceptions and emotions in more ways than I can list. They’re pure propaganda, whether intentional or not. Because films are a powerful art form, affective of the audience’s emotions and ethical / moral choices, every film maker engages in an emotional and ethical dialogue with each audience member. There is no stepping away from it.
Popular music genres also both express and condition the styles and attitudes of music fans. Consider the attitudes implicit and explicit in heavy metal rock, for example, or of Goth or Emo music, or of Rap or country music. What a person’s musical preferences and tastes say about them may reach very deeply indeed and may articulate more accurately and fully who they are than anything else. What’s true of the popular arts is similarly true of the fine arts. Those that care about fine art can express and articulate their sense of who they are and of what really matters to them just as powerfully, through their artistic choices and preferences. How would the way you interpret someone’s values and character change if they announced that their favourite artist was Mark Rothko, or if it were Roy Lichtenstein. If they said their favourite author was Jane Austen or Dostoevsky, or their favourite opera was Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde or Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, how would that change how you regard them?
Given the importance of the arts to our self-understanding and to our emotional life, it’s not surprising that the ethical dimension of art should have been a recurrent and deep concern.
You know, it’s as if emotions have been banned from art, at least since the sixties. Since then, artists have been focused mainly in the intellect. It’s clever, but it’s cold. If art only appeals to the mind and not the heart, it’s not complete. If an audience doesn’t feel anything, they won’t have a profound, lasting and transformative experience. In fact, what’s the point? It’s only when emotions are embraced in art that your work becomes a vehicle for enlightenment and healing. It’s the only way your art can be affective at all, if you think about it. The power of art derives from its integrated emotions.
The ethical consideration in art is all about what you are doing with that power. Are you using it or abusing it? What is the emotional response you are trying to evoke and why? Are you relaying somebody else’s propaganda to enrich yourself or are you trying to edify, encourage and enlighten an audience, with honesty, humility and humanity? What is your intent? Is your intention ethical? Are you committing to the improvement of people’s lives, through your art, or are you callously suggesting that people kill themselves? What is your agenda?
Of all the things we can feel and convey through art, grief is an amazing emotion. It can be cathartic, nourishing (in a strange way) and cleansing, but also utterly devastating. If your audience is feeling low, is it ethical to assault them emotionally and make them feel worse? Similarly, when an artist is expressing grief and sadness through their works, many people react by telling such artists (especially male artists) to man up, suck it up, and to just deal with it. Big boys don’t cry, right? Could there be a more potent expression of blatant sexism? What is the material difference between shaming men and boys into bottling up their emotions and cajoling a woman to get her tits out?
Inhumanity is a pre-requisite for such statements, of course, but interestingly, the prevailing Zeitgeist, since the eighties, has been one of selfish, savage, self-aggrandisement and advancement, with ruthless, merciless disregard of others. Why do we uphold this? What is art’s reaction to this? There is a growing movement to put vulnerability, courage, whole-heartedness, emotion, feeling and mercy back into art. As artists, we’re angry and have had enough of the harsh, impersonal and ultimately destructive spirit of the age, but we’re meeting it head on with love, understanding, kindness, compassion and care. These are the ethical emotions. These are ultimately the most powerful.
So the ethics of art are most positively powerful if used to celebrate humanity, vulnerability, co-operation, compassion, love and kindness. The world will change overnight if we do. The intimate triangle, where art, emotion and ethics are in harmonious, resonant alignment, is a warm, inviting, yielding, exciting, loving, enveloping, enrapturing, protective place. What is your intention as a creator, consumer or appreciator of art? Will you abuse the power of art or use it for the betterment of humanity?