Ethics in art?

Just a question: when you judge a work of art (books, movies, paintings, etc.), do the values that it promotes factor into whether you think it is a good or bad artwork? I’m not talking about a specific character (since often artists will include a terrible stereotype while, in the larger scheme, undermining it), but when you step back and look at the work as a whole, if it promotes an ethos that you object to, does that play a role in your judgment of it as “good art”?

Evaluations based in part on ethics used to be the norm in art criticism, but now the pendulum has swung entirely the other way: art has to do with aesthetic qualities, and generally any commentary it offers on our morality is incidental to its role as art. Just like I may get a sense for how to navigate the NY transit system from a book set in NYC, morals may be included in a work of art, but they need not be included in our evaluation of that work as art.

I was hoping to know what people outside the art critical world have to say about how they judge art. This has something to do with my aesthetics class, and also something to do with the Virginia Tech tragedy. I can’t help but remember that the kid was a senior English major, submitting work that incited alarm in his teachers and peers. Bless my fellow instructors, the ones who actually teach creative writing, because I know they occasionally have strange or alarming stuff come through their classroom, something that I thankfully don’t have to face.

But if the kid’s plays were well-written, would his instructors have been alarmed? Quite possibly, as it is the content that they mention repeatedly in their interviews. But if a major art critic caught sight of the plays, would he also think them frightening and worth calling the police, or would he have picked them up as the next big thing?


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2 Responses to Ethics in art?

  1. Heidi says:

    i’m taking an art, law and ethics class. we have very interesting discussions about this all the time. basically, we always end up in a discussion where people completely disagree about how they feel.

    i think its completely subjective. i love art that makes me think about myself and the world. i also love art that gets everyone talking. but then again, i’m also a big free speech advocate, and i think there is something beautiful about “piss christ”.

  2. Mother of the bride says:

    I enjoy different works of art for different reasons. In paintings, I want to see what I perceive as things of beauty. I want the picture to transport me to that time and place, particularly if it is some bucolic and pastoral (pasture??) scene because it takes me to my childhood.

    If the art is a movie, there are few that truly move me, and because there are so many people involved in making them, I discount the whole bunch as bizarre and judge their ulterior motive as shock value or to make money. Movies are much more superficial to me.

    When the art is a book however, I try to get inside the minds of the characters. If the book is fiction, I do have a running dialog inside my head about what kind of mind writes this ‘stuff’ regardless if I like the book. I am almost always in awe of a creative mind.

    With the VT shooter, his material was not that of a playwright who was simply testing the waters of shock value, and had written other material that had not alarmed. The instructor saw a young, very inexperienced student who was writing very disturbing work – and showing a side of how his mind worked that was not normal. He also acted very different from others, which was further evidence of some mental disorder. Stephen King writes some weird stuff, but he has shown himself to be able to function normally in the world.

    That’s my 2 cents worth!

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