Moral Judgments and Art

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Throughout much of our history, art was believed to be somehow ennobling.  This was one of those vague, unanalyzed ideas that cultures are rife with (a sort of “academic mythology”), and it has been dead for 150 years or so.  An underlying question still remains:  is moral judgment an appropriate part of the evaluation of art?  (To think that it is not makes art a very peculiar kind of thing.)


Let’s begin with a specific kind of morality:  telling the truth.  Is it important that art tell the truth, and what kind of truth can it tell?  A narrow, religious view of the novel has always been that it is the telling of a lie.  This is amusingly sent up in The Importance of Being Earnest.  Miss Prism defends her unpublished manuscript by saying:  “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what fiction means.”  Her opus has already been described as “a three volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.”

Cleanth Brooks’ concept of the “Bastard Muses”—Sentimentality, Propaganda, and Pornography—is appropriate here.  Each of these seduces people with the result that they become less than what they might have been.  Sentimentality “pulls at the heart strings,” inviting us to revel in a world of manipulated, second-hand emotion.  Propaganda distorts the world, ignoring subtleties, creating false distinctions, exaggerating the significance of facts, and outright lying.  Pornography appeals to the reptilian parts of our brains, but not to any more highly developed part at all.  We see sentimentality in “Little House on the Prairie” (the TV show, not the novel) and in Harlequin Romances and “bodice rippers” of all kinds; propaganda in advertising, White House press conferences, and defenses of “creation science”; pornography in “adult” entertainment—and increasingly on daytime television.

Thus, Miss Prism’s novel, being sentimental, distorts the truth, and that is a moral conclusion, not one based on “art-talk.”  I might add that the word “revolting” which was applied to her novel is apt: sentimentality is revolting.  This judgment—though moral—is not prudish at all.  People who recognize sentimentality as a vice see it as maudlin, moronic, artificial, debased, sappy, contrived, immature, manipulative, phony, saccharine, simplistic, button-pressing drivel  . . .  and these terms aren’t “art-talk” either.

The reference to the world of sentimental novels might cause the imperceptive to put forward Pride and Prejudice as a counter-example, but the first sentence is enough to show that it is not sentimental at all:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Pride and Prejudice is a kind of comedy of manners, a novel of ironic wit that dissects human behavior, and it is worth noting that the “bad” (Wickham) end happily; in fact, Wickham’s seduction of Lydia has been the means of making him secure for the rest of his life.


Let’s take another example, Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”  The poet’s voice tells us how he felt on first reading Chapman’s translation of Homer:


Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific—and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent upon a peak in Darien.


Darien is a mountain range in Panama, and this, among other things, tells us that Keats meant Balboa, not Cortez.  (Balboa is credited with the discovery of the Pacific Ocean, and Cortez was the conqueror of Mexico.)  Does this make any difference to the reader of the poem?  If the reader knows that there is an error, I think that the experience of reading the poem is affected.  What it says is not consistent with what we know to be the case, and it is said in a way that is not helpful (even to the rhythm—“Balboa” actually works better than “stout Cortez”).  Can we really read it without a little nagging thought intruding?  And doesn’t such an intrusion mar our response?


Let’s look at deliberate “lying” on a large scale.  Lawrence of Arabia purports to be about a real person, and the only source for much of the film is the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Lawrence was a tragic figure, an intellectual drawn into the First World War because of his expertise in Middle-Eastern languages.  Living among the Arabs, he became trapped in the gap between the two cultures, unwilling to enter fully into the Arab world, and unable to return happily to the Western one.  The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an intelligent and painfully honest account of his experience, was printed privately for his friends.  There was no vainglorious publicity-seeking in Lawrence, no vaingloriousness to puncture.


Lawrence’s personality is deformed by the movie.  For example, in the book he tells of backtracking to rescue someone who has fallen behind.  On another occasion he is scouting in enemy territory and is suffering from dysentery that has rendered him weak, almost incapable of moving.  One of the Arabs in his small party is brought before him for summary justice.  There are too few men to put him under constant guard, and no way to prevent him from being murdered by the others.  Unable to satisfy the Arabic demands of honor without taking decisive action, he shoots the man without further ado.  The movie conflates these events, making the man he rescued the man he must execute.  It removes the circumstances that prevented him from taking the man in for judgment by others.  It makes Lawrence perfectly healthy, though shaking with sadistic excitement.  And why . . . to what end?  Anyone who has read Lawrence’s account must be offended, revolted even.  Can they then enjoy the movie?  And should anyone enjoy slander?


Let’s suppose that the film were named Rollings of Arabia and made no pretense of being more than slightly inspired by Lawrence’s history.  Would it have been the huge success that it was?  There is no way to tell for certain, but I doubt it.  The pretense that we are looking into the life of a famous man is surely a part of its appeal.  Lawrence has always been a romantic figure in the public mind.  The film owes its stature, in part, to Lawrence’s celebrity, and yet it falsifies—perverts—his life.


It might be argued that such considerations would reflect badly on Homer, on the anonymous author of the Song of Roland, and on Shakespeare.  The cases simply aren’t parallel.  There was no “history” in Homer’s time.  The author of the Song of Roland had no history either and was working in a tradition in which the glorification of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire were more important than anything else.  Shakespeare, too, had little in the way of history available to him, and a play such as Richard III served to establish the legitimacy of the Tudors.  Again, this was expected and appropriate.  For us, any material invented by Shakespeare is neither an error nor a lie, and more to the point, it would not have been viewed that way in Shakespeare’s time.  There is little pretense of historicity in the works of Homer or Shakespeare, but if a modern artist creates a biography (print or film) of a modern historical personage, we do (at least we should) expect an effort to tell the truth in its broad outlines.  After all, such a work is not a work of fiction.


Let’s approach the question from another perspective, that of coherence.  E.M. Forster once said that the king died and then the queen died is a story, but that because the king died, the queen died is a plot.  What this dictum tells us is that causal coherence gives significance to the individual events.  Even the picaresque novel—at its best—has connections between the various parts which can illuminate choices, show growth, explain attitudes, etc.  Nonetheless, the importance of causal coherence is sometimes ignored, and this tells us much about modern criticism.  For example, highly regarded films, such as The Birds, have no causal connection to speak of.  Why did the birds act the way they did?  The shallow references to caged birds at the beginning do nothing to explain a persistent puzzle, and the meaning of this puzzle isn’t what the film is about.  (In fact, the film is just a collection of harrowing scenes with no meaningful progression.)  Striking sequences such as the gradual accumulation of birds on the jungle-gym don’t compensate for this at all.  Can we really say that it doesn’t matter?


Another important kind of coherence is the presence of a moral center which distinguishes between ethical and non-ethical behavior.    Paths of Glory has a moral center, Full Metal Jacket does not—or if it does it is so blurred as to leave the film flabby and repugnant.  What is good?  Who is good?  What is bad?  Who is bad?  As moral beings, what are we to make of this hodge-podge?  Nothing is clear, and neither puzzlement nor repulsion is an aesthetic emotion.  Of course, we could choose to discuss this in terms which ignore the ethical issues, but aren’t they central to such a story?


Play Misty for Me is a better film than Unforgiven, not only because it is more interesting, more varied, and more psychologically penetrating, but also because it has a moral center.  The Clint Eastwood character in Misty is deeply flawed and these flaws set a tragedy into motion.  We also see his virtues, and if he had had none, the film would have lacked not only its significance but also its shape.  Unforgiven is another matter entirely.  The Clint Eastwood character is so little developed that he is essentially dimensionless, a cardboard figure.  And are we to believe that no one in the town has a moral compass either?  No character’s behavior is adequately motivated, or even believable.  The gunman, who had given up booze and the kill-craziness that it induced, has been paid to kill people so he kills them.  His friend has been killed, so he takes revenge on almost everyone in the saloon.  Of course, he has to take swigs of the demon rum before all of this can happen.  The introductory and closing scenes which show him leaving and returning to his children merely emphasize the lack of any larger dimension.  Of course, there is the action, which is skillfully handled, and the photography, which is very effective—but that isn’t enough.


An important part of film-flam is talk of “layers” of meaning.  I saw two critics trying to outdo each other in their enthusiasm for such layers in Unforgiven.  (They were almost as enthusiastic as Bill O’Reilly who said there must have been 17 layers of meaning.)  We were supposed to marvel at the fact that we see Chinese in the film–“marvel” because other Westerns are said not to reveal this complexity in the West (not true!).  The fact that a penny-dreadful writer appears in the film and becomes a part of a real-life counterpart of the penny-dreadful was supposed to be unique and wonderfully ironic.  Etc. Etc. Etc.


The modern inclination to create “theories” of the arts (and so to legitimize anything and everything) has spawned reader-response criticism.  At its most  simplistic it asserts that each observer creates the work of art in reading or viewing it.  An analogy with the performing arts is often made, but no one bothers to remember that sonatas and operas are performed on the stage, not created there, and that there are both good performances and bad ones.  In the same way, there are bad (incompetent) readers and viewers.  Of course it is true that the individual meanings an observer arrives at are meanings for him!  That is a banal tautology, like “insanity is just a state of mind.” But no reasonable person can doubt that the artist’s understanding of her creation must be related to the “meanings” that competent observers find in the work—if it is well-crafted.  (That may even be a great part of what “well-crafted” means.)  People who talk as if something else might be the case are just philosophizing—playing word games—and this isn’t surprising, for as someone (Karl Shapiro?) has said, critics don’t care about art except as a bone of contention.


From the point of view of reader-response theory it might be argued that no global judgment of a work (whether for its dishonesty, its lack of a moral center, or anything else) can be very important since each person creates her or his own meaning.  Let’s look at this more closely.  I had a student who wrote that Shakespeare’s lines in Sonnet 116 (“It is the star to every wand’ring bark/whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken”) were wonderful because of the imagination that saw the bark of a tree as somehow “wandering” when it grows.  (“Bark,” of course, is the term for a particular type of small sailing vessel, and these lines refer to navigating by the stars.)  This student may have marveled at Shakespeare’s imagination, but that marveling was occasioned by a mistake, and consequently it was quite irrelevant.  (This is simply an error, rather like mistakenly playing B-sharp instead of the B-flat written in a piece of music, and such an error is not improvisation.)


All literature teachers have such stories to tell.  One often-cited example is that of the student who took the taper (candle) in Keats’ poem, “The Eve of Ste. Agnes,” to be a South American quadruped (tapir)!   The student may have been thrilled to find a tapir in Keats’ poem, but the emotion is as mistaken as the reading.  Such errors are to be corrected, not taken as new possibilities in our expanding sense of a work’s complexity.  (And it is worth noting that the emotion associated with such a mistake disappears entirely when it is clearly shown to be in error.)


So the answer to the question we began with is “yes”:  we may reasonably claim that those things which interfere with the simple, direct, and limpid reading of a work can shape our response to it, and this includes dishonesty and the apparent toleration of things that we find appalling.  How could this not be true, for some of the “meaning” in novels and films is of the same type we find in textbooks?  And if we don’t know enough to recognize errors and dishonesty, then our responses are simply incompetent.  Moral/ethical judgments are appropriate criteria for evaluating works of art.


The Birds, of course, is nothing more than a horror movie, and shouldn’t be taken seriously at all.  This brings to mind Grahame Green’s distinction between his own “novels” and those of his works that he chooses to call, “entertainments.”  Literary critics should make such distinctions.

A more significant failure of the coherence-type discussed above is .  Individual sequences are brilliant (and well worth seeing for their own sake!), but it doesn’t pull together into a complete work and the taradiddle at the end doesn’t help.  Blow Up is another example.  The absurdist ending betrays the beginning, and doesn’t make a point that requires the beginning at all.  And of course, there is 2001 Space Odyssey.  Although some of the scenes are beautiful, the vacuous hocus-pocus doesn’t gel enough to make this really work.  These films are fodder for those who regard art as an excuse to talk—-for those who want to engage in film-flam, not appreciation.  But their creators are Hitchcock, Fellini, Antonioni, Kubrick (and Arthur C. Clarke to boot) . . . so they must be great . . . right?