Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Art And Morality

By Prof. R. Hepburn
Argument in this area tends to cluster around either of two poles: one seeing the relation between art and morality as close and harmonious, the other more keenly aware of conflicts and tensions between them.

1. Art is taken as vital to moral health. It brings into play, expresses, ‘purges’ emotions and energies that, in real-life situations, could be harmful and destructive. It allows us, without risk, to explore in depth the essential nature and outworking of endless types of human character and social interaction—in plays and novels.

If art appreciation is essentially contemplative, attentive to the individuality of its objects, and respecting and loving them for what they are in themselves, these aesthetic attitudes are close neighbors to the morally desirable attitudes of respect for persons and moral attentiveness to their individual natures and needs. Again, art can enlarge the scope of individual freedom, by expanding awareness of our options for action and for forms of human relationship, beyond those options that are immediately apparent in everyday society. More broadly, the arts enhance human vitality through teaching a keener, more vivid perception of the colours, forms, and sounds of a world of which we are normally only dimly aware, and a more intense and clarified awareness of values.

2. Nevertheless, art has also been seen as morally dubious or harmful. At the level of theory, the Kantian and post-Kantian accounts of a disinterested, calmly contemplative aesthetic attitude have recently been facing critical challenge. It is claimed, furthermore, that art stimulates emotions better not aroused; encourages the imagination to realize in detail, and to enjoy, morally deplorable activity, thereby making that more likely to be acted out in life.

If freedom can be enhanced by art, it can also be diminished—by artworks that present current stereotypes, fashions in attitudes and action, farouche or degraded visions of human nature, as if these alone were the ‘available’ models for life-responses. There can be little ground for confidence that the sometimes desperate search for the innovative and ‘different’ in art (and the role of the complex of interested promoters of particular arts—the ‘artworld’) reliably leads to morally serious and wise interpretations of human problems.

From The Oxford Companion to Philosophy

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