When I started chipping away at this topic I didn’t realize how enormous it was. I’ve written about censorship and highly political cases made against certain artists, but those issues are mere TIE fighters – morality is the Star Destroyer.
You can vote in the poll before I have a chance to influence you one way or another. I’m curious to know what people think. By immoral you can use your own standards as a barometer, and the same goes for bad.
Moralizing is Ubiquitous
The tendency to evaluate art, and everything else, on moral grounds is ubiquitous. There have been multiple recent cases of artists and their art being challenged on moral grounds.
- A painting by John William Waterhouse – Hylas and the Nymphs – was taken down from display in the Manchester Gallery, as a part of a performance art work, because it perpetuated “harmful stories” about women and girls, depicting them either as decorative objects or femme fatales.
- A show of Chuck Close’s paintings was cancelled at the National Gallery because of allegations that he sexually harassed two of his models.
- Sam Durant’s sculpture, Scaffold – a reproduction of period gallows – was dismantled and buried because the Dakota people found it offensive. Their ancestors had been hung in the gallows the artist recreated.
- A petition was circulated to destroy Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket, because it was perceived by some people to capitalize on black death for fun and profit. Activists further sought to shut down an unrelated show of hers because she needed to suffer the consequences for the Till painting, which they argued incited violence against blacks and upheld centuries of genocide against indigenous peoples.
- Activists attacked an early work by Cindy Sherman – her Bus Rider series of B&W photos – because the various bus riders she portrayed herself as included black passengers, in which case it was felt she was doing black face. One critic accused her of an obviously deplorable and atrocious racist aesthetic production.
- An online petition was signed by over 6,000 people to remove a painting by Balthus, Theresa Dreaming – which shows a girl in her underwear – on the grounds that it is romanticizing the sexualization of a child.
In each case the art or the artist is deemed immoral. If the artist is seen as immoral than the art is considered immoral as well by logical extension. This is why Chuck Close portraits needed to come down, even though the paintings don’t themselves present any objectionable (or even observable) morality.
If an artwork is considered immoral, than it is extrapolated that so is the artist. Here is the reason activists demanded a show by Dana Schutz be shut down, though nothing in it could be pinned down as offensive. Because of her painting of Emmett Till, Schutz was determined to be an immoral person all of whose paintings must necessarily exude violence against non-whites.
Is Morality the canvas on which all art is painted?
You might think that these are outstanding instances of art clashing with current moral standards, and that most of the time neither art nor art criticism are obsessed with morality. You’d be forgiven for thinking this, but you’d also be wrong. I just visited the online art magazine Hyperallergic . There are 14 recent articles currently showing. Let’s see how many, in either the art or the criticism, are overtly political (which is always about morality), or else otherwise moralizing, . If it’s not obvious in the title, it may be in the body of the text.
- 37 Artists Native to the Americas Weave Stories of Migration and Geography. ✔
- Artist Michael Rakowitz Reveals the Iraq War’s Many Wounds. ✔
- The Impermanent Sculptures of Robert Grosvenor.
- Help Build a Database of Ancient Graffiti from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
“Most Classical literature that we have today was written by elite men … Ancient graffiti give us the perspective of the other 99% of society. ✔
- Berkshire Museum Resolves Dispute with Norman Rockwell’s Sons, But Legal Battle Rages On.
The only way the community can be healed is to bring back the art, commit to ethical practices and fiscal transparency, and engage in open dialogue with the community. ✔
- Modern Art’s Roots in Imperial Plunder. ✔
- The History and Future of Feminist Resistance in Art. ✔
- Hiroshi Sugimoto Revamps Hirshhorn Museum Lobby, Includes a 700-year-old Nutmeg Tree.
- Seeking Poetic Justice with Sonia Sanchez at the Brooklyn Museum.
Like other artists of the Black Arts Movement, for her, fighting for her rights and making art were intertwined. ✔
- The Colorful Legacy of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora. ✔
- How a Neuroscientist Used Art to Document the Brain.
- Looking Beyond History to Tell the Story of Cuban Art. ✔
- An Artist Prescribes Herbs and Institutional Critique for Social Ills ✔
- In Edo Japan, Artists Captured Whales Like Never Before.
The spirit of the American whale fishery is downright monochromatic compared to the complexity of the Japanese’s intimate relationship with whales… One is hunting whales strictly for profit, and they couldn’t give a rat’s patoot about the spirit of the whale. ✔
12 out of 14 articles were obviously political or moralizing. That’s about 86%, and the remaining two articles were debatably more subtly moralizing.
Moralizing is incessant
The thing that bothers me about this topic is how deep it goes, and the evidence for that is that I, myself, am an incessant moralizer.
I was in my late twenties the first time I glimpsed that I’d had it completely backwards when it came to thinking. I’d always believed it took an effort. We had to put our thinking caps on. People would implore you to THINK!
And then I started to let go of thought, to let it drift off, and there was fear that if I let go of the string, the helium balloon of thinking would float out of reach and I wouldn’t be able to get it back. It was a very fleeting impression, but had staying power.
Later, in my 30s, I discovered Eastern philosophy, and was introduced to the notion that thought was non-stop, automatic, and required no work. Deep, applied thought, like playing Chess, requires work, but just forming the next sentence does not. If you just observe your thoughts you’ll notice you can’t stop them probably for more than a few seconds. And so the hard thing isn’t thinking, but not thinking. The inner DJ never ceases prattling on.
I asked myself why I need to keep talking to myself in my head when I already know what I think, already agree with myself. A lot of the inner dialogue is probably rehearsing arguments justifying ones existence to others. You can see this in crazy people who shout out invective at the air.
Gossip is moralizing. Complaining is moralizing. Giving advice is moralizing. There’s all this judging and proscribing what people should or shouldn’t have done; should or should not do; who is bad and who is good; who is a hard worker or lazy; who needs to get laid; who drinks or smokes too much; who eats too much or too little; who dresses well or badly; who has something coming to him or her…
Since I caught onto how much of thought is this kind of relentless evaluating and sentencing, I see it everywhere. And I don’t like it. Further, as I said, I’m guilty of it. Indeed, my preferred method for dealing with the flawed tactics of overarching moralists is to appeal to a higher level of morality, with more perspective and better arguments.
Art ≠ Morality
Does that seem too obvious? Well, for a lot of people they are intertwined, though they might use the word politics instead, in which case politics are advocating for some civic good. True, corruption and politics go hand in hand, but artists almost always mean liberalism or progressivism when they refer to politics. If you are trying to change society for the good, it’s moralistic.
When I was an undergrad my Photography teacher told us she’d finally figured out what the purpose of art was. All ears pricked up. “To persuade”. Heads nodded in confirmation, or mere deference, but not mine. I’m sure I must have scowled. It all boiled down to something that didn’t even interest me?
Then, when I was in grad school, I was the teaching assistant for another photography teacher. The class was Photography 101, and the first assignment was for students to “pick an issue”. Once they had an issue than they were expected to use Photography in some way to argue for their cause, and develop their presentation over the rest of the term. It was simply taken for granted that that’s what art was for. You can imagine that the only thing I had to contribute to that class was some basic dark room and camera skills, and a young adult’s informed perspective on political topics. Art was off the table as far as I was concerned.
I’m more comfortable seeing morality and politics at the opposite end of the spectrum from art than intimately intertwined with it.
Morality is antithetical to artistic freedom.
Morality seeks to exert control over others and constrain their behavior. This can go in every direction, even if it’s just trying to influence a sibling or posting a meme on Facebook. However, it’s most effectively a top-down method of control.
I’ve observed this first hand, on the receiving end, working temp jobs. After surviving grad school – which was about the most hypocritically moralizing environment I’d ever been in – I landed a temp job with a computer memory manufacturer. For the first 3 months, before I quit (at which point I was promoted), I worked in the warehouse. You start off kitting, then move on to picking, packing, and shipping. It was a good company, so the job was alright, and remarkably fair as compared to art school. However, I had to stand up all day and ask permission to use the restroom.
After a couple promotions I ended up as a Marketing Assistant, and that meant I got to sit down all day at my own desk, go to the bathroom whenever I wanted, snack and drink free soda from the dispenser all day. Sure, I was still an underling (and was eventually framed), but the overarching morality is for the poor. And as everyone knows, the bankers responsible for the economic crash of 2008 got off with a slap on the wrist, a pat on the back, and record bonuses.
These life lessons remind me that morality is used to suppress artists, as a lower class of individuals, traditionally by the politicians and the powerful. Nowadays, in a spectacular turn of events, political activists (usually of the “minority” variety) are the ones seeking to shut down art and punish artists, while also trying to make a name for themselves, accrue authority and institutional power. [For example, artist Sonya Boyce colluded with a gallery curator at the Manchester Gallery, where she was scheduled herself to have a retrospective, in order to take down the Waterhouse painting in order to promote her own show.]
In the examples I gave earlier the moralizing of self-styled political activists seek to censor, censure, condemn, and punish artists who they view as guilty of moral transgressions. How can prohibitions on art enable artistic freedom?
Free your mind and your brush will follow.
I’ve often thought that the only place I can be truly free, where I am in control, is within the borders of the metaphoric canvas. What I make in the picture frame does not need to obey anyone else, and can be uninhibited.
When I was an undergrad my New Genre teacher once accused me of being locked in the rectangle. If you know me this is like a story an old timer tells over and over, so you may have already heard it. I have a new twist on it, so it’s worth carting out again.
I’ll make it brief. The teacher was Paul McCarthy, who has the unique distinction of being the most offensively disgusting artist alive (do a Google search). He gave us an assignment to make three art pieces for three words which he provided, and I made three assemblages on particle board. His criticism was that I was “locked in the rectangle”.
For the very next class I went out and bought some wood, got out my power tools, and constructed a large rectilinear structure in which a person could be locked, with a padlock. There were openings at the top and bottom in which ones wrists and ankles would fit into closing wooden beams with arcs cut out of them, like the stocks, or a pillory.
I transported it to the school and had myself locked into it (naked) facing the two elevators on the fourth flour of the art building, where our classroom was. I had two large signs that said, “Paul McCarthy Say’s I’m Locked in the Rectangle”. I think I made my point, which was that I was NOT locked in the rectangle.
Why I’m bringing this up in this article is that the assumption was that artists are locked into the picture frame and need to get out of it and into the real world. That sounds good, and challenging, because artists start out working within a rectangular field, but what is outside of that rectangle is also outside of my control. Creating an object that must be seen in a gallery context, and where the gallery is an integral part of it, and thus must necessarily also have institutional approval and support, is to create something that goes into the context of shared, quotidian reality.
Here, one is locked outside the boarders of artistic freedom. There’s no portal into your private universe: there’s just an opaque piece of glass in someone else’s space. And yet people accept that a mute, plebeian, expressionless, impersonal object – Duchamp’s Fountain, for example – is about the most liberating work of art of the 20th century. Not if you are looking to create your own universe with your imagination.
Duchamp or McCarthy are at the further end of the field of artistic expression from those of us who want/need to create captivating imagery using our visual imagination. Whatever kind of artistic freedom one is looking for, it’s got to be unbounded.
There’s a contradiction in liberating the imagination and constraining thought. How can the mind be free and independent if it is guided by other people’s expectations, and constrained by their prohibitions?
An answer to that is that the goal isn’t to free the mind and explore the visual imagination, but rather to persuade people to believe in a chosen purpose, to effect social change, and to fight oppression.
That would be fine for someone like me, I suppose, if my personal vision happened to coincide with whatever the popular political movement was. But if that is not the case, and it isn’t, than creating in accordance with other people’s objectives and agenda is to be an artist cadre is someone else’s war. When I was in grad school my role as a soldier in the war of fighting oppression was to “deconstruct [my] white, male privilege”. I hadn’t realize that when I signed up for grad school I was volunteering to sacrifice myself as a grunt in the art army for the freedom of my superiors and people who were more valuable than I was.
It wasn’t possible for me to liberate my imagination if I couldn’t cordon off an area in which I could be the master of my domain, and it was further constrained if my creativity was subordinated to political causes which existed completely independent of me (especially if my role had to be a self-defeating one).
Morality seeks to circumscribe what an artist can envision and is thus fundamentally opposed to real artistic freedom. Combine this with pressure to make political or conceptual art and an artist can become a mere underling striving to make works that gain acceptance from the institution.
Morality is a Map
Morality in general is a set of beliefs, and beliefs are a superimposition upon reality. They are conclusions, even supremely logical conclusions (most of which I probably agree with, unless I have a better argument), which are honed in the rational mind and expressed via linguistics.
As with all rational (or irrational) arguments and conclusions, moral arguments are an abstracted map, and not the actual terrain. Morality is a projection on reality, as is painting and other art forms. Should artists only be allowed to paint the landscape within the map of morality, or can they paint reality directly (making their own map)?
Visual art is another kind of cognition that uses imagery and comes to different sorts of conclusions, expressed in subject, color, and composition… Why subordinate visual intelligence to verbal? Why insist that an artist’s visual exploration must take place within boundaries established by spoken/written language?
Visual art can be an escape from, and checks and balances on, the strictly rational intellect, linguistics, and moral constraints on behavior. I’d rather think you could imagine whatever you wanted, but that’s incompatible with thought crime. Does linguistics get to decide what the visual imagination is permitted to manifest?
Further, moralizing is keeping things at a conscious level. Do we really expect the subconscious to adhere to our moral precepts? Should we not give the subconscious artistic expression? It does sound like circumscribing the flights of the imagination, and suppressing the subconscious are necessary to filter art through a conscious, rational, moral filter.
Art for Art’s Sake
You’d think this would be a rallying cry for artists, but it’s considered anathema to art, irresponsible, and because it’s not part of the solution, part of the problem.
I’ve probably read more books by Toni Morrsion than any other living writer, but her stance on this is the dominant one, and pisses me off:
All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS. What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’
She’s got a point that King Lear was about a king, as were all the plays about Richard and Henry. Does anyone deny this? A problem with Morrsion’s argument is that by today’s standards SHE is the status quo (a novelist who most people know, even if they can’t name 5 other contemporary novelists, has extraordinary status within the institution of writing).
I’m sure some will furiously object that Toni Morrison could never be the status quo because her identity is black and female – CIS gendered, white, male, heterosexual identity is the status quo, because it is normativity! That may sound convincing in theory, but men who fit that bill are among the only group in America in which the likelihood of suicide is rising. Apparently, white, middle-aged men account for 70% of deaths from suicide each year.
If you are wildly successful; have accolades showered on you; are famous; enjoy massive institutional approval (Morrison was assigned-reading in my Contemporary Lit. class); are wealthy; and part of the literary canon; than you are probably the status quo rather than people who are killing themselves out of despair.
Another problem is that if you aren’t fighting for the causes Morrison champions, you are ostracized. Consider that if your art is political, but the wrong politics, than you are the enemy because your art is immoral. You are even worse than an apolitical artist who is automatically dismissed as bolstering a fictional status quo.
Here we have the Achilles heel of her argument, and what an impressive heel it is. Whether art is good or not is ultimately reduced to whether or not we agree with the politics of the artist.
If I champion art for art’s sake it doesn’t mean I love the status quo, it means that I love ART. It means that I don’t believe the artist has to be conscripted into a political cause in order for her or his art to have legitimacy (especially when the status quo – the university, the art magazines, and Toni Morrison – are telling me it has to). Art is its own reward. Art can be a conscientious objector to being drafted in someone else’s war.
Another way to look at it is that politics are a crutch for artists whose art is not intrinsically interesting, or not of sufficient quality to be aesthetically compelling. We are then expected to like it because it’s socially important, has the correct message, or because the artist belongs to this or that marginalized group and deserves to be heard.
I had a realization a several years ago when I started making art again. I was teaching English at a university in the middle of China, in an untouristed city few Chinese have even heard of, and in my fourth year in China was about as removed from the Western art world as I could get. Perhaps I needed to be completely divorced from the art world in order to make the art I wanted to make. I was walking across the front of the campus, by the ping pong tables, going out to go shopping, and the counter-argument against art needing to be political came to me: art has the right to exist without being tethered to politics, and that itself is a strong political statement, but need not be reflected at all in the art.
Art has its own intrinsic value, and I dare say it may be more important in the grand scheme of things than this or that political cause. Imagine a world without the arts (significantly, the Chinese Cultural Revolution – a revolution against culture – gave us a glimpse of what that might look like) and how abysmally dreary it would be. Would we be better off without the Cultural Revolution or without the traditional art of China?
It’s no surprise that years later I find myself defending art against being hijacked, censored, or destroyed by this or that cause or agenda.
The Proof is in the Painting
Above I said that art-as-politics reduces art appreciation to agreeing with the politics of the artist or not. Consider the hot topic of the day. There was another school massacre, and so my Facebook feed is filled with graphics either for or against guns. [Note that I’m so sick of politics that I didn’t weigh in, and I selected “see fewer posts like this” on some of those, regardless of whether I agreed with them or not, and I did see a goodly amount for each side of the argument.]
Most my FB friends are other struggling artists (mostly painters), and so, if I had the money I could commission them (as a social experiment) to make paintings about said topic, and put them in a juried exhibition.
How would we evaluate the paintings in order to give awards? Let’s be honest. The art world is solidly liberal, so, we are going to have to reject all the pro-gun paintings. Among the anti-gun art, we’re probably going to want to look at WHO made the paintings. I mean, if it’s a white artist and depicts a black victim of a shooting, than there’s a real risk activists will protest that another white artist (like Dana Schutz) is capitalizing on black death for profit and fun.
By the time we filter for the correct person to make the correct argument, the quality of the painting would have become of tertiary significance, if not completely sidelined. The judging process could as easily take place without ever looking at the paintings. We could just read descriptions of them, and the artist’s bio. If looking isn’t paramount in assessing visual art, then that should be a vigorously waving red flag.
Monet’s landscape paintings, which are at least half lyrical abstraction, are about as apolitical as you can get. Is this a love of the status quo, or a love of color and composition, or paint, or beauty?
Toni Morrison summed up her pronouncement of political art: My point is that is has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time.
Well, no, there are no politics in this painting, which is almost excruciatingly beautiful in the placement of those two bright red flowers, and in the green-blue brush strokes on the lilies. It even works on a purely abstract level. I find I want to say what this painting is about but it leaves me speechless. What it shows can’t be communicated in words. It can only be remotely described. it speaks in a visual language in which colors counter-balance each other, and audacious dabs of rich color punctuate more subtly modulating muted colors.
This is a stunning painting, if for no other reason than the eloquence of the complex use of visual language.
Music is the monkey wrench in the machine of all art theory
I have consistently found that any suspiciously overstated theory about art implodes into the ridiculous when applied to music. Surely if all art must be political to be any good, than the same must apply to music.
If you have any doubts left that art need not be political, listen to the first few minutes of what is surely one of the most persuasive arguments ever written for the beauty of human cognition, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #23, the “Appassionata”. I’m more of a Rock N Roll guy, but, this Sonata rocks!
There’s a reason in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters that the aliens communicated with us in music. Music represents unspecified but inescapable cognizance. Music must be a sign of consciousness.
We can hear in the “Appassionata” hints and echoes of circumstances, places, relationships, love, sex, tragedy – the richness of life. And here we are presented with a unique challenge: how can we share our existence, our humanity, without resorting to hammering home our political agenda and championing our causes?
In this way making political art or evaluating art on political grounds becomes a cop-out, the easy route to talk about things everyone understands, and to get points for expressing the correct opinion.
This is not to say that you can’t make political art or music, but rather that it doesn’t have to be political. Some of my absolute favorite songs are overtly political and moralizing: Bob Dylan’s Masters of War; Kimya Dawson’s 12/26; Nina Simone’s Four Women; John Lennon’s Working Class Hero; and Camille Yarbrough’s All Hid come immediately to mind.
If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m defending art, and this absolutely includes the artist’s right to address political and moral topics which matter to her or him. My favorites, above, are songs in which the artists are passionate about the topic, and the art is much more moving than didactic or polemic.
Never mind politics and politicizing for the moment, I’m defending the non-political here, I’ve got the Appassionata stuck in my head, and beautiful arguments wrought in trickling notes and hammered chords are flowing through my mind.
Don’t be a Soiled Sport
I never liked the phrase “nice guys finish last”, and I never thought it was true. It does have a dual meaning, though, which is that mean people are finished first, and nice guys outlast them, continue to evolve after the selfish assholes have already begun to calcify, having missed the point of existence.
We say nice guys finish last to justify cheating, cutting corners, and cutting throats. Yet, at the same time, we all root for the Karate Kid to win the match.
If the Karate kid lost the match, if his crane kick didn’t work, than he might be the better kid, and the one we like more, but he couldn’t say he was the better fighter.
For a real world example, you may not like Mike Tyson or Floyd Mayweather because of their physical abuse of women (yes, appalling), but you can’t deny that they are superb boxers.
I consider myself a good guy, but sometimes we just have to accept reality, and goodness doesn’t always win. We can’t just disqualify every other fighter, or artist, because they don’t live up to our own moral standards. You have to beat them legitimately.
I can’t expect all artists to produce work in accordance with what I believe is the cause of the good, nor can I expect them to be good people. If my beliefs, methods, and morals don’t produce the best result, than I have to live with that.
Just because I am a good guy in my own lunchbox, doesn’t mean I am in the eyes of others. Many will take one look at me and have me fingered as necessarily the patriarchal, sexist, racist, bigoted, privileged, white supremacist. For them I’m the bad guy, and my art is therefore bad.
To complicate things further, there are always competing moralities and notions of goodness. Some people think it’s unethical to abort a fetus because it has a soul: others believe its unethical for the government to dictate what women do with their own bodies. The good and bad guys shift depending which side of the issue one sides with.
When I was a lot younger I used to think bad people couldn’t make great art (in which case, conveniently, great artists were always good people). Now, I think that great art is a combination of insight, understanding, experience, intelligence, complexity, competence, aesthetic appreciation, and execution. You could say that the artist possesses a kind of power, which need not align itself with ones own morality.
To end on a Star Wars analogy, if the force is stronger on the dark side, you can’t say that it is not the force, or that it is not great.
Whether I influenced your opinion or not, you can vote again. Feel free to leave your comments or arguments (though I’m not interested in debating gun control or abortion, those were just handy examples).
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