Goldfish and The KKK: An Argument Against Immoral Art
You walk into a museum and there are four red canvases, each seemingly to appear as replicas of the other. One is painted to depict the close-up of a curtain. The second was inspired by the red sea. The third is a political statement by communist China, and the fourth was not even intended to be a finished painting — it was just displayed next to the others by mistake.
Arthur Danto’s red canvas problem requires us to consider what defines art and on what basis can we consider one piece of artwork to be better than another? Is the element that defines a piece of artwork as inherently ‘good’ subjective or objective? Further, the dilemma surrounding the criterion for what counts as good art carries an aspect of moral consideration. By passing judgement on what art is deemed valuable and what is worthless, we contribute to what should be considered worthwhile when considering the social implications that art has the potential to create. Supported by Cohen and Guyer in dissecting Kant’s Theory of Taste, this essay will attempt to address these questions while arguing that emotional and subsequent moral values are at the core of good art.
A common belief surrounding aesthetic appreciation is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, if this were to hold true, then all people would be held to be the ultimate arbiters of aesthetic goodness. Aesthetic value in its application to art can be defined, more or less, by art’s capacity to elicit pleasure or displeasure through a person’s aesthetic experience of the art. Although a person’s experience of art would be considered subjective, David Hume argued that aesthetic value possessed some objectivity through our nature to be predisposed to finding certain patterns, landscapes, and depictions of health to be more pleasing than artworks that depicted asymmetry, uninhabitable environments, and images of death or decay. However, not all have this sense to evaluate the aesthetic value of an object, and as much as our tastes in certain sensory pleasures differ across individuals, as does our taste in the arts.
So while art can prompt feelings of immense awe or intense disgust, what is really at the core is art’s ability to tap into and reflect back to us our moral and ethical values.
But what is the distinction between the pleasure felt in experiencing art as beautiful and the judgement of art as beautiful? Kant argues in his ‘Critique of Aesthetic Judgment’, that judgements of what is beautiful are subjectively grounded. He argues that assessments of beauty are based on experiencing feelings of beauty whilst being seemingly removed from the experience — that is, the experience of pleasure does not rely on a person having a desire for the object that would deliver the pleasure. In contrast, it is widely argued by other aestheticians who agree with Hume that judgements of beauty ought to be considered objective as they are grounded in our objective senses of colour, symmetry, and other qualities that are universally regarded as beautiful — that is, the aesthetic testimony and hearsay of others.
I agree with Kant in his assessment that our judgements of what is beautiful is largely dependent on the subjective emotions we experience in our individual responses to art; rather than an objective collective agreement of what constitutes beauty. Should we agree with Hume that there are objective criteria for beauty, then how can we account for those of us who find beauty and a morbid fascination in depictions of death and decay? As according to this objective idea of beauty, we should be naturally repelled by such art. Does this perhaps show that there are those of us who are drawn towards gothic art are possibly unhinged? Or do we merely have subjective ideas of what constitutes beauty, each unique to our tastes and emotions? However, I would go further to argue that our emotions are simply the outward expression of our internal moral beliefs. So while art can prompt feelings of immense awe or intense disgust, what is really at the core is art’s ability to tap into and reflect back to us our moral and ethical values.
Marco Evaristti is infamous for his Helena experiment which depicted a number of blenders, each with a live goldfish in it. The idea of the art was to sort people into three categories: The sadist for those who would want to push the button, the moralist for those who found the exhibit nauseating and the voyer, for those who merely enjoyed watching the reactions of others. But, when considering the moral element of Evaristti’s exhibition, is it considered good art? Autonomists argue that art and morality remain entirely distinct from each other. In this view, Evaristti is almost excused from any moral implications — that is, the brutal slaughter of a goldfish — all in the name of artistic expression.
However, let’s take this argument further. As the murder of a goldfish is hardly world-changing, a better example may be to analyse art that is problematic through a very real-world example. Here we will discuss an artwork that was displayed early in the Trump era of America when a rise of hate crimes and racism exploded into the public sphere following his election. Take, for example, a painting commissioned in a Texan museum depicting a gathering of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen.
While the artist, Vincent Valdez, a white Mexican American, provides that he intended to expose the ‘respectable presence enjoyed by racists’, others argue that the artist’s intention does not always manifest itself to its audience. By encouraging the spotlight on KKK members, the artist is guilty of the very thing he intended to highlight — — the glamourisation of historical racial violence in a time that had heightened racial tensions. Does the artist’s intention protect him from being held morally accountable for glorifying racial hate? According to the Autonomist, it does. We can understand how allowing racist art to run rampant without any accountability would fuel racial divides in a country where black Americans have a long history of experiencing racial violence.
However, Aesthetic moralists argue that morality and art are interconnected, and any moral stain associated with the art makes the art tarnished and aesthetically flawed. The Moral Defect Argument, in its application to the KKK artwork, can be summarised as this:
1. The commission and depiction of the KKK work is immoral;
2. Therefore, the artwork invites us to participate in the morally defective commissioning of the work. In other words, we are invited to contribute to the spotlight and allow a stage for the artwork to exist without any moral or social ramifications. By implication, we are participants in the glorification that the artwork is attempting to highlight;
3. An artwork that invites us to share the stage of a morally defective position, is itself, morally defective;
4. Therefore, the art is morally defective.
In addition to this, The Aesthetic Defect argument provides an additional layer to what makes immoral art bad art:
1. The intention and or perspective of the work in question is immoral;
2. This immorality undermines the possibility of engagement with the work;
3. Therefore, any work which undermines its own intention is aesthetically defective.
So while our KKK artist may have had every good intention to raise social awareness about the white privilege experienced by members of a racial hate group, his expression of it — which is complicated by his own whiteness — by exhibiting it in a museum in a state that is known for conservative views on race, whilst commissioned by people who are also white and wealthy, at a time that was racially divided by the then political atmosphere, creates an immoral juxtaposition on his work. Likewise, while Evarstti’s concept of his exhibition may be lauded as being artistically superb, his expression of his intention through immoral means, the destruction of a goldfish life, counts against the aesthetic value of his work.
While there is substantial work that argues in favour of the emotional responses to art being the epitome of good art, what I believe constitutes good art is art that is morally right and contributes a goodness to society, whether this is felt on an individual or communal level is indifferent — my argument is that good art should inherently not produce or contribute to further harm on others. The finest of art is one that produces the most good, for even those of us who have a fondness for art that depicts notions of death and decay, these depictions do not contribute towards any systemic harm to members of society.
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Cohen, Ted and Guyer, Paul, ‘Feeling and Freedom: Kant on Aesthetics and Morality’, (2005) 48 Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 135–163
Danto, Arthur, ‘The End of Art: A Philosophical Defence’ (1998) 37(4) History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History 127–143
Decasse CJ, ‘Art and the Language of Emotions’ (1964) 23 (1) The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 109–112
Hume, David, Of the standard of taste (E. F. Miller Ed, 1757/1985).
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Wittes Schlack, Julie ‘What’s ‘Offensive’ Art? The Answer Isn’t Black and White’ (Commentary, 26 Jule 2018) < https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2018/07/26/vincent-valdez-the-city-ku-klux-klan-painting-blanton-julie-wittes-schlack >.