Should we take into account an
artist's personal moral failings when appreciating or evaluating the work? In
this essay, I seek to expand Berys Gaut's account of ethicism by showing how
moral judgment of an artist's private moral actions can figure in one's overall
evaluation of their work. To expand Gaut's view, I argue that the artist's
personal morality is relevant to our evaluation of their work because we may
only come to understand the point of view of the work, and therefore the work's
prescribed attitude, by examining the values, attitudes, and behaviors of the
artist. This view is defended against a rival account offered by Bernard Wills
and Jason Holt, which holds that the artistic evaluation of an artist's work is
independent from the moral evaluation of their life except in extreme cases.
art; autonomism; ethicism; Berys Gaut;
Jason Holt; judgment; morality; Bernard Wills
a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was a big fan of Bill Cosby. My
childhood was filled with many of his shows: Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,
Picture Pages, and The Cosby Show. In 1983, Cosby released a film
of his stand-up routine, titled Bill Cosby: Himself. My family owned a
copy on VHS that I must have watched dozens of times. Cosby was funny and
intelligent, but also seemed like a kind man. He was "America's dad."
Cosby has been convicted of sexual assault and aggravated indecent assault. The
allegations against Cosby include charges of rape, drug-facilitated sexual
assault, and child sexual assault. The accusations come from sixty women, two
of which were fifteen years old at the time of the assaults, that begin as
early as the 1960s.
Cosby's fans revise their previous positive assessment of his shows? Is one's
experience of watching his shows changed because of what we now know of the
man? Is it now wrong for one to enjoy watching his old shows? While the case of
Cosby might be the most recent, the issue is a general one. Audience members
experience a deep sense of conflict when they discover that a once-beloved
artist is guilty of some moral transgression. The source of the conflict is
understandable; we might cherish our aesthetic experience of the artist's work
while we detest the person of the artist. How do we, or should we, negotiate
this sense of conflict? How can we hate the person but love their creation? Why
do we sometimes feel compelled to "aesthetically divorce" the artist
and his or her work, while at other times we extend a hand of forgiveness?
of how fans should think about such artists has exploded
in the popular media recently. While many call for bans and boycotts of morally
problematic artists, others insist that we must separate the artist's life from
their work. Many of the discussions in the popular media are lacking in much
nuance and woefully unhelpful. Turning to the work of philosophers, few have
focused specifically on what possible impact the artist's private life could
have on the appreciation of their works. However, related discussions of
whether the moral evaluation of a work's content should play some role in our
appreciation of art have a long history. Many following a broadly Kantian
tradition, including the formalism of Clive Bell and the later "aesthetic
attitude" theorists, argue that we should never judge a work by some moral
measure and that we act mistakenly when we do so. Kant's argument that judgments
of moral goodness prohibit viewers from taking a disinterested stance toward
aesthetic objects is familiar to many. It is not difficult to see how this
thought would be extended to moral judgments of the artist's personal life. Why
deny ourselves the joy of appreciating an artist's work simply because we do
not like their personal failings? A recent, though limited, account of this
view is offered by Bernard Wills and Jason Holt. They argue that aesthetic judgments
about an artist's work are independent from moral judgments of the artist's
life, except in the most extreme cases. I will return to consider and
ultimately reject this view, in section 3.
this Kantian tradition, many philosophers have argued that we cannot and should
not separate moral matters from aesthetic matters, and chief among these are
the many feminist aestheticians who have sought to draw attention to the
inseparability of these issues. Yet even within the literature on
feminist aesthetics, it is unusual to focus on what contribution the private
lives of artists might make to our aesthetic engagement with their works.
Rather, it is more common to find discussion of the moral relevance of the
work's content itself and the role that our moral judgment should play in reference
to its aesthetics. These are deeply important topics, but they do not address
the questions I raise here.
this paper, I want to defend the claim that an artist's private life is a
relevant concern when evaluating their work. The kind of cases that interest me
are those where the viewer can find no direct trace of the artist's deeds in
their works. For instance, in cases like Bill Cosby: Himself, there is
no indication of anything sinister in the film. Why, then, should our knowledge
of the man's deeds force us to reevaluate our aesthetic appreciation of the
film? Here is a brief outline of what follows. Section 2 examines the nature of
the question more closely. I distinguish three different questions that can be
asked of the cases I am interested in and argue that the answers to each of
those questions are independent of the others. Section 3 examines Wills and
Holt's view that moral judgments are independent from aesthetic judgments
except in extreme cases. Their account is rejected for failing to offer a
principled reason to admit exceptions. Section 4 examines Berys Gaut's
influential defense of ethicism, which holds that the evaluation of a
work's moral content is relevant to one's aesthetic evaluation of the work. However, Gaut's account is limited as
it stands; it focuses on the work's contents, not on the artist's private life.
So, in section 5, I offer an amendment to Gaut's account that would allow it to
be extended to our target. In section 6, I return to Wills and Holt's essay to
consider some general objections that they offer and demonstrate how such
objections can be addressed by the view proposed here.
2. Three problems
problem we are after is not one problem. In fact, there are at least three
different problems, and a solution to one may have little impact on the others.
It is not my intention to address all three problems in this essay. I would be
happy if I could say something intelligent about any one.
first problem concerns the nature of aesthetic experience: Does the personal
morality of an artist have any aesthetic impact on one's experience of the
work? We can call this the experiential question. There are some cases
where the identity of the author and knowledge of his or her immoral acts will
have an aesthetic impact on one's experience of their work. For instance,
consider the self portraits produced by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy,
while he was in prison awaiting his execution, that depict Gacy wearing his
Pogo the Clown costume. When viewed without knowledge of their provenance, many
of the paintings appear amateurish, flat, and lacking in any meaningful depth,
but, when viewed with the knowledge that they are the work of Gacy, they take
on a creepy, disturbing quality. For these works, their aesthetic character is
partly shaped by one's knowledge of the artist's life. But there are also many
cases where there seems to be little aesthetic impact or, at least, cases where
the aesthetic impact is debatable. For instance, consider the work of the
British sculptor Eric Gill. Earning admiration for his religious sculptures and
design work in the early twentieth century, it was revealed long after Gill's
death that he had sexually abused his daughters, held incestuous relationships
with his sisters, and had engaged in sexual acts with the family dog. In discussions of Gill's work, there
is much debate over attempts to tie their aesthetic character to any facet of
his private life. Some are able to view his works innocently while others claim
to be incapable of doing so.
experiential question is fascinating in its own right and of great importance
to aesthetics. Unfortunately, I have little to say about it. While it is
possible to find instances of both sorts, those where the character of the work
is changed by knowledge of the artist's life and those where it is not, I can
discern no relevant difference to explain why. I draw attention to the
experiential question only to pass over it.
second problem, which will be the focus of this essay, is a normative question
about aesthetic evaluation: Should we take into account an artist's moral
failings when evaluating their works as art? We can call this the evaluative
question. Again, there
seem to be cases that suggest both positive and negative answers. For instance,
it seems right to critically evaluate the works of William S. Burroughs with
the knowledge of his murder of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in 1951. Burroughs'
guilt over Vollmer's death served as an impetus for much of his work,
particularly his short novel Queer.
By contrast, it also seems right that the critical appreciation of Caravaggio's
work is not changed by the knowledge of the artist's murder of Ranuccio
Tomassoni. However, at this early stage in the investigation, these
observations are little more than intuitions. I will later offer a positive
answer to the evaluative question but, for now, it is enough to acknowledge the
conflict of our intuitions.
our answer to the evaluative question need not depend on our answer to the
experiential question, and vice versa.
The reason for this is because the two questions fall on either side of an
"is/ought" divide. The fact that aesthetic experience works in a
particular way does not suggest how aesthetic judgment ought to work. The two
are related of course, but the relation is complex. One could answer the
experiential question positively but answer the evaluative question negatively.
For instance, one might hold that knowledge of the artist's life indeed affects
the character of one's aesthetic experience of their work, but this is a
mistake when it comes to evaluating their work. We would do better to disregard
our moral feelings and focus our aesthetic judgment solely on matters of
technique, skill, and intention. Alternatively, one could answer the
experiential question negatively but answer the evaluative question positively.
On this account, knowledge of the artist's life has no impact on the character
of one's aesthetic experience of their work, but this is a mistake. Taking into
account the artist's private life in our judgment of their work offers the
best, considered evaluation. These mixed positions on the two questions are not
on the surface implausible.
third problem is another normative question about our engagement with an
artist's works: Is it morally wrong to engage with the work of an immoral
artist? Call this the engagement question. Prior to his incarceration, would it have been wrong for
me to buy tickets to see Cosby's stand-up routine? One might argue that
patronizing Cosby then would have helped him fund his legal defense, which is
wrong to do. But, consider a less immediate case. Would it be wrong of me now
to watch my family's old copy of Bill Cosby: Himself? In this case,
there is no direct patronage that Cosby benefits from, but one might argue that
watching Bill Cosby: Himself now is insensitive to his victims or that
my watching it now demonstrates a tolerance of his crimes on my part, which
itself is morally reprehensible.
think there is important work to be done regarding the audiences'
responsibilities for their engagement with art, which is an under-explored
issue in aesthetics. But again, my focus in this essay is on the evaluative
question. I have little to say about the engagement question here, except
that how we answer it question is not dependent on how we answer either the
experiential question or the evaluative question. Even if we were to answer both
previous questions positively, the engagement question remains open. In some
cases, perhaps it is wrong and I should not go see Cosby's stand-up routine,
while in other cases, perhaps it is not and I am still free to enjoy Bill
3. Aesthetic independence, with
Wills and Holt have argued for the separation of art from life. While there are
likely to be other arguments for such a separation available, I take Wills and
Holt's view to be representative of such accounts.
and Holt's position attempts to capture two intuitions that they describe as
"sufficiently firm if not absolutely solid:” "that aesthetic judgment
is independent of moral judgment, and that this independence is not absolute
but can legitimately be challenged in some instances" (§2). The view that
aesthetic judgments are independent from moral judgments often goes by the name
which justifiably describes their position. Wills and Holt allow that moral
judgment can play some role in the appreciation of a character in a fiction and
indeed, one must at least make the moral judgment that some character is a
villain or is undeserving of their cruel treatment in order to appreciate the
drama of the fiction, and yet these sort of moral judgments are properly
restricted to something within the work. Drawing on Shelley's essay, "A
Defence of Poetry," they claim that we should distinguish between moral
imagination as a "capacity to imagine significant moral conflicts"
and the will to act morally (§3). The former is relevant to one's engagement
with art while the latter is not, according to Wills and Holt. More to the
moral or immoral actions in their private lives should bear no impact on our
aesthetic judgment of their work. However, Wills and Holt’s position is also
limited as they admit of exceptions, though the exceptions only apply to
"extreme cases." As they say:
We think this is the case when an artist's vices are not
ordinary vices of passion but have a cold calculating aspect. The cool head and
icy heart that plans a mass murder is just what we do not want in an artist.
The art of a Hannibal Lecter could be a triumph of intellect in shaping
intricate form, perhaps, but not of warmth or sympathetic imagination. If a
mass murderer or serial killer were also a fine poet, this total disjunction
would itself be a kind of ugliness or aesthetic imperfection. Art that ceases
utterly to be good thereby ceases to be art. Under this limitation no painting
of a Hitler or a Hannibal Lecter could possess an unspoiled beauty no matter
how seemingly exquisite the brushwork, although short of such extremes we seem
permissibly able to value Eric Gill's sculpture and typeface. (§4)
and Holt's view of independence-with-exceptions is likely the default position
for many people when thinking about these issues. However, such a view is
obviously untenable. If we assert an independence between aesthetic judgment
and moral judgment, then it is puzzling how one can maintain both independence
as well as exceptions.
If there is no interaction between aesthetic and ethical values, as claims of
independence would maintain, then there is no logical space left to defend
exceptions. It is a poor autonomism that admits of exceptions.
fact, it may be more accurate when thinking of Wills and Holt's account to
reject the notion of independence entirely and instead think of their account
as advocating for aesthetic and ethical interaction, though one that sets the
bar for moral criticism very high. It is only truly horrific individuals—serial
killers or mass murderers—whose work is aesthetically marred by the immorality
of the artist's life. But then, if we are willing to accept some interaction
between aesthetic and ethical values, why set the bar that high? Is there a
principled reason for such a high boundary? A clue to this question is found in
Wills and Holt's comments that such artists are incapable of "warmth or
sympathetic imagination,” while lesser crimes can be dismissed as matters of
"passion." The works of Emperor Nero must be second-rate, they say,
because of his inhumane cruelty, while the poet François Villon deserves some
sympathy: "Is it not plain that this thief and scoundrel [Villon] wins our
sympathy by being in the grip of self-destructive passions and mystifying
compulsions just as we ourselves too often are? A great sinner can create great
art, while an inhuman monster cannot" (§4). Ordinary crimes are motivated
by forces and passions that any sensitive person would be familiar with. So, we
should treat such artists with sympathy. But, the crimes of serial killers and
mass murderers leave their humanity unrecognizable. We cannot (or will not?)
enter into sympathetic imagination with the "cool head and icy heart"
we might accept the idea that the art of a sociopath is quite different from
that of an artist with more run-of-the-mill moral failures, we should still
wonder about the relevance of this difference. Notice that the difference,
according to Wills and Holt, is between according no significance at all
to the moral failings of ordinary artists while dismissing the work of
sociopaths as no longer art. As Wills and Holt say, "Art that ceases
utterly to be good thereby ceases to be art" (§4). For Wills and Holt, it
is all or nothing. They offer no proportional weighting of an artist's moral
failures. Either you are a sociopath who is entirely incapable of producing art
or you are an ordinary criminal, in which case your crimes lack any moral
relevance to the evaluation of your work.
and Holt accept that some artists can be held accountable for their private
moral failings and, on this point, I agree. But where I disagree is how high
the bar should be set. They say, hold none accountable except for the absolute
worst. We should ignore completely the moral failings of Gill and Villon. But
then, shouldn't we also ignore the crimes of Bill Cosby? This seems too
generous. There are many crimes that fall short
of mass murder that still seem monstrous to me, for example, rape, child abuse,
and sex trafficking. Why should the art of ordinary monsters get a complete
pass? Instead, we should consider a proportional criticism of the artist's
crimes against the aesthetic merits of their work.
4. The limits of ethicism
influential view of the ethical criticism of art is that offered by Berys Gaut,
according to which, "the ethical assessment of attitudes manifested by
works of art is a legitimate aspect of the aesthetic evaluation of those works,
such that, if a work manifest ethically reprehensible attitudes, it is to that
extent aesthetically defective, and if a work manifest ethically commendable
attitudes, it is to that extent aesthetically meritorious." While there is much of Gaut's
ethicism that is worthy of attention, I will focus solely on three points that
are relevant to our current concerns.
Gaut notes that works of representational art "manifest" attitudes as
well as "prescribe" both attitudes and responses. For illustration,
consider a film like Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a
Dream. The film offers
a lesson in the various ways that individuals can become enmeshed in a life of
drug abuse. Throughout the film, the characters are shown getting high,
committing crimes, and making bad choices. Certain values and attitudes are
manifested in the characters, both through what they say and what they do.
Those values and attitudes can be open to the viewer's moral scrutiny but, of
course, viewers should not automatically assume that Aronofsky endorses or
wishes to promote the actions or attitudes of his characters. Requiem is not a work of glorification.
Instead, it prescribes a critical attitude toward the actions of its
characters. It is central to Gaut's ethicism that it is not the content of the
work that is of moral concern but, rather, it is the attitude toward that
content prescribed by the author. If one believed that Aronofsky sought to
prescribe an attitude of admiration for the self-destructive lives that his
characters lead, then one would have some room to ethically criticize the work.
But this is clearly not the attitude prescribed by the work. Rather, Requiem is a warning, though one that
humanizes characters that all too often are demonized. On this score, the film
would have an aesthetic credit in its favor.
according to Gaut, works of art are made aesthetically better to the extent
that they prescribe morally praiseworthy attitudes, and they are made
aesthetically worse to the extent that they prescribe morally
reprehensible attitudes. It is not an all-or-nothing matter, rather it is pro tanto. Aesthetically evaluating works of
art is a subtle and complex endeavor that requires one to balance all
aesthetically relevant features against one another. Requiem for a
Dream is again
illustrative. The film is harrowing. It falls into the rare category of masterpieces
that I never want to see again. What makes the film good is not just its
cinematography, its editing, or its powerful acting. Additionally, it is the
delicate balance achieved by the prescribed attitude that neither glorifies
drug abuse nor demonizes addicts. Its characters are recognizable people with
real humanity and substance. Yet, Requiem is also gruesome and deeply upsetting.
Each of these points must be taken together in an
overall evaluation of the film.
Gaut's ethicism does not and need not demand an objective conception of ethics.
Though this point is often overlooked, an ethicist about art criticism could be
a thoroughgoing subjectivist about ethical values (and aesthetic values). One
must only remember that individuals have their own moral values, and
individuals make both moral and aesthetic judgments. Then, it is an open
question whether one's (subjective) moral values ought to play a role in one's
(subjective) aesthetic evaluations. We can adopt Gaut's ethicism regardless of
how we might think of the reality or subjectivity of moral and aesthetic
view is a nuanced and sensitive account of how works themselves can manifest
attitudes that are open to moral evaluation. However, it cannot directly handle
cases of artists’
personal moral failings that we are considering here. The problem, simply put,
is that an artist's moral failures are not manifested in the contents of his or
her works. So, Gaut's account cannot get us the full way to our goal.
5. Expanded ethicism
view can be expanded to account for the cases we are after. To do so, I must
begin by stating some positions I take to be true about our aesthetic
experience but are not universally accepted. Still, these positions have been
widely defended and will likely be familiar to many.
accept the following. All works of art are produced from a certain point of
view. The point of view that I have in mind is not what one might call the perspectival
view of the work. Many works of art have a point of view, in the sense that
they present a distinctive perspective. However, many others do not; think of
abstract paintings or pure music. By contrast, all works of art are produced
from a particular socio-historical point of view. It is this latter
point of view that informs my account.
out the point of view of a work would be a very complex affair, but it would at
least include the socio-historical context that is relevant to understanding
the artist's work. This may include not only art-historical information about
the artist's influences, styles, and their relationships to other contemporary
artists, but also the social, political, economic, and religious climate in
which the artist was working and the artist's own beliefs concerning those.
More importantly, the point of view of the work takes certain values and
assumptions as its norm. The values of family and middle-class respectability
that form the backdrop of Bill Cosby: Himself are never openly announced
to the viewer, just as the audience does not need to be explicitly told that
Darth Vader is the villain of Star Wars: A New Hope. Rather, it is
assumed that viewers will recognize such assumptions and values.
the reader accepts the above, then the account I suggest goes like this. The
point of view for all works is underspecified. One cannot discern the
socio-historical context of the work just by viewing its surface, and it is
often a difficult matter to uncover the implicit values and assumptions of any
work. Some additional study must be done outside of one's scrutiny of the work
to fully understand and evaluate it, which typically is part of the work of art
critics and historians. To fill out the point of view of a work, it is common
to turn to biographical information about the artist. Certainly, this practice
is controversial, as can be seen by the ongoing debate over intentionalist
theories of interpretation. However, it is not necessary to
defend intentionalism here. The general practice of looking to the artist's
biography, in order to uncover the implicit assumptions and values of their
work, remains a common art critical practice. Consider two paintings by
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat and Napoleon Crossing
the Alps. How did a man
who once painted images extolling the French Revolution come to paint adoring
images of Napoleon? Were David's shifting political loyalties the result of a
sincere change in his views or were they simply the product of a cynical
opportunism? Insofar as our appreciation of David's oeuvre is informed by the sincerity of the
values and loyalties that his works express, then the answer to such questions
lies within David's biography, not within his paintings. But, at the point
where some research into the artist's biography is needed, then we are already
encroaching onto the artist's personal life. To adapt a point once made by
Wollheim, if we allow ourselves to consider some background knowledge from the
artist's life, then why stop short at the artist's own personal morality? This seems like an arbitrary restriction
on our critical practices.
prescribed attitude manifested by the work is a part of the work's point of
view, according to Gaut. To know whether p is the prescribed attitude of
the work, I suggest that we may be required to look into the artist's
biography. For illustration, think again of Requiem for a
Dream. It seems likely
that our understanding of the film's prescribed attitude would be affected
somehow if we were to discover that Aronofsky was an unrepentant drug pusher.
Perhaps we would negatively view the work as insincere. Or, perhaps we would
positively view the work as a brave form of confessional. Regardless of how
exactly such information would impact our aesthetic evaluation of the work, the
point is that such information will have some impact on one's evaluation
of the film. Thus, we can adopt an expanded version of Gaut's ethicism: A work
of art is morally flawed to the extent that its assumed point of view is
morally flawed and a work is morally praiseworthy to the extent that its assumed
point of view is morally praiseworthy. The artist's own personal morality is
aesthetically relevant to our evaluation of their work because we may only come
to understand the work's point of view, and therefore the work's prescribed
attitude, by examining the implicit values and attitudes of the artist. For
instance, Bill Cosby: Himself manifests an attitude that appears
wholesome. However, we now know that this point of view is incomplete. By
drawing on our knowledge of Cosby's personal life, we must see his on-stage
persona as an insincere façade.
there are interesting cases where we seem to positively enjoy and evaluate some
works because of the artist's moral flaws. Such cases are likely very
familiar: the chauvinism of Ernest Hemingway, the cantankerousness of Charles
Bukowski, the licentiousness of Hunter S. Thompson. Notice that these are not
cases where the artist's work is admired despite their moral flaws, which the
ethicist already can address through the pro tanto claim, but are arguably cases where
the work is admired by virtue of their moral flaws. These cases seem like a
challenge to ethicism, and to my expanded ethicism, because the view holds that
moral merits are always aesthetic merits while moral flaws are always aesthetic
flaws. So, how can an expanded ethicist explain these?
do so, I want to distinguish two kinds of cases. The first is what we might
call the counter-morality artist. For many fans of Hunter S. Thompson,
his licentiousness is not a moral flaw but is, in fact, a point of admiration.
Indeed, Thompson represents a counter-culture, one that rejects the standard
morality of mainstream society. Within the values of the counter-culture,
actions that are called "licentiousness" by the mainstream are positively
valued as a rejection of the standard morality. Interestingly, in these cases
the fan who aesthetically admires Thompson's work because of their admiration
for his private life is doing exactly what expanded ethicism recommends. Those
traits that are seen as positive moral values in the artist's life become
positive aesthetic values of the artist's work. These cases of counter-morality
are quite common. For instance, some artistic genres view an artist's immoral
and illicit activities as a positive sign of the artist's authenticity, for
example, in musical genres like gangsta rap, punk, and narcocorrido.
second sort of case is what we might call the hardship artist. The main
characteristic of the hardship artist is that the artist, in some way, deserves
sympathy, understanding, or forgiveness. It is not the artist's moral
transgressions that are positively appreciated but rather the transgressions
occasion a morally positive regard for their hardship. Johnny Cash was both
addicted to amphetamines and a devout Christian. So, wouldn't Christian fans
morally fault his music because of his drug addiction? In fact, no. Instead,
Cash's hard-living is viewed positively by Christian fans as part of "his
struggle," and it is the struggle that such fans find morally admirable.
These cases too can be explained by expanded ethicism. Fans of Cash
aesthetically admire his work partly because they morally admire Cash's
suggest that cases where the aesthetic value of an artist's work is improved by
virtue of his or her moral failings will invariably turn out to be cases of
either counter-morality artists or hardship artists. Such cases can be handled
by an expanded ethicism. Indeed, our appreciation of both sorts of cases would
appear meaningless, if it were not for the fact that the artist's private life
indeed plays a role in the aesthetic evaluation of their works.
more needs to be said. In particular, we should want to identify what sort of
factors about an artist's private moral failings contribute to one's
understanding of their work and how such private moral failings are to be
weighed in one's artistic evaluation. While these questions deserve answers, it
is enough for my purposes here to demonstrate how ethicism could be expanded
and therefore close the gap that has been missing from the moral criticism of
and Holt offer three potential objections. In this section, I will show how
expanded ethicism can address those.
Wills and Holt point out that moral saints are "vanishingly rare." If
we pause to look closely enough into the lives of any artist, we will surely
find something morally objectionable. Moreover, it is difficult to know where
to draw the line. It is easy to be morally outraged by artists who sexually
abuse children or physically assault women but, as they say,
…why restrict our judgment to these forms of criminality?
Villon was a thief and inveterate rogue. Nina Simone was a physically and
verbally abusive parent. What about Dostoevsky's addiction to gambling? What
about hard drugs? Are tax cheats, like Willie Nelson, off limits? What
about artists we enjoy but whose biographies we have not yet read? Are we
obligated to investigate their lives for potential crimes against women and
difficulties presented by the need to be thorough are too great. So, their
suggestion is that it is better not to look.
objection has some intuitive appeal—indeed, there are no moral saints—and yet
it poses no real challenge to the view defended here. The point of expanded
ethicism is not to dictate what sort of crimes matter, nor is it to determine
what sort of ethical values one ought to hold. Rather, the point is to defend
the relevance of an artist's private moral failings in the aesthetic evaluation
of their work. Are an artist's moral failings serious enough to warrant a
negative appraisal of their work? That depends on whether the artist's actions
conflict with one's moral values and how strongly they conflict. For some, Nina
Simone's parenting is a turn-off to appreciating her work while others are able
to tolerate and forgive. The example of Willie Nelson is instructive, and is
another example of a counter-morality artist. For many fans, his tax avoidance
adds something positive to his outlaw image. More recently, Willie Nelson has
also emerged as a defender of recreational marijuana use. This, too, is viewed
positively by many of his fans; he has become somewhat of a stoner hero. Are
there some fans who, disappointed by his tax avoidance and drug use, have sworn
off their love of Nelson? Almost certainly. But it is important to recognize
here that the fans who positively appraise Nelson's music because of his
transgressions are themselves drawing on facts from the artist's private life
to evaluate his music, just like those fans who negatively appraise Nelson's
music for the same private acts. Expanded ethicism goes both ways. One may
praise an artist's work because one approves of the artist's private life just
as another may condemn an artist's work because one disapproves.
Wills and Holt argue that the ethical criticism of artists would seem to ignore
the effects of moral luck. They offer the example of many African-American
blues, jazz, and hip hop musicians—people facing oppression as racial
minorities—whose crimes may be the product of living in dire and unjust
circumstances. As they say, "Bourgeois liberal morality, admirable or not,
may well be a luxury people from the underclass can ill afford, and the lives
of many jazz and blues giants surely reflect this pressure" (§2).
Therefore, it seems wrong to negatively judge the quality of their work.
spirit of this objection is admirable. We should certainly recognize the injustice
that drives many to commit petty crimes. But this too is not a reason to reject
expanded ethicism. There are two things to say in reply. First, moral luck is
as much a problem for morality itself as it is a problem for art. Moral luck is
no reason to accept amoralism, and so it is no reason to accept aesthetic
autonomism, either. Insofar as any moral theory must sensitively account for
the effects of moral luck, then so too should any theory of the ethical
criticism of art. Second, the version of ethicism that I defend here is already
sophisticated enough to admit the need for moral sensitivity. When taking into
account an artist's moral transgressions, of course one would also take into
account the circumstances of those transgressions and the degree of moral
responsibility that the artist should be assigned. A work of art is an
aesthetic failure to the extent that the artist's private life is morally
condemnable. For those artists whose moral luck has placed them in an
impossible situation, we should aesthetically condemn the work only to the
extent that we would morally condemn the artist, which in some cases may be not
Wills and Holt observe that many are inconsistent in their judgments. Often we
are willing to condemn some artists for their personal failings while ignoring
the same moral failings in other artists. "Why," they ask, "do
many people who disdain the films of [Leni] Riefenstahl admire those of
[Sergei] Eisenstein when both filmmakers performed comparable services for their
respective tyrants?" (§2).
reply, we should first wonder why this observation offers a reason to reject
the ethical criticism of artists. While it is true that many people are
inconsistent in holding artists morally accountable, it is equally true that
many people are inconsistent in their moral judgments generally. Many of us
employ double-standards, cherry-pick examples, and willfully turn a blind eye
when it suits us. Why should we think such inconsistency poses a special
problem for art? More importantly, however, we should acknowledge that the
inconsistency they draw attention to is not the fault of expanded ethicism.
There is nothing about expanded ethicism as a theory that invites such
inconsistency. The observation that we are often inconsistent should prod us to
aim for better consistency, not to abandon the theory entirely.
back on how I have been trained to evaluate and engage with art, I feel as
though I have been taught to look the other way. And for many years, I did. We
must look the other way for the sake of appreciating the artist's genius. After
all, artists are complex beings. Or so I was told.
don't want to look the other way anymore. Artists are not special, and neither
is their genius. We should regard the moral failings of artists in the same way
that we regard the moral failings of our friends. Sometimes we regard our friends'
moral failings as mere embarrassments or as regrettable stains on an otherwise
brilliant person. At other times, our friends' moral failings are serious
enough to call our friendship into question. We may stand by some friends while
yet feeling the strain of having to do so. At other times, a friend's moral
failings may be so extreme that we denounce them. A friend's sense of humor,
charm, and charisma may be only slightly diminished by his or her possession of
one moral blindspot, or may be revealed as a sinister façade. Our regard for
our friends is informed by our knowledge of their moral actions, and we can do
the same for artists and their works. By expanding Gaut's ethicism, we can
account for the aesthetic relevance of an artist's private moral actions in a
way that is subtle, that neither demands puritanism nor excuses insensitivity.
of Philosophy, Appalachian State University
Bartel's research primarily focuses on music, video games, and the intersection
of aesthetics and ethics.
Published on August 16, 2019.
Author’s note: This essay has benefited
from many commentators. Thanks to Wesley Cray, Derek Matravers, Amy Mullin, Thi
Nguyen, and an anonymous referee for this journal. This essay was presented at
the American Society for Aesthetics Annual Meeting in Seattle, November 2016.
Thanks to the audience there for comments and questions. Finally, special
thanks to James Harold for reading and commenting on multiple versions of this
essay and for his continuous encouragement.
literature on the topic is large. Two excellent collections of essays are Garry
Hagberg, Art and Ethical
Criticism (Malden, MA:
Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and Jerrold Levinson, Aesthetics and Ethics
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). For monographs, see Berys Gaut, Art,
Emotion and Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Elisabeth
Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality (New York: Continuum, 2007).
 Critique of Judgment, §4.
Wills and Jason Holt, "Art by Jerks," Contemporary Aesthetics 15 (2017).
literature here is also vast. For a general introduction, see Carolyn
Korsmeyer, Gender and
Aesthetics: An Introduction
(New York: Routledge, 2004). For an excellent and wide-ranging collection of
essays, see Peggy Z. Brand and Carolyn Korsmeyer, Feminism and Tradition in
Aesthetics (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press,
Gaut, "The Ethical Criticism of Art," in Aesthetics and Ethics, ed. Jerrold Levinson (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 182-203; and Gaut (2007). For criticism,
see Matthew Kieran, "Forbidden Knowledge: The Challenge of
Immoralism," in Art and Morality, eds. Sebastian Gardner and Jose
Luis Bermudez (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 56-73; and A. E. Eaton,
"Robust Immoralism," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
70 (2012), pp. 281-292. For responses to criticisms, see Panos Paris, "The
‘Moralism’ in Immoralism: A Critique of Immoralism in Aesthetics," British
Journal of Aesthetics 59 (2019), pp. 13-33.
MacCarthy, Eric Gill: A
Lover’s Quest for Art and God
(New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988).
Cooke, "Eric Gill: Can We Separate the Artist from the Abuser?" The Guardian, April 9, 2017.
accessed July 9, 2019.
for some of my views on this, see Christopher Bartel, "Free Will and Moral
Responsibility in Video Games," Ethics and Information Technology
17 (2015), pp. 285-293; and Christopher Bartel and Anna Cremaldi, "‘It’s
Just a Story’: Pornography, Desire, and the Ethics of Fictive Imagining," British
Journal of Aesthetics 58 (2018), pp. 37-50.
an overview of autonomism, see Matthew Kieran, "Art, Morality and Ethics:
On the (Im)Moral Character of Art Works and Inter-Relations to Artistic
Value," Philosophy Compass ½ (2006), pp. 129-143. The standard
rejection of autonomism comes from Noel Carroll, "Moderate Moralism,"
British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (1996), pp. 223-238.
"Moderate Moralism," pp. 227-228.
"The Ethical Criticism of Art," 182.
to an anonymous referee for this suggestion and for pushing me to clarify here.
theories of interpretation are most notably defended by Jerrold Levinson
("Intention and Interpretation," in The Pleasures of Aesthetics (Cornell University Press, 1996), pp.
175-213) and Robert Stecker ("Apparent, Implied, and Postulated
Authors," Philosophy and Literature 11 (1987), pp. 258-271).
Wollheim, "Criticism as Retrieval," in Art and Its Objects,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 185-205.
Booth, The Company We
Keep: An Ethics of Fiction
(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988).