The Boundaries of Art

A couple of months ago a friend of mine sent an image on a Whatsapp group chat. It was an unclad postured woman, with what was left of her modesty obscured by midst. The question he asked was whether it as acceptable as art or not. It started an interesting conversation regarding art. All sorts of things are done in the name of art and we are told that is the nature of the medium. As long as you slap on the label of the freedom of artistic impression it is immediately excused. Where did this idea come from and is it even valid?

This notion is more prevalent in Western cultures than in any other part of the world. We must therefore look into the history of the development of Western thinking to better understand this. During the Enlightenment Era many advances in the sciences, mathematics and philosophy had emerged in Europe. Due to the successes in such fields it produced a cultural mood that shone an artificially bright light on facts and empirical data. This attitude of modernity can accurately be represented by Scottish philosopher David Hume who said,

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

What is ironic about this statement is that it does not meet its own requirements. It cannot be empirically proven by experimentation so it too must be committed to the flames. Perhaps it will be used to fuel a friendly family fire that protects it companions, keeping at bay the cold harsh elements outside. My statement is itself an allegory of the shifting sentiments in that period. The philosophical and practical failings of unchecked rationalism, where everything had to be proven scientifically, fuelled a reaction in the arts called Romanticism. The chief complaint was that some of the most important things in life, like falling in love or enjoying the breeze, do not yield to clinical examination. Our most important relationship, the ones that define us like friends and family, cannot be empirically proven to be useful yet deep within our hearts we know that they absolutely are.

Romanticism emphasized the expression of personal emotions and natural scenery as the guiding aesthetic of art. A focus on pathos over reason and nature over technology was an obvious counter to the ideals of the austere empiricism of that era. Now it began more or less as a literary movement. The Romantic period produced some of the finest poets in the English language like Williams Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats and William Blake. It was not only in the literary arts but in painting, politics, philosophy among other things, was its impact felt. German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, who is considered by many critics as one of the best representatives of his era said,

The artist’s feeling is his law. Genuine feeling can never be contrary to nature; it is always in harmony with her. But another person’s feelings should never be imposed on us as law. Spiritual affinity leads to similarity in work, but such affinity is something entirely different from mimicry. Whatever people may say of Y’s paintings and how they often resemble Z’s, yet they proceed from Y and are his sole property.

The artist’s feeling is his law, this all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Here we can see the idea clearly represented and articulated, that artistic expression should be solely guided by what the artist feels like doing, by whatever inspiration that seizes him. Since nature is good, expressing emotions which are also natural, is a good thing as well. He then goes on to say these expressions are natural and so no one can take or alter nature since it is simply the way things are. Therefore it follows that someone else cannot tell you how to naturally express yourself. In other words you should do you and no one can tell you otherwise. Rationalism had an effect on moral reasoning. Likewise the reaction against it, Romanticism also had a profound effect on ethics. What Friedrich expressed was not only a philosophy of art but the potential seeds for an ethical system as well.

In Western society many commentators have described what some call the “Hume hangover” where what science, or more accurately scientists say, is supposedly true and the rule for life. Likewise they are still reeling in the morning after of Caspar stupor of where the ultimate goal is to please yourself. Sometimes it is said in the most innocent of ways, “Do whatever makes you feel happy.” This spirit of individualism is so strong in the West. However, this kind of value system like Hume’s claims of sophistry is equally flammable. Satirist Steve Turner in his poem Creed writes,

We believe everything is OK

as long as you don’t hurt anyone,

to the best of your definition of hurt,

and to the best of your knowledge.

It is clear that is no way for us to coexist. Before we get completely side by tracked the broader ethical issues which go beyond the scope of this discussion, let’s return to our original dilemma – Is all art acceptable?

I am fairly confident that Caspar David Friedrich or other Romantic poets was not trying to develop a self-serving ethical system. He was probably just expressing his sentiments on how to be a good artist. Many Romantic artists, like one of my favourite poets Williams Blake, was a devout Christian and certainly would not have preached do whatever comes to you naturally in life. What the Romantics did show us is that art cannot be completely divorced from questions about right and wrong.

Science for instance claimed to have clean stainless steel objectivity. But as historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn clearly demonstrated, science is done by scientists, a community of people who have subjective aims and personal agendas, and are dominated by certain popular moods and ideas. Likewise, we must not make the mistake that art is purely subjective and has no real word concerns or consequences. (Pure objectivity and pure subjectivity are in fact themselves 18th century rationalist myths.) Art as a medium could be conceived as amoral but its practitioners definitely aren’t. The art of painting is arguably neither good nor bad. However the painter is a person who is capable of doing good or evil. We therefore cannot think all artistic impression is implicitly benign. Art like any tool, like a simple knife or as complex as the internet, can be used to do evil even if the original intent behind its creation was good.

There is an important relationship between aesthetics and ethics. They both make meaningful value judgments about the same world we inhabit, albeit with different but often overlapping concerns. These judgements have real world consequences influencing human behaviour. So how do we judge art? First of all we must make no mistake, just because something is art does not make it acceptable. We all love skilfully done artwork executed with high technical proficiency but that must not be our only concern.

I remember a story I saw on the BBC world news service a few years ago. Joint forces in Afghanistan came across a former Taliban nursery. Across its derelict, bullet marked walls were paintings depicting the Paradise valiant jihadists would inherit by violently destroying their enemies no matter the cost. Let’s for a moment imagine that this haunting mural was transported on tour in high art galleries in Paris, London, and New York. On seeing this new provocative piece the curator promptly takes out his monocle, draws near the effigy and starts examining it with silent scrutiny. After a short while he begins to murmur in agreement to himself. He straightens up slowly with a beaming smile of satisfaction on his face. He then begins a happy monologue praising the brilliance of the composition, the subtle use of various hues, the ingenious perspective, carrying on and on with various personal anecdotes to his nearby colleagues. Most people would be shocked, as you undoubtedly are, by the fact that little toddlers like your child, sibling, nephew or niece, were being indoctrinated with the ultimate life goal of being suicide bombers. You would also be shocked that the overall message of unyielding hatred and unfeeling violence was completely ignored by the professor of art and you would promptly conclude there was something very wrong with him. Even though the painting was of heavenly bliss it was as heinous and despicable as hell.

The parable above illustrates not only the folly but the danger of ever thinking all art is justifiable. What is even scarier is that there are many intelligent people who are lecturers at top universities and contributors to popular websites, who help goad the public to support anything in the name of art. Some types of art or artistic expression are simply not everybody’s cup of tea. However, we should not use the guise of personal preference to excuse all sorts of things. If we simply relegate everything to personal preference then the Taliban might as well continue with their fine artistic work.

What the Taliban did is an example of the pervasive power of art. Unlike science and logic that must come through the front door of reasoning, art sneaks into our minds through the back door of the imagination. It does not only affect our mood or sway our sentiments.  It can capture the anthem and the spirit of a generation like Hip Hop, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and old Negro spirituals did. Tyrants have been influenced by artfully crafted works but have also feared and resisted artfully crafted works. This is because it carries a message which can contain the explosive power of an entire ideological universe. Art is a powerful tool and like all tools of power there are questions of responsibility we must address. Just because you can do something does not mean you should do it. Also just because you have exercised you right to do something does not make what you have done valid or acceptable. When we here phrases like, “free artistic impression” we must always remember that freedom, like its oft forgotten companion responsibility is not unlimited.

Aesthetics cannot be left to personal preference alone but what sort of ethic should help guide it? Artistic expression is as varied as the range of human activities. We therefore can’t create a simple rule book of do’s and don’ts for artists. Life is far more complex and interesting. If we can understand some fundamentals of art we can tease out some sort of moral considerations for it. In Basic Art I explained that art at its core is story telling. Even though technical ability is important the most important thing about both doing and appreciating art is recognising the story that is being told. We need to be aware of the message that is being communicated through it. It is at this level of the story, and the worldview that it implicitly carries, that we are to judge art. We must ask, what is this piece of art saying about the world and the way it ought to be, and is it even true? This is to say art must be guided by moral truth.

Art communicates a message between the artist and his audience. Since artistic expression does have a moral component both the artist and the audience have a moral responsibility towards it. Now this moral responsibility is not a private one in the sense that it is totally subject to personal views. There is a sense of public responsibility because art is done in the public domain. By public I mean art is a form of expression therefore it is open to inspection, that is, it can perceived by someone other than the artist. The responsibilities of the artist and the audience obviously differ. However, as a public activity each has a role to play in judging art.

The arts are a powerful medium that are capable of influencing our perceptions, provoking public discussion and challenging our worldviews. As a public medium we must not shy away from the moral and ethical questions it raises. This is very pertinent in today’s world where access to artistic content has never been so easy and abundant. Hundreds of sounds and images bombarding the average person on a daily basis. The freedom of expression in all its myriad forms, including the arts, like any wilful act has consequences. As such we have a moral duty to use and enjoy the arts responsibly and not leave it hostage to unchallenged personal sentiments.

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