Re: RARA-AVIS: Art and Morality

From: Sandra Ruttan (
Date: 23 Feb 2007

On 2/23/07 7:09 PM, "Michael Robison" <> wrote:
> **********
> There are three basic questions being batted around.
> First, can art be moral or immoral? Second, if art
> can be moral, is there an artistic imperative to make
> it so? Third, is morality a required theme in art?
> miker
To cite but two definitions of moral... ³giving guidance on how to behave decently and honorably² or ³good or right, when judged by the standards of the average person or society at large².

Morality is in the eye of the beholder. Can art be moral? It is possible for art to give guidance on how to behave decently and honorably, but again, this is subject to interpretation. The same movie or book that might be considered moral in one part of the world could be considered immoral elsewhere. I mean, is there anything that is universally regarded as immoral? Maybe sexual abuse of a child, but certainly not murder. One man¹s terrorist is another man¹s martyr.

If anyone on the list has been to Dachau, there is a piece of art there. From a distance it looks like a pile of twisted metal. When you get closer you realize it¹s shaped, and what it is is metal formed to look like a pile of skeletons. (You can see the sculpture here: tml - scroll down for close ups). Does it have morality? There is a wall nearby with the words, ³Never Again² listed in five languages.

In the context of the environment the sculpture certainly represents what is good or right by the standards of the average person or society at large. But what if you took the sculpture out of the context? What if it sat in my back yard? Would it then have morality? What if someone formed a similar sculpture and put it at Ground Zero? A monument to some, an offense to others, would be my guess. Would it then depend on who formed it? Would it have different Œmorals¹ if the creator was called John or Ahmed or Ira?

Someone once told me that the author only does part of the work in telling the story. The other part comes from what the reader brings. From page xv of The Flood, ³The Flood became a set text for the university¹s Scottish Literature department. I was invited to sit in on a tutorial, with my identity being kept secret for the first half of the session ­ as far as the students were concerned, I was just a newcomer, albeit one a few years older than them. One student...delivered a paper on the book¹s wasteland imagery; another discussed Old and New Testament themes and borrowings, while a third had made a detailed study of the author¹s use of elements and colours. I started taking notes at one point: it was all good stuff! Even if I had not consciously meant for these patters to exist, I was happy to acknowledge them if readers could see them. (I was a fan of the literary theorist Wolfgang Iser ­ eventually using his name for a Professor in my first Rebus novel. Iser¹s thesis was that it¹s what readers see in books that is more important, not what the writer intended them to see. The name for this is Reader Response Criticism.)² - Ian Rankin

In recent decades we¹ve all heard stories of violent acts, with the perpetrators citing movies, music or video games as instigators. Is Grand Theft Auto evil? Is it moral? Is morality even the point? No, it isn¹t the point. It¹s a game. It¹s purpose is to entertain. It may entertain one person and not another. While one person in 10 billion might claim a song or game or book or movie made them commit murder, the overwhelming majority didn¹t respond that way, so is the song/game/book/movie bad or immoral? As a rule, no. There may always be one or two things I might be willing to make an exception on ­ I personally wasn¹t too keen on those Nazi Gingerbread cookies last Christmas ­ but in and of themselves were they immoral? No.

Now, could they have reflected a moral position? That is, again, a different question, and it supposes we know the intent of the artist. The reason we make horrific mistakes in society is that morality changes over time. Hundreds of years ago when First Nations people were being killed and driven off their lands many applauded such acts. This was government sanctioned for the most part. Now we can¹t apologize enough for the sins of generations long gone. In WWII we locked up Germans and Japanese because of their ancestry... Now we¹re apologizing. A movie made in the 1940s that depicted that as a good thing might then have been considered Œmoral¹. Today, it wouldn¹t be considered moral.

I will admit that when I read my first book that I consider to be hardboiled
(Simon Kernick¹s The Business of Dying) I struggled with one thing: I felt guilty for sympathizing with someone who did things that were immoral. I suspect it was a throwback to my Œchristian¹ programming ­ I was conditioned to judge and label a sin a sin. What made the difference for me was asking a different question: What if I knew someone who worked in a job every day where they saw guilty people get away with their crimes? Could I understand the desire to take the law into their own hands? Yes, I could. From one point of view Milne did things that were immoral. Simplistic thinking would be to say he was a monster, a criminal. From another point of view he was a man with a conscience who sought justice. He was conflicted by the failure of society to put murderers and rapists away. Viewing body after body, seeing lives ripped apart by crimes, is it reasonable to think that some people might wrestle with taking the law into their own hands? Yes, I can understand that dilemma. Milne is not a monster, he¹s human. He just takes things one step further than most people, but it is never about killing for the sake of killing.

I don¹t believe art has any moral imperative. The idea that it should have morality isn¹t far removed from the thinking of those that believe in censorship. Those are people that want all art to have morality, and if it doesn¹t express their morality it shouldn¹t be readily accessible. They¹re willing to set themselves up as the judge of what is acceptable thought and what isn¹t, because they¹re willing to suppress creative output with thinking that differs from their own.

Perhaps one of the best examples of what the reader brings to the equation, and how it can drastically change the interpretation of a book is from a few years ago, when children were phoning in to a radio program to talk about their favourite part of the story Bambi.

One child said his favourite part was when Bambi¹s mother got shot.

Cheers, Sandra

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