Our movies and our morals

Opinion by Iain Espey
March 6, 2017, 12:20 a.m.

To some, the cringeworthy drama at this year’s Oscars (along with – you guessed it – the presidential election) is further proof that we’re living in a simulation. If you’re like me, the whole episode is already fading from view, as like a political goldfish, my memory only lasts around three seconds (or at best a day, if they’re still talking about it on CNN).

In the end, “Moonlight” had its moment. For the first time ever, a gay film with an all-black cast won Best Picture. “Moonlight” didn’t achieve that critical peak just because it was a good movie, but because its exploration of black masculinity and gay love made it an important movie. Hiding in here is a perennially unasked question about the relationship between art and politics, and I’m now about to ask it: What makes important art good?

In “The Baby or the Botticelli,” William Gass argues for the separability of artistic and ethical values through a thought experiment. He asks us to imagine standing at the edge of the Venetian lagoon during a terrific storm, when a baby in a basket and a priceless painting float by us in the current, both being swept out to sea. We can save only one. Which one should it be? The as-of-yet unformed vessel of human consciousness or the irreplaceable cultural artifact with the power to stir souls across centuries?

The scenario is ostensibly meant to illustrate the conflict between art and ethics, and the central question is, when we can’t have both, which matters more? The conflict is artificial, since the basis of both choices turns out to be ethical, but the broader question concerns how different values interact and when and why they may sometimes be incompatible.

What makes a work of art good as art isn’t that you agree with its message or the morals of its creator. Aesthetic accomplishment, Gass claims, in no way depends on moral value. Historically, it’s been the “moralists” rather than the artists who have failed to recognize this fact.

In their time, works like “Madame Bovary,” “Ulysses” and “Howl” all suffered censorship and were deemed offensive to public morality. Caught up in chastising, their critics failed to see past content they found unpalatably transgressive. Yet, clearly bad morals don’t necessarily make art bad. I can read “Lolita” and recognize it as an exceptional novel but still view its narrator’s actions with revulsion.

Then, it must also follow that good morals in no way guarantee good art. As Gass puts it, “Goodness knows nothing of beauty.” The most progressive, inclusive, morally commendable movie imaginable is only good as a movie if it is indeed good as a movie.  

At the same time, it’s naïve to think any art can be considered entirely amoral or apolitical. Ethical concerns are everywhere; even art that self-consciously eschews them still defines itself in relation to morality. What’s more, we consider artworks as art not on account of qualities inherent to them, but because of the contexts in which they present themselves to us. We might very well throw “Brillo Box” in the recycling bin if we didn’t know it was a Warhol. If meaning is made out of context, drawing too clear a division between the aesthetic and the political risks not only denuding our art, but making it meaningless.

So while we shouldn’t judge beauty by the standards of morality, the two are also impossible to fully disentangle. Representation in film is a real problem, but it’s by nature a political one, not aesthetic. Art is both the product of certain social values and a powerful tool for recreating and reinforcing those values. We’d do well to remember that the Academy Awards are little more than a pat on the back from the movie industry to itself, and that aesthetic considerations aren’t the only criteria for winning or losing the Oscar.

I have to wonder what the reaction would have been if the highest honor had gone to “La La Land” instead. After last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, could the Academy have snubbed “Moonlight” in favor of an impossibly straight musical with a mostly white cast and maintained any credibility at all? Extremely doubtful.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about the Oscars having political motivations, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone when a Christian theater in Alabama won’t show the new “Beauty and the Beast” adaptation because it can’t stand the gay subplot (the owner claims he has no business screening films he couldn’t sit through with Jesus or God by his side; somehow, I struggle to believe even Jesus could sit through yet another “Transformers”).

When we ask our art to express some values and not others, we’re all playing the same game, though this is only natural. The only thing tolerance can’t tolerate is intolerance. How’s that for irony?


Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Iain Espey is a senior from Six Mile, South Carolina, majoring in philosophy. He grew up on a dirt road in the backwoods and now he basically lives in Coho. He’s been called wise but also cold. A friend once told him he has “resting anguish face.” In the near future he hopes to teach children, write, and finally get around to ironing his shirts.

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