Saturday, 21 March 2009

Intrinsically Moral

In response to the last comment (see below) asking if art has an intrinsic moral dimension.

Caravaggio, a great painter – yes – with the help of a few mirrors and lenses though! Morally questionable - yes too (there's a very interesting essay on Caravaggio here), but I think it’s important to divorce the work from the maker. However, whilst I might admire his technical abilities, use of paint, light, colour, posture, gesture, etc I could really do without all the religious crap. I’m being unfair - the work was a product of its time and there’s certainly a lot more to it than Christianity, but few people would doubt that there are clear ideological dimension to the content. This is important though because content and maker are clearly different things. Hitler made dull but innocuous landscape paintings but I wouldn’t expect to find clear (if any at all) indications of his ideological leanings in these paintings. They’re pretty “conservative” but you’d be hard pressed to see anything more sinister in them.

But a distinction needs to be made - If I say “the car is blue” (skipping Benjamin Lee Whorf and Saussure for a moment) It’s pretty obvious that there’s very little ideology evident in the statement. However, if I say “motor racing is cool” then it’s possible to infer a number of ideological implications about the statement. By their very nature some statements (including paintings, films, novels etc) are more loaded than others – some deliberately and some involuntarily. Similarly some subjects are more sensitive and complex than others. It seems to me that if you take yourself over to a highly impoverished country and create a lavish spectacle for the consumption of your privileged fellow countrymen etc (Slumdog Millionaire) you’d better be damn sure you understand the complex social intricacies and post colonial attitudes involved.

It’s the same when marking student work. We don’t mark the individual, nor should we. There’s no box for the moral disposition of the maker. True, there’s no box on for the moral disposition of the work either. However, if a student starts making work which we find ethically questionable then I’d hope we’d at least engage them in a discussion about their principles. Last week for instance one of the students was making work which (amongst other more interesting things) peddled that old bullshit myth about the especial closeness of women to nature. (It never fails to amaze me just how many, otherwise intelligent people still cling on to this nonsense – but that’s another story). We had a very interesting discussion about it but there was no way that once I’d picked up on it that I wasn’t going to contest it.

"Artists are not independent socially, economically, ideologically, politically for all it suits some of them to pretend that they are.” Victor Burgin

or George Orwell:

"The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude."


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