View Full Version : Can wrong ideas in a work of art make it have less artistic merit?


Lone Wolf
Mar 17, 2010, 10:21 AM
Inspired by luiz' post in the Off-Topic thread about "Gone with the Wind"'s racism:

A book can be excellent while also spousing wrong ideas... what's so shocking about this? I am not saying GwtW is excellent, it is not my favourite kind of book by a long shot, but its racism is completely irrelevant to the merits of the book. Even if it was more racist than one would expect from its time and location (which I don't think is true), that would still mean nothing as far as literary merit goes.

So, do you think that espousing "wrong" ideas distracts from a work's literary merit, and if yes, to what extent? Of course, there's a question of what ideas are "wrong" in the first place.

Mise
Mar 17, 2010, 10:54 AM
It's hard to find literary merit in a work that lacks intellectual integrity.

P.S. I'm not talking specifically about GwtW because I've never read it.....

Lone Wolf
Mar 17, 2010, 11:00 AM
P.S. I'm not talking specifically about GwtW because I've never read it.....

Good. I don't want the topic to revolve around GWTW, I just used it as an example.

Fifty
Mar 17, 2010, 11:10 AM
Can it? Of course (see anything by Ayn Rand). Does it always? Of course not (see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).

luiz
Mar 17, 2010, 12:45 PM
Can it? Of course (see anything by Ayn Rand). Does it always? Of course not (see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).

But would you say that what makes Rand's books bad literature are the values they spouse, and not their actual artistic merits?

I can't say I agree with that postion (not talking about Rand in particular because I never read her). If one manages to make quality literature while also promoting morally questionable ideas, fact remains it is a quality work of literature.

For instance, Pablo Neruda was a Stalinist, he wrote several poems in praise of the dictator, and in fact much of his work is morally repugnant, at least to me. But he is still a great poet, perhaps the greatest of his generation, and I recognise that entirely.

Dida
Mar 17, 2010, 01:56 PM
What would the world think of a romantic novel about dashing German SS officers and a beautiful blonde "maidchen" cavorting charmingly before concentration camp slaves? All the while glorifying Hitler and his 3rd Reich? Critics would be up in arms. Such a novel would fall into disrepute and no one would claim it to be a great work of literature, even if it was well-written. For an artistic expression is devoid of spirit and merit if it lacks moral integrity, no matter how well done the expression is.

luiz
Mar 17, 2010, 05:37 PM
What would the world think of a romantic novel about dashing German SS officers and a beautiful blonde "maidchen" cavorting charmingly before concentration camp slaves? All the while glorifying Hitler and his 3rd Reich? Critics would be up in arms. Such a novel would fall into disrepute and no one would claim it to be a great work of literature, even if it was well-written. For an artistic expression is devoid of spirit and merit if it lacks moral integrity, no matter how well done the expression is.

Critics like "Triumph of the Will".

scherbchen
Mar 17, 2010, 05:44 PM
Does it always? Of course not (see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).

huh. that is actually a great point.

Eran of Arcadia
Mar 17, 2010, 06:06 PM
Birth of a Nation is considered a milestone in modern cinematics, isn't it?

Camikaze
Mar 17, 2010, 06:33 PM
What's the different between artistic merit and entertainment/educational value? Because if your definition of artistic merit is based upon how well a text can achieve its purpose (which for the most part in art is entertainment or some form of education (I'd put something that makes you think in this category)), then wrong ideas can very well damage that artistic merit, given that it will possibly diminish from the achievement of the book's purpose. For instance, if I'm reading a book full of racist ideas, I'm probably not going to be all that entertained. So artistic merit is lost in the fact that the author would have been unsuccessful in that attempt to entertain me.

scherbchen
Mar 17, 2010, 07:05 PM
well as perfection has pointed out, what we perceive as beauftiful does not necessarily coincide with what we think of as "right". a lot easier to do that with visual arts, most notably paintings and sculptures, and even easier with works of art that are very distant from our time or hot topics. hardly anybody believes in a parthenon anymore but greek or roman statues of said plethora of gods are surely beautiful to many even though they come from a, by now, "heretic" world and pov.

it is a lot harder to see what is basically the same thing once you are confronted with a narrative and are expected to root/feel for the hero/heroine/main character or are supposed to vilify the antagonist but it is still the same thing, I believe. once you get to the point where you detach yourself from "the message" or from the pov of the author you should be able to see the skill with which it has been put forth. if you can't do that for some reason, and sometimes it is hard to do so if it strikes a topic very close to your personal interests, you might very well comment on the content but not on the artistic merit of it.

Nazis have already been brought up in this thread so I'll mention an exhibition called Entartete Kunst which was quite popular in the 30s around here. it was supposed to show you how vile and corrupt and unnatural certain artists, their people, and their heritage were. vile stuff like Picasso. huge success. because people wanted to see the art. not the message.

Traitorfish
Mar 17, 2010, 08:16 PM
A work may be comprised entirely of "wrong" ideas, and still be art; "art" lies in the communication of content, not in the content itself. I would hold an impassioned, inspired, yet morally despicable work to be of far greater artistic value than something turgid, derivative, but socially acceptable.

Fifty
Mar 17, 2010, 10:27 PM
But would you say that what makes Rand's books bad literature are the values they spouse, and not their actual artistic merits?

Good point. I guess the situation in which the author's views negatively affect the artistic merit is when the author is hitting you over the head with their views so much that it makes it a bad work of art. Of course, an author with morally or factually correct views can make a bad work of art by hitting you over the head with them too, so I guess its not the bad views as such that are decreasing the artistic merit of the work. It is, though, a bit more annoying to see wrong views espoused badly than correct views espoused badly.

So maybe the only situation where wrong views qua their wrongness can make a work of art have less artistic merit is that wrong views are a big more obnoxious when espoused with badly. So wrong views can't make a good work of art bad, but they can make a bad work of art a bit worse.

Lord Baal
Mar 18, 2010, 03:38 AM
I tend to agree with luiz on this. He mentioned Triumph of the Will, which I was going to do myself, an absolutely brilliant piece of art, which is also morally repugnant. Having wrong or immoral views in a work of art, especially in a narrative medium such as a novel or film, can certainly makes it much harder to react in the manner in which the author wants you to, but it doesn't necessarily make it bad art. More bad business-sense from the author. ;)

it is a lot harder to see what is basically the same thing once you are confronted with a narrative and are expected to root/feel for the hero/heroine/main character or are supposed to vilify the antagonist but it is still the same thing, I believe. once you get to the point where you detach yourself from "the message" or from the pov of the author you should be able to see the skill with which it has been put forth. if you can't do that for some reason, and sometimes it is hard to do so if it strikes a topic very close to your personal interests, you might very well comment on the content but not on the artistic merit of it.
Yes, pretty much what I was saying above.

Nazis have already been brought up in this thread so I'll mention an exhibition called Entartete Kunst which was quite popular in the 30s around here. it was supposed to show you how vile and corrupt and unnatural certain artists, their people, and their heritage were. vile stuff like Picasso. huge success. because people wanted to see the art. not the message.
I was just reading about this the day before yesterday. "The Exhibition of Degenerate Art." I must point out though that many people did go to the exhibition, and others like it, for the ideological reason of seeing terrible art so they could recognise it in the future. Still, the vast majority were interested viewers, as you described.

A work may be comprised entirely of "wrong" ideas, and still be art; "art" lies in the communication of content, not in the content itself. I would hold an impassioned, inspired, yet morally despicable work to be of far greater artistic value than something turgid, derivative, but socially acceptable.
Also this.

luiz
Mar 18, 2010, 06:22 AM
What's the different between artistic merit and entertainment/educational value? Because if your definition of artistic merit is based upon how well a text can achieve its purpose (which for the most part in art is entertainment or some form of education (I'd put something that makes you think in this category)), then wrong ideas can very well damage that artistic merit, given that it will possibly diminish from the achievement of the book's purpose. For instance, if I'm reading a book full of racist ideas, I'm probably not going to be all that entertained. So artistic merit is lost in the fact that the author would have been unsuccessful in that attempt to entertain me.

The purpose of art is generally not to educate. Engagé art is usually boring (with the exceptions that prove the rule).

I don't want to be rude, but if you can't be entertained by a book or movie just because it contains ideas you find wrong, that's probably a sign of intellectual mediocrity.

Plotinus
Mar 18, 2010, 06:29 AM
Surely it depends entirely upon whether you think that the value of a work of art involves, or is otherwise connected to, its moral values. If you think it is, then expressing poor moral values will devalue it as art. If you think it isn't, then having poor moral values will be irrelevant.

I think that it probably varies depending on the form we're talking about. Take two examples expressing opposite extremes. First, sermons. A sermon is supposed to teach some worthy moral lesson. A sermon that expresses immoral views is simply a bad sermon. A sermon that expresses moral ones may not be a very good sermon, but other things being equal, it is better as a sermon than one that expresses immoral ones. So in the case of sermons, the morality of the views expressed will affect their value as art. Second, jokes. A joke is supposed to be funny. This has nothing to do with morality. It's possible to have a joke which expresses repugnant moral views, but which is nevertheless funny - just as it is possible to have one with repugnant moral views that is not funny. And conversely, jokes that express no moral views, or positive ones, may or may not be funny. Humour has got nothing to do with morality. In this case, then, it seems that the moral views expressed by the joke are irrelevant to how good it is as a joke (although of course we may think that a joke expressing repugnant moral views is bad as a thing to say rather than as a joke).

I'd say that most art probably comes somewhere between these two extremes; we value it, to some extent, for the ideas it expresses, not simply for how it expresses them - but not exclusively for the ideas it expresses. So if it's expressing ones we consider immoral, we would probably think less of it as art for that reason, but not entirely.

Of course things start getting tricky when the immoral views are expressed by the author of the art but not found in the art itself. Should we revise our attitude to Hume's Treatise of human nature in light of the author's startling racism, for example, even though it is not found in that book? Should we refuse to read Lovecraft for the same reason, even his inoffensive writings? That's a whole other question.

holy king
Mar 18, 2010, 06:33 AM
good art doesnt show wrong ideas, because it doesnt show any ideas at all.
good art lets you draw your own conlcusions and ideas.

Camikaze
Mar 18, 2010, 06:37 AM
The purpose of art is generally not to educate. Engagé art is usually boring (with the exceptions that prove the rule).

I don't want to be rude, but if you can't be entertained by a book or movie just because it contains ideas you find wrong, that's probably a sign of intellectual mediocrity.

So would you not say that entertainment can be diminished due to the prevalence of ideas that are morally repugnant? I mean, sure, it's certainly not the sole defining criteria, but I would think it at least impacts on the entertainment value.

Mise
Mar 18, 2010, 06:38 AM
I don't want to be rude, but if you can't be entertained by a book or movie just because it contains ideas you find wrong, that's probably a sign of intellectual mediocrity.
What? I don't see the connection between intellectual mediocrity and the entertainment value of morally objectionable art...

Mise
Mar 18, 2010, 06:44 AM
So would you not say that entertainment can be diminished due to the prevalence of ideas that are morally repugnant? I mean, sure, it's certainly not the sole defining criteria, but I would think it at least impacts on the entertainment value.
Yes, exactly. And it need not be "morally repugnant" - it could simply be something that distracts your attention from the actual art. For example, I found Tolstoy's Anna Karenina an absolutely beautiful piece of art -- but the last 100 pages or so, after Anna dies, which describes Levin's spiritual/religious reawakening, I found terribly tedious. I suspect, however, that someone who underwent a similar experience themselves would more be able to relate to and appreciate the final parts of the story. But for me, I didn't like it because I'm not religious - it didn't mesh with my own views, and I found it difficult to immerse myself in that world as a result.

It's even more difficult to relate to a book or character who holds views and opinions that you find explicitly immoral. Imagine a devout Christian trying to enjoy a book about a young man's first homosexual experience. That's not to say that those kinds of views always diminish its entertainment value, just that they can...

holy king
Mar 18, 2010, 06:47 AM
if you cant enjoy something because the acts merely described are morally repugnant to you it's your own problem, not the artists.
it certainly doesnt take away from the "objective" merit, should something like that exist.

Camikaze
Mar 18, 2010, 07:01 AM
There's a difference between wrong ideas being described and wrong ideas being promoted, though. A text can be more interesting if it delves into describing wrong ideas, and various things related to those wrong ideas, but if the text is actually promoting those wrong ideas, then the content isn't exactly going to be agreeable. And if it's not agreeable, then you're less likely to find it enjoyable or entertaining. Which means the author will have most likely failed in their goal, which would indicate that the artistic merit has been lessened.

holy king
Mar 18, 2010, 07:07 AM
as i said before a text promoting ideas isnt a good work of art anyway, since good art by definition lets you develop your own ideas.

Plotinus
Mar 18, 2010, 07:50 AM
It's even more difficult to relate to a book or character who holds views and opinions that you find explicitly immoral. Imagine a devout Christian trying to enjoy a book about a young man's first homosexual experience. That's not to say that those kinds of views always diminish its entertainment value, just that they can...

I agree with your point, but off-topic, don't make the mistake of assuming that all devout Christians hold anti-gay opinions.

as i said before a text promoting ideas isnt a good work of art anyway, since good art by definition lets you develop your own ideas.

This is a false dichotomy. What if the work presents you with certain ideas that make you better equipped for forming your own ideas? It may, for example, educate you about some particular field (which would involve giving you lots of ideas) with the aim of putting you in a position where you can develop your own ideas about that field in an informed way.

Alternatively, a work of art might present you with certain ideas, perhaps forcefully, with the intention of forcing you to agree or disagree with them. So there again its aim is to let you develop your own ideas, using the ideas it gives you as a foil.

luiz
Mar 18, 2010, 08:31 AM
What? I don't see the connection between intellectual mediocrity and the entertainment value of morally objectionable art...

If you can't apreciate a good book because you think it is imoral, you're probably not that bright.

luiz
Mar 18, 2010, 08:34 AM
if you cant enjoy something because the acts merely described are morally repugnant to you it's your own problem, not the artists.
it certainly doesnt take away from the "objective" merit, should something like that exist.

Exactly! We're discussing the artistic merits of art, and I don't think it is diminished by the morals of the author.

aelf
Mar 18, 2010, 09:26 AM
good art doesnt show wrong ideas, because it doesnt show any ideas at all.
good art lets you draw your own conlcusions and ideas.

Can I give you a personalised blank canvas for your wedding then? :D

Yeekim
Mar 18, 2010, 09:42 AM
It's even more difficult to relate to a book or character who holds views and opinions that you find explicitly immoral. Imagine a devout Christian trying to enjoy a book about a young man's first homosexual experience. That's not to say that those kinds of views always diminish its entertainment value, just that they can...
That would mean that the reader has a subjective issue with that particular book, not that the book objectively has less artistic merit...

luiz
Mar 18, 2010, 09:49 AM
This is a false dichotomy. What if the work presents you with certain ideas that make you better equipped for forming your own ideas? It may, for example, educate you about some particular field (which would involve giving you lots of ideas) with the aim of putting you in a position where you can develop your own ideas about that field in an informed way.

Alternatively, a work of art might present you with certain ideas, perhaps forcefully, with the intention of forcing you to agree or disagree with them. So there again its aim is to let you develop your own ideas, using the ideas it gives you as a foil.

But I wouldn't consider pamphelts or sermons to be works of art to begin with. Even a philosophical treaty is not art in my opinion (though of course works of art can have philosophical undertones).

Mise
Mar 18, 2010, 10:00 AM
If you can't apreciate a good book because you think it is imoral, you're probably not that bright.
You just said the same thing in different words.
That would mean that the reader has a subjective issue with that particular book, not that the book objectively has less artistic merit...
Or the reader has an issue with the book because it objectively has less artistic merit. Same goes to HK.

Plotinus
Mar 18, 2010, 10:31 AM
But I wouldn't consider pamphelts or sermons to be works of art to begin with. Even a philosophical treaty is not art in my opinion (though of course works of art can have philosophical undertones).

Why not?

(Also, I don't see how that addresses my comment that you quoted, although it might address another of my comments earlier.)

luiz
Mar 18, 2010, 11:09 AM
Why not?

Because that would be an extremely broad definition of art that I can't agree with. Sermons and pamphlets have a practical purpose. They may be well written, but so can an internal memo from a corporation, and nobody considers those to be art.

As for philosophy treaties, they're supposed to be scientific, and thus not art. I understand that's subjective and debatable, but I wouldn't call a treaty on philosophy an art form for the same reason I would not call a historical article or a book on physics.

In the things mentioned above, the content is the important factor, hence if the content is any way wrong (be it morally or objectively), value is lost. This is not the same with actual art forms such as paintings, literary pieces, music or movies.


(Also, I don't see how that addresses my comment that you quoted, although it might address another of my comments earlier.)
Well you were talking of educating and forcing ideas, which IMO is more coherent with sermons and pamphlets than art. And you did mention sermons earlier.

Plotinus
Mar 18, 2010, 11:33 AM
Because that would be an extremely broad definition of art that I can't agree with. Sermons and pamphlets have a practical purpose. They may be well written, but so can an internal memo from a corporation, and nobody considers those to be art.

But just because something has a practical function, that doesn't mean it can't be art. We've had this in another thread already. This definition would rule out all architecture as art, for example. But surely any definition of "art" which precludes (say) a cathedral is a poor definition.

Moreover, what of art works such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Religious art such as that is intended to convey ideas to the viewer. It is not just art for art's sake. If having a practical purpose means something can't be art, then pretty much all religious art isn't art.

And we can say the same thing about the written or spoken word too. Isn't this art?:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar ... The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it ...
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,
(For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all; all honourable men)
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral ...
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man….
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

And yet that's serving all kinds of purposes. As a quote from Julius Caesar, it is intended to entertain the audience, perhaps surprise or shock them. As a speech delivered by Mark Antony, it is intended to convey information to the crowd and, more importantly, turn them against Brutus and his co-conspirators in a subtle way without actually denouncing them. It is rhetoric, and rhetoric is the artful use of language to convey ideas and emotions to the listener in a not always rational way.

But if a speech like that can be art, then why preclude sermons? Aren't they just exactly the same thing, but with a religious rather than a political purpose? Or at least they can be. Many preachers have used rhetoric just as artfully as any secular rhetorician. John Chrysostom was given that title - meaning "golden mouthed" - because of his ability to speak so beautifully; the title was occasionally given to great speakers, such as Dio Chrysostom. I defy anyone to read his sermons, or those of Gregory of Nazianzus, or of Basil of Caesarea, or of Augustine of Hippo, and say that these are not art simply because they are intended to convey ideas or convince the listener. On the contrary, they seek to do this through the skillful use of art.

As for philosophy treaties, they're supposed to be scientific, and thus not art. I understand that's subjective and debatable, but I wouldn't call a treaty on philosophy an art form for the same reason I would not call a historical article or a book on physics.

Well, again, it's incumbent upon you to say why something that is "scientific" must, by definition, not be "art". What about the writings of Jacques Derrida, which seek to convey philosophical ideas through literary form? (I'll pass over the question whether Derrida really counts as a philosopher or not, since that's to do with the nature and worth of his ideas, not with the form in which he chooses to convey them.) Or take Plato's dialogues. Pretty much everyone agrees that these count as literature quite apart from their philosophical content, because of the charm and art with which they are written. Indeed, in antiquity they would probably have been read out loud by servants for the benefit of the master; there is thus a very fine line between these works of philosophy and full-blown performance art such as the work of the ancient Greek dramatists. Isn't it rather arbitrary to say that one text counts as art but another doesn't, just because it contains cognitive reasoning?

Well you were talking of educating and forcing ideas, which IMO is more coherent with sermons and pamphlets than art.

But any art form can convey ideas. It doesn't have to do so in a discursive fashion. Isn't Paradise lost full of ideas and claims? Isn't it intended to make the reader think about these ideas? And isn't the Sistine Chapel ceiling also full of ideas which are intended to make the viewer think?

luiz
Mar 18, 2010, 01:59 PM
Plotinus, those are all good points. And indeed, thinking about it, things can be artistic and scientific at the same time. But surely we have to draw a line somewhere; I wouldn't call the mathematical proof of a theorem "art" no matter how elegant it is.

More on topic, you mentioned several sermons and works of philosophy that do count as art. Well, in their cases I would say that if they are indeed quality art than even if the morality behind them is wrong, they would still have artistic value. OTOH, a sermon that has no artistic value and pushes forward a wrong morality has no value whatsoever. In other words, the morality may have an effect over the practical value of such things, but if they have independent artistic value, than said value remains even if we are repulsed by the morals behind the work. Or at least that's my opinion.

Traitorfish
Mar 19, 2010, 06:54 PM
Surely it depends entirely upon whether you think that the value of a work of art involves, or is otherwise connected to, its moral values. If you think it is, then expressing poor moral values will devalue it as art. If you think it isn't, then having poor moral values will be irrelevant.
But that itself is subjective, surely, and so a practical, rather than artistic judgement; it reflects content, rather than the form that the content is given. A Roman Catholic priest could deliver an eloquent sermon upon some element of Catholic doctrine which is held righteous by Catholics and abhorrent by Presbyterians; which, then, is right in their judgement of the sermon's artistic work? A "good" sermon, I would've thought is that which is effective in communicating it's message, not that which is held by ourselves, as individuals, to be moral.

Plotinus, those are all good points. And indeed, thinking about it, things can be artistic and scientific at the same time. But surely we have to draw a line somewhere; I wouldn't call the mathematical proof of a theorem "art" no matter how elegant it is.
This, to me, represents the flaw in that line of thought; the assumption that art is a title bestowed upon a certain portion of a gradient, something of prestige, and not merely a descriptor of nature. Art is communication itself; the volume or nature of content is as irrelevant to this as it's moral standing.