Kieran on Artistic Value

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of Kieran's "Art, Morality, and Ethics" 
My personal comments are in red.

The essay is an alternative to both Gaut's ethicism and Lamarque's aestheticism. The focus is on tragic narratives, such as King Lear.

The novel idea is immoralism: immoral attitudes can improve an artwork.

First, consider how moral elements contribute to art. There is a cognitive focus, and a non-cognitive focus.

  • Works of fiction have a cognitive dimension and they are instructive. They can be instructive in relation to their moral dimension. (So far, everyone except the extreme aestheticist agrees! So who is an extreme aestheticist? Oscar Wilde, for one.)

    Instruction is a matter of understanding, which is not always a matter of truth. Art can allow us to understand the belief system of a culture (to understand Medieval art, you must understand Christianity; to understand some Japanese art, you must understand Buddhism, etc.). But you don't have to think that the values are correct in order to profit from this understanding.

  • If we emphasize art's expressive dimension, and the emotional response of the audience, then responding to a work's moral elements will be important to generate these responses.

Either way, the moral aspects of a work are relevant to its value.

KEY QUESTION: Does this position require us to say that moral goodness improves a work? And that morally bad attitudes are defects? From the perspective of either goal, immoral elements could get us to the goal just as well as morally good ones.

Art isn't real life. The standards that apply to a real behavior are not the standards for characters in an artwork. However, THIS premise needs explaining.

  • The simplistic response is that we respond differently because we know it isn't real: it's fiction. But so what? Is this an awareness that we can't do anything about it? If so, then we should have the same kind of response to non-fiction about past events. It's equally "removed" from us.

  • More likely: we are always aware, with art, that we expect artistic "payoff," and we will accept immoral elements if we believe they'll contribute to that payoff. (This position is close to aestheticism.)

  • A more cognitive position would say that we can learn from observing immoral situations and characters, and therefore immoral elements can contribute positively to the overall value.

By any standard, it seems that introducing immorality into a work does not, to that degree, reduce its value.

OBJECTION: Isn't this an approval of a morally objectionable means? (The ends don't justify the means!)

This objection is less serious on the cognitivist view, for there it seems that the goal of understanding something is really the only measure..

                        Last updated April 18, 2011 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk