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
Gaut's ethicism and
Lamarque's aestheticism. The focus is on tragic narratives, such as
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
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
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
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