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Art and Morality

By mikluhomaklai (Flickr: Miley 12) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Based on Google search hits, we seem to be more interested in the morality of art than real crimes or tragedies. So writes Benjamin Pearson in an interesting piece for Tiny Mix Tapes, who confesses that he spent the year preoccupied with questions like:

Is that one Robin Thicke song rapey? Should white girls like Miley Cyrus be allowed to twerk? Should Lily Allen be allowed to make a video commenting on said white girls who twerk? What is thin privilege, and how can we reconcile it with the fact that most obesity worldwide is in rich countries? Speaking of thin privilege, does Lena Dunham hate black people because there aren’t any in her show? Also, do the lyrics to the new Kanye West album mean that he hates women? And just how, exactly, is Kanye West’s fist like a civil rights sign, and wouldn’t that give some awful splinters?

Pearson suggests that maybe “this imbalance of attention [is] more a product of displacement than disinterest”:

 After all, our interest in media seemed to revolve more around finding offense than it did finding refuge (thankfully, since “having fun” and “escapism” are #privileged, #thingswhitepeoplelike, #firstworldproblems). Gracias a sites like Flavorwire, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, The Atlantic, Salon, and Upworthy (and our devoted patronage of them), the bulk of our discussion about songs, music videos, TV shows, and films — many of which most of us otherwise wouldn’t have even seen — was limited to their ability to be offensive in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.

This hasn’t necessarily been bad for our understanding of race or sexuality, Pearson writes, but it has been bad for art and art criticism: “Miley Cyrus’s twerking probably didn’t hurt race relations in the US, but the endless ‘offense criticism’ it inspired did hurt our relationship with art.”

Pearson goes on to compare Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Cyrus’s twerking, which is a stretch, to say the least. (Just because both performances offended their respective audiences does not mean that they are equally valuable artistically.) But he does point to a difference in how these pieces were viewed:

[U]nlike the audience in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées — who heard about the ballet beforehand, made the journey to the theater, paid for tickets, and waited in line with anticipation — most of us actually have no investment at all in the art that pisses us off.

And neither do critics. Stravinsky’s naysayers were ballet and classical music aficionados, near-comedically well-versed in and obsessed with the minutiae of the form’s history and technical elements. But I’d hazard a guess that most of Cyrus’s internet critics didn’t even know what key her song was in, or otherwise care about her music

Why does this matter? “Without curiosity about, or investment in, what makes art tick,” he writes, “what’s left to say besides surface-level critiques about how art illustrates, or even causes, our most ubiquitous social ills?”

In short, politics has replaced art (with the help, he notes, of slipshod liberal arts courses at American colleges that have long since ceased to study actual works of art and literature in any detail). Abstractions, ready-made (often politically-correct) categories have replaced actual thinking and concrete criticism. This is secular Puritanism at work, and it’s bad for art. Pearson is absolutely right.

At the same time, he goes too far, it seems to me, in divorcing art from morality, and employs a bit of ready-made, deconstructivist mumbo-jumbo himself. The moral outrage approach to art, he writes,

risks reducing audiences’ own interpretive possibilities. If some fans understand Miley Cyrus’s recent output as having a liberating feminist message, who are critics—especially ones who don’t even like Cyrus much anyway—to say they’re wrong? Instead of being suspicious of (and therefore, it’s implied, intellectually superior to) everyday audiences and their tastes, why not start by trying to understand why people like stuff and what it means to them? Sure, art has some meaning contained within it, but even more important is the meaning we construct for it, the way it interacts with the specific contexts of the lives of people who use it.

First of all, the meaning we “construct” from art is not “more important” than the meaning contained in the art—in fact, I am not even sure I know what he means by “more important.” More important for whom? College students construct all sorts of meanings from poems and novels that have little to do with the actual poem or novel, and that meaning is not that important for them, for me, or anyone else.

Second, how is Pearson’s constructivist hermeneutics any more about art—the formal characteristics of the notes, the words, and the movements of particular pieces—than the political approach he rightly calls to task? Maybe I am misunderstanding him, but it’s as if in rightly rejecting a merely political approach to art he espouses one that is merely personal.

He’s right that critics “should ditch their hermeneutics of suspicion about popular art,” but they shouldn’t be too trusting either.

(HT: Jordan Bloom)

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University. Follow him on Twitter.

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