Without knowing first what art is, we will not be able to tell what good is art. Having studied several different definitions of art, I am most satisfied with Tolstoy’s definition of art from his essay “What is Art?” (pckt pg.21). According to Tolstoy, art is a form of communication, a vehicle which the artist can use to communicate his feelings and emotion; it is a “means of intercourse between man and man” (pckt pg. 23). Tolstoy’s definition of art is hardly based on the beauty of the work, rather he focuses on the communicative qualities of the work namely, infectiousness, clarity and sincerity. Thus, any piece of work displaying all the three conditions in any varying degree, is considered a work of art. The quality of a work of art is determined by the degree to which it is sincere, clear and infectious. Using Tolstoy’s given definition of art my essay attempts to discuss what art is good for, mainly with respect to ethics.
My stand on art is that it can be both for good and for bad when it comes to the question of ethics. For example, literature as art can act in both ways, which way it goes depends on both the writer and reader. Literature, since it’s inception has always been a form of communication, and good literature be it the prose of Trollope, poems of Blake, the plays of Shakespeare or even political propaganda has always had the sincerity of its creator. Throughout history, literature has been able to bring a social, or moral message to the people. And good literature has always been infectious, at times even igniting reform and revolution. Without a doubt, literature brings to the reader or audience a circumstance we are unable to experience in real life and thus raise moral or social concerns. From Swift’s satirical “Gulliver’s Travels” which poked fun at the social mores of his time, to the fiction of Dickens whose plea for reform did not go unheard and pushed a program for reformation into action. Yet literature with its power to move masses can also go bad, for instance, the misinterpretation of Marxist theories led to the regime of suffering and terror we know as Communism. Art, as Tolstoy has described, is infectious, sincere and clear, qualities that make it extremely accessible to the masses, and given its infectious nature, art as a form of expression and communication can fuel changes or destroy whole societies.
“The experience of art is more easily degraded…” (book pg.199) says Murdoch in her essay “The Sovereignty of Good”. Murdoch substantiates Tolstoy’s claim that art is communicative when she describes it as a “human product” that is easily comprehended or “degraded”. Murdoch’s main argument is that moral ethics and virtues are in fact connected to Beauty in Art, or in Nature.(book pg. 198) Her argument is based on two assumptions; namely, that humans are all selfish and that there is no external reason for human life. In view of her assumptions, it follows that whatever makes us less selfish or more objective is virtuous. And beauty be it in Nature or Art, has the ability to make us indulge in “self-forgetful pleasure” (book pg. 198) thus making us less selfish and more objective. Beauty in Art is “more edifying” (book pg.199) since it is a human product; and even more so when we are talking about representational art like literature or paintings. (book pg.199) She claims art to be “concerned with morality”, and that it presents to us what we would be too timid or selfish to discover on our own. Good art is a demonstration of the difficulty of being objective and is a “place in which the nature of morality can be seen.” (book pg.200) In other words, art is where the artist sheds his individualistic veil of perception and creates a work where others can share in his objectivity. This is an act of virtue. In appreciating art, we become less selfish and can see the reality of the world presented. I agree very much that objectivity is introduced to the spectator, and I can think of no more fitting example than when Dickens removes the selfish, ignorant veil of the rich through his writings to reveal to them the existence of the poor and lower classes.
In congruence with Murdoch, Nussbaum believes that art, with respect to literature gives the reader or audience an objectivity with which to deliberate the ethics of a character’s actions. Nussbaum describes life as “fiction-making” and that literature is only a heightened extension of that. She says “Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial”; thus, literature is a way that we can experience situations that we may not experience in real life. Ethical deliberations in literature is aptly summed in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”, and the audience watching Hamlet’s dilemma is better able to make ethical judgments from their objective standpoint. The audience too may never experience Hamlet’s dilemma of vengeance, and art allows them that chance to make an ethical judgment. Similarly, novels make it easier for reader to make ethical deliberations on the actions of characters rather than when one is experiencing the situation in real life. Thus, Nussbaum promotes that literature be used in conjunction with the study of ethics.
Art, however may not tell the whole truth about real life situations. A literary work is after all written from the perspective of the author and the so called objectivity gained from a work of fiction can be skewed. To extend the example of “Hamlet”, we see his deliberation about taking revenge, but for the sake of drama he does put his thoughts into action and murders his step-father. Murder cannot be justified much less when all evidence of the crime comes from a ghost. Shakespeare’s work was never intended to be didactic, but it was meant to be dramatic. Even though the dilemma of Hamlet provokes our ethical deliberation, it does not attempt to preach or encourage any sort of moral behavior. The result of our moral deliberation is thus our responsibility, the audience will have to decide for itself what is right or wrong. Of course there are many other literary works that “sit on the fence”, or lean towards one side of the moral judgment, and then there are also works that would deliberately promote a certain kind of behavior. These works are but paper and ink until we make our own interpretations of what is morally right.
The fiction of living out a situation in an art work, say a film about the Holocaust, puts one in an objective perspective, as Murdoch puts it ” Art…gives sense to a notion of reality…”.(book pg.200) However, it is the same fiction that can distort reality and mislead the reader or audience. For instance watching a film about the Holocaust can give one a sense of the terror of a victim, but if the work is from the perspective of Hitler, the audience can be misled just as Germany was into believing the Fuhrer is the bastion of morality. Film, just as literature can be considered as art because it is a mode of communication and works especially well in its “infection”. Admittedly, films do present a version of the truth to the audience and allow the audience to experience a fiction or representation of reality. Michael Norman does not think that this fiction is at all healthy. In his essay “Carnage and Glory, Legends and Lies” he criticizes war movies for being the bad representation of the truth. Norman argues that “the lie begins as soon as the first cut is made and time and reality are altered” (book pg.211). Life is not as neatly structured nor as dramatic as we see in all forms of Art. Movies, poems and plays all have a beginning, a middle and an end. Just as Norman says that war movies are about our “fantasies of war”(book pg.213), art is a fantasy of life. It is the fantasy of situations that we are unable to or too afraid of experiencing. The realization that art is fiction based on reality, means that it is possible for us to be misled when it is manipulated by its creator to engage our feelings.
In conclusion, I would like to add that the benefits of art does not end with moral deliberation. Art gives identity to a class or culture, and is an educational device as well. Art, as I have shown is a double-edged sword in relation to ethics. It certainly can cut both ways, but if used responsibly by both the audience and creator, it can cut the correct way.