Immoral Action Vs. Immoral Art

Immoral Action Vs. Immoral Art

With the emergence of socially engaged art, performance art and the widespread influence of pop culture, questions arise as to how far the boundaries of art can stretch over those of morals.

Zui Kumar Reddy

The socially imposed moral obligations of art can be traced back to 380 B.C. when Plato set down a strict set of rules for "good" art in Book II of The Republic. Art, according to Plato, had a moral obligation to influence society and in particular, the youth. In all fairness, these were ideas proposed for the establishment of a perfect state with a philosopher king, ideals that we may be a little too f*cked up for today. However, art is still thought to have these moral obligations, with the example of the 1999 Columbine shootings being blamed on the music of Marilyn Manson (red boots and red lipstick forever). The argument being that Manson’s music celebrated immoral values that "wrongly" influenced young minds (blasphemy); this is essentially what Plato was trying to prevent when he stressed the moral obligations of art.

In the Victorian era, however, another argument arose, that of aestheticism; art for art’s sake, this provided a fair rebuttal to the idea that all art is required to be moral. Our beloved Oscar Wilde was an avid believer in aestheticism for it allowed art and morality to be completely independent of each other and in that way it allowed art to criticize and even mock what Wilde considered to be the duplicitous morals of the Victorian era. With the establishment of an autonomous relationship between art and morality, art can be used as a vehicle to question, explore and challenge morality, obviously. However, this distinction between the two becomes problematic with changing forms of art, changing mediums and changing definitions.

With the emergence of socially engaged art, performance art and the widespread influence of pop culture, questions arise as to how far the boundaries of art can stretch beyond these pain in the ass morals.

Maria Caruso puts forth three examples of "immoral art" in her paper "Why Immoral Art Cannot Morally Harm Us"; (1) the means by which the artwork came about were immoral, (2) the artwork depicts immoral acts or has immoral features, or (3) the artwork is the cause of harmful consequences (Caruso, 2014). I would like to look at the following three examples that I think highlight these different categorizations of immoral art— Rihanna’s music video "B*tch Better Have My Money," as an example of a depiction of something immoral, Tom Otterness’ 1977 "Shot Dog Film," as an example of immoral action where the means by which the work came about were immoral and Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary "Triumph of the Will," as an example of an artwork having harmful consequences by aestheticizing evil. My argument being that art in itself does not have the capacity to be moral or immoral by real world standards of these things. Further, I would like to challenge Caruso’s categorization of the three different kinds of immoral art by claiming that immoral action, i.e. when the means by which the artwork came abut were immoral, cannot become art and this is where a clear line is drawn between art and morality.

Rihanna’s music video for her 2015 song "B*tch Better Have My Money," was received with crazy amounts of moral concern over basically everything it depicted. The video is essentially of Rihanna and her gang kidnapping and torturing the wife of her accountant who owes her money. They beat her, bash her, strip her, etc. etc. It ends with the singer covered in blood sitting in a crate full of dollar bills after having presumably hacksawed the accountant. In terms of violence depicted in music videos, this wasn’t really breaking any boundaries, except for that it was made by a female mainstream pop artist, thereby accessible to a female mainstream pop audience and hence subject to a more stringent moral criticism. One of the bigger points of this criticism being the sexualization of the violence portrayed. Major concern was voiced over the shot of the kidnapped woman submerged and unconscious under water that pans out to Rihanna’s pretty fine rear end. The problems cited with all this, in particular by Barbara Ellen in her 2015 guardian article brutally titled, "Rihanna’s self-indulgent video is not clever. It’s pure misogyny," is that the violence itself is made sexy, and that too on a pop culture platform that could be a dangerous sort of influence. As if sexy violent was some new discovery, flashback to Kill Bill and Uma Thurman being life inspiration number 1. Anyway...

Let’s assume that yes, the video is morally deplorable and also promotes all that is morally deplorable, then what? Despite the values it portrays the video itself is not and cannot be immoral. It's just a depiction of some slightly f*cked up sh*t, nothing more. There is nothing in the simple existence of the video that is immoral, the storyline is staged, a scripted routine with actors playing out the roles of the victim, kidnapper and other debased henchmen. Perhaps the sexualization of the violence can be seen as problematic in terms of the influence it could have, but still there lacks clear proof of a moral wrongdoing in an art work that depicts violence in this way. I stress on the word moral, because one might say that the video is "wrong" or "stupid" or "a little bit f*cked" but for it to be morally wrong it would have to have a direct immoral effect, at least I don't see how else that stupid Victorian argument that everyone still clings on to makes any sense. In Aaron Smuts’ paper "The Ethics of Singing Along: The Case of “Mind of a Lunatic he addresses the Geto Boys Album of that same name, and explores the consequences of partaking in the violence that is echoed in the lyrics of many of the songs...all of them. In trying to better gauge what I would like to argue as tertiary immorality— a term that best represents this sort of "depicted immorality" where no actual harm is done to anyone— I look to Smuts, who uses the example of two worlds, both occupied by a single person, one in which the survivor imagines "cats playing with rubber bands on sunny windowsills" (Smuts, 2013) and another world wherein the survivor "imagines torturing children with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch". Smuts however fails to claim that the second example is immoral, he merely stresses that the first example is less repugnant, less bad. My point being that this sort of tertiary immorality, where depravity is merely depicted, imagined or voiced cannot fully turn into the immoral, and in turn the art itself cannot be deemed immoral. Immorality is not so loose a concept that abstractions of it can be dangerous, in order for it to gain its full meaning, immorality would need to become that which is tangibly and obviously immoral.

This tangible and obvious immorality is essentially all that was Tom Otterness’ 1977 self-proclaimed piece of "art" titled "Shot Dog Film." Otterness adopted a dog from a shelter, tied it to a fence and shot it to death, while filming the shooting. The video is not easily available on the internet because of its blatant and graphic cruelty. The lines of cruelty have been bent and blurred in the name of art for many years, with a famous example being that of Santiago Sierra’s installation that involved workers sitting in cardboard boxes all day long for a minimum wage pay. Sierra’s work was cruel, and could be categorized under the cruelty in the name of education category, one that many artists claim to justify art that is blatantly evil as being a means to expose the real large scale global evil that it represents. Funnily Sierra's film aside from being a metaphor for how f*cked up the economy is, is also a pretty great metaphor for how f*cked up the art world is — flashback to yesterday when some big ad company asked for a 'flamingo guitarist to play at a tourism event for 200 rupees', kind of? A little. Otterness' "Shot Dog Film," however, crossed the immoral line before it could even become art. The two main issues that Otterness’ video brings to the surface are: The difficult definition of art in terms of immoral art and the subject of immoral action. Defining art has been tricky throughout the ages and still one will find varying definitions depending on the school of thought used to define it. Aestheticism, for example provides for an autonomous and solely aesthetic definition of art. I claim that all in all art amounts to something that provides for some sort of experience and calls upon for some sort of skill and intention in its creation, otherwise anyone could dig his butt and sell it, wouldn't that be a crazy thing? Hmm. Anyway…though one may argue that Otterness had a clear intention in the making of "Shot Dog Film," (i.e. to shoot the dog), this cannot possibly be called art. The only difference between Otterness’ video and a hypothetical video made by the solitary inhabitant of the deranged world proposed by Smuts, wherein the imaginary child torturing becomes real and is then videotaped for entertainment, is that Otterness claimed to have intended to make art, while the hypothetical child torturer makes no such claims. Despite art’s loose and changing definition it certainly does not allow for the mere claiming of something as obviously immoral as Otterness’ murdering of the dog and claiming it as art to then make it art. "Shot Dog Film" is immoral action, it is real cruelty that takes place in the real world and is hence subject to real world moral implications. What’s more is that Otterness’ intention in making this video seemed to have been to shock the public, assuming that this would be enough to call the video art. Otterness’ video can be viewed in tandem with the controversial work of the Dutch artist Tinkebell who made a handbag out of her pet cat that she claimed to have strangled to death and skinned herself, the work is titled "My dearest cat pinkeltje." Though Tinkebell has stated time and again that her cat was severely depressed and diseased and that by killing it she was simply putting it out of its misery, the fact remains that the very premise of this "art" work is that she killed and skinned her own cat. It would seem like this distinction becomes problematic when we look at art that uses mediums like leather, feathers, bones and fur, however, the line is drawn quite clearly. In the case of both Otterness and Tinkebell’s work their claims as art rest on the fact that they both personally committed immoral action, if it wasn’t for this shock value their works may not have held the same weight.

Leni Reifenstahl’s documentary "Triumph of the Will," is an example of Caruso’s third condition for immoral art--that which can be the cause of harmful moral consequences. The film was commissioned by Hitler, has his name in the titles and glorifies the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi party by making an 'aesthetically pleasing' movie. Mary Devereaux in her paper, "Beauty and Evil: The Case of Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will," points out that the essence of the problem created by triumph of the will is its merging of beauty and evil. Devereaux writes under the assumption that “the unity of beauty and goodness is a standard by which art should be measured,” further stating that “If good art must not only please the senses but also engage and satisfy us intellectually and emotionally, then we are, I suggest, justified in criticizing "Triumph of the Will" for rendering something evil beautiful.” (Deveraux, 1998) Deveraux’s argument does not allow for the equation of beauty and evil in art. In order for art to serve its purpose as an exploratory tool one should not limit the equation of beauty with good. In making this argument, I still stand by the fact that art has to fulfill its moral obligations in the real world before it can enter the art world, but within the art world it must be exempt from these standards otherwise what is the point. To better clarify the real world versus art world distinction I would like to use the example of a painting of a swastika and a painting that shoots you in the head as you look at it. Clearly one of these examples it outright inhuman while the other is simply offensive. In the same way when looking at Deveraux’s film and Tom Otterness’ film it can be argued that Tom Otterness’ film itself does no one any harm, no dogs or humans are physically harmed while watching the film, still, however, the process by which it was made was immoral in the real world before it became "art" and its existence as art is dependent on this immorality.

I would like to delve deeper into this idea of "harm" because it can be argued that all the forms of visual media I have mentioned so far in this paper do cause a direct harm when viewed by an audience, i.e. that they have the capacity to emotionally harm an audience with their subject matter; "Triumph of the Will" - offensive material, "Shot Dog Film" - blatant horror, "B*tch Better Have My Money" - depicted violence and gore. My argument stands however, that this sort of harm does not constitute immoral harm. In the mere viewing of these videos, no audience is being immorally harmed as they are partaking in a mutually approved activity, i.e. to engage with this particular form of art that they can walk away from at any time. What makes Otterness’ video stand out though, is the fact that immoral harm is vital to the existence of it. Had a dog not been tied to a fence and shot by Otterness this video would not exist. Both "B*tch Better Have My Money" and "Triumph of the Will" are not dependent on some sort of immoral harm being done to someone or something for their existence. In "Triumph of the Will," despite glorifying a party that committed horrendous crimes against humanity, Riefenstahl did not call upon the holocaust to collect footage, while watching this film no one is directly harmed, and additionally, the direct destruction of something or someone else was not integral to the making of the film. The same goes for "B*tch Better Have My Money," Rihanna did not actually torture a woman for the sake of her video. The only direct harm, in all these cases was done by Otterness, that sick f*ck.

The idea of consent can be applied to these three examples to better understand their morality or utter lack thereof. Consent is of vital importance when determining whether a piece of art is exploitative or and immorality as a concept, is bound to encompass some form of exploitation. If all parties involved in the making of a work of art are consenting, then there is no room for the art work to be immoral as the audience is, by virtue of it being an art world audience, consenting. However, this said issue of consent is very difficult to navigate because then does a candid photograph become immoral because the subject was not aware and thereby not consenting? Sure, it could be argued that a candid photograph is immoral for it lacks the subject’s consent, but it could still be considered art because it does not really breach the moral standards of the real world and therefore it can enter the art world. Essentially, this is why Otterness’ video fails to be art: 1) It is nonconsensual, 2) It involves immoral harm being done for the sake of its existence and 3) It breaches the moral standards of the real world before it can enter the real world.

So I guess my argument is hinged on the difference between immoral action and immoral art and the relationship between the art world and the real world. Immoral art is representative of those values which are immoral in the real world, but when it resides in the art world alone it fails to be immoral in itself and is merely a representation. Immoral action, on the other hand fails to be immoral art because of the hierarchy of morals between the art world and the real world. By virtue of existing in the real world first, art must comply with the real world moral standards so long as it bears the capacity to affect the real world. If something is immoral in the real world it cannot directly become art, that is to say that art cannot entirely base its existence off of an immoral action committed in the real world. It can depict an immoral action and it can explore the ideas of immoral action whether it be celebratory or critical, but it cannot base its existence on the necessity to commit an immoral action. In this way I think that immoral art and immoral action are clearly set apart from one another, and the lines, though complex are solid and present. So bring on the necrophilia novels, it's time, hello...

Report this Content
This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

More on Odyssey

Facebook Comments