A Philosopher's Blog

Arts, Lies and Yale

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 19, 2008

Recently an art student created quite a stir with her alleged art project. She claimed that she had repeatedly impregnated herself (using the “turkey baster method”) and then forced herself to have miscarriages with herbal medicines. She provided a video clip of herself bleeding and expressed her plans to create a display composed of her blood, Vaseline (to keep the blood from drying), and plastic wrap.

Initially, the Yale Daily News took her claims at face value-thus showing the critical approach commonly taken these days. The next day, the News posted another story discussing the proposed project further as well as the reaction it had received (universally negative).

The evidence at this time seems to be that the art project involves various lies. The New York Sun has posted a piece that seems quite plausible and serves to show that much of what the student alleged is probably false. The student herself also admitted that she had not actually engaged in the self-impregnation nor the self-induced miscarriages.

Naturally, this situation raises many moral issues.

Obviously, if she had in fact been doing what she claimed she was doing, her actions would have been both horrifying and immoral. As a philosopher, I generally feel compelled to argue almost anything-but I am willing to let this point remain without a developed argument. If creating life merely to kill it to make a statement is not intuitively wrong, then I (almost) cannot think of a way to even start an argument against it.

While the fact that her alleged actions were mere fictions does serve to lessen the immorality of her behavior, her behavior certainly does seem to be morally questionable.

The main moral concern is that she lied and her lie seems to have been a harmful lie. While everyone lies, lying is something that is, on the face of it, wrong. Some regard lying as intrinsically wrong (such as Kant) while others see it as wrong on utilitarian grounds (lying tends to create more harm than good). Whatever the specific grounds, it seems rather well-established that lying is wrong. Hence, her lies were wrong.

Naturally, people do attempt to justify lies by arguing that their lies were harmless or actually served a greater good. However, her lies do not seem to serve a greater good. Many people were morally outraged by this and people had to waste time sorting through her lies in order to get to the truth. Further, her lies no doubt served to needlessly bring back painful memories for women who suffered miscarriages.

Of course, it could be replied that people often express opinions that others find offensive, but this is all part of the price for freedom of expression. While this has some merit, there is the matter of common decency. A sense of decency enjoins us to place limits on what we say and do-not because we should not be free to express ourselves but because we should, as decent human beings, care about what our words and deeds will do to others. The right of expression is a vital and basic right. But compassion is also a basic and vital virtue. Those who insist on their rights and refuse to cultivate their virtues are but spoiled children.

That said, I do think that sometimes offensive things can and should be said. This can be a tough moral call, but in this case I believe that Ms. Shvarts made a moral error.

It might be further countered that art itself is a lie and hence her art was to lie about what she was actually doing.

The notion that art involves “beautiful untrue things” (Wilde) and “lying skillfully” (Aristotle) has a strong philosophical pedigree. Naturally, some philosophers (most notably Plato) criticize art on this exact ground.

Intuitively, art is a deception and a lie. The easiest and most obvious example is that of film: movies are fake. The actors are pretending, the dialog is (usually) fiction, and the settings are often fake. As Plato noted, paintings are illusions and lies as well-a painting of a person is but an image and not a real person.

For thinkers like Wilde and Aristotle, lying was not the key part: lying is not a sufficient condition for art. In the discussions presented about art by the likes of Wilde and Aristotle, a work has to meet some rather challenging standards to be considered art and has to meet even more serious standards to be considered quality art. While the notion of art has been transformed into an abomination that permits almost any foolishness to be called art, I’ve always refused to embrace that abomination. While I confess that I do not have a complete theory of art, I have given the matter considerable thought (take my class on Aesthetics at Florida A&M University to see my view as well as competing views) and have written a bit on the subject (buy my forthcoming book-What Don’t You Know?). One easy argument is this-a good definition must exclude some things. If anything can be art, then “art” is a meaningless term.

Considering the project put forth by Ms. Shvarts, it seems reasonable to say that if it is art, then it is not very good art. It does not express mastery of an artistic skill and it does not seem to be presenting to the world anything of beauty or aesthetic significance.

What can be said is that she lied and created a moral furor. While this did create an emotional response, the response was to her alleged misdeeds. This is no more art than if someone claimed to be throwing kittens into a wood chipper or a serial killer. Such claims would create a response, but would not be art. Even if the person claimed to be an artist. As Tolstoy argued, just because you make someone feel an emotion, it does not follow that it is art.

Ms. Shvarts does seem to be of a sort I have so often seen-those who consider any sort of drama to be art, provided that it seems to serve their ideological purposes. She even uses all the standard buzz words: “We have this huge f—ing institution telling us: ‘That’s what power looks like. That’s what empowerment looks like.’ It’s these patriarchal, heteronormative trappings of a voice, of a right to speak, but really I think we should think more about it. We need to stop being sheep.”

I do agree that we should think more and stop being sheep. In this case, I think we need to think seriously about what art really is and not just follow the artsy trends like sheep. I also think that the use of empty buzz words does nothing of artistic, philosophical or political significance.

Lest anyone think that I am some sort of philistine, I have taught aesthetics since 1994 and have a great appreciation of the arts. Further, I am always open to a good argument. If someone can make a plausible case as to why her lies should count as good art, then I will accept that argument. Until then, I can only regard her as a liar and a poor artist (and that is being generous). I did consider that these words might be unkind, but they seem to be justified.