A Philosopher's Blog

Art & Assault II: Feeling & Aesthetic Value

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 1, 2017

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One interesting issue in aesthetics is whether the ethics of the artist should be considered relevant to the aesthetic value of their work. Obviously enough, what people think about an artist can influence what they feel about a work. But how people assess works and how they should assess works are two different matters.

One way to approach the matter is to look at art works as analogous to any other work, such as a student’s paper in a philosophy class or the construction of a storage shed. In the case of a student’s paper, a professor can obviously be influenced by how they feel about the student. For example, if a professor learned that a student had groped another student, then the professor is likely to dislike the student. But if the professor decided to assign a failing grade to the groper’s paper, then this would be unfair and unjust—the quality of the paper has nothing to do with the behavior of the student. After all, the assessment of an argumentative paper in philosophy is supposed to be based on an objective assessment of the quality of the arguments and not on what the professor feels about the author.

By analogy, the same should apply to works of art: the quality and merit of the work should be assessed independently of how one feels about the artist and their misdeeds. In the case of the technical aspects of the work, this seems to be obviously true. For example, the misdeeds of an artist have no bearing on whether they get perspectives right or hit the correct notes in a song. These are objective matters and are clearly analogous to the use of logic in an argumentative paper. Another analogy, that will lead to an objection, is to a pro-athlete.

In sports like running and football, an athlete’s performance is an objective matter and how the spectators feel about the athlete has no legitimate role in judging that performance. For example, how the spectators feel about a marathon runner has no impact on how their time should be judged—it is what it is regardless of how they feel about the runner. By analogy, the same should apply to works of art—a work is what it is regardless of how people feel about the artist. The analogy to athletes, as noted above, opens a path to an objection.

While the quality of an athlete’s performance is an objective matter (in certain sports), pro-athletes are often also entertainers. For example, a professional basketball player is there to play basketball to entertain the crowd. Part of the enjoyment of the crowd depends on the quality of the athlete’s performance, but what an audience member thinks about the athlete also impacts their enjoyment. For example, if the audience member knows that the athlete has a habit of hitting his girlfriends and they do not like domestic abuse, then the fan’s experience of the game will be altered. The experience of the game is not just an assessment of the quality of the athletic performance, but also a consideration of the character of the athletes.

By analogy, the same would apply to an artist. So, for example, while Kevin Spacey might be a skilled actor, the allegations against him impacts the viewer and thus changes the aesthetic experience. Watching The Usual Suspects knowing about the allegations is a different experience than watching it in ignorance.

The easy and obvious reply is that while people do often feel this way, they are in error—they should, as argued above, be assessing the athlete based on their performance in the game. What they do off the field or court is irrelevant to what they do on the court. In the case of the art, the behavior of the artist should be irrelevant to the aesthetic merit of the work. For example, The Usual Suspects should not be considered differently in the face of the allegations against Spacey. Once again, people will feel as they do, but to let their feelings impact the assessment of the work would be an error.

This is not to say that people should feel the same about works in the face of revelations about artists or that they should still consume their art. The right to freedom of feeling is as legitimate as the right to the broader freedom of expression and, of course, people are free to consume art as they wish. They are also free to say how a performance (be it athletic, academic or artistic) makes them feel—but this is a report about them and not about the work. Naturally, there are aesthetic theories in which the states of the consumer of art matter and these are certainly worthy of their due—but this goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.

Another way to approach the matter is to consider a case in which nothing is known about the creator of a work of art. To use some obvious examples, a work might be found in an ancient tomb or an anonymous poem might appear on the web. These works can, obviously enough, be assessed without knowing anything about their creators and this suggests that the moral qualities of the artist are irrelevant to the quality of the work.

Suppose that the anonymous poem was regarded as brilliant and beautiful, but then it was established that it was written by a terrible person, such as Hitler or Stalin. Nothing about the poem has changed, so the assessment of the poem should not change either. But, of course, many people would change their minds about the poem based on the revelation. Now imagine that it turns out that the attribution of the poem was in error, it was really written by a decent and kind person. Nothing about the poem has changed, so the assessment should remain unchanged. The point is that tying aesthetic assessment to the character of the artist entails that judging the aesthetic merit of a work would require knowing the moral status of the creator, which seems absurd. Going back to the sports analogy, it would be like having to determine if a runner was a good or bad person before deciding whether a 14 minute 5K was a good time or not. That is, obviously enough, absurd. Likewise for the art. As such, the moral qualities of the artist are irrelevant to the aesthetic merit of their work.

 

 

 

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  1. dh said, on December 2, 2017 at 7:18 am

    “But if the professor decided to assign a failing grade to the groper’s paper, then this would be unfair and unjust—the quality of the paper has nothing to do with the behavior of the student.”

    “By analogy, the same should apply to works of art”

    I really don’t see these as the same thing. Choosing whether or not to watch an actor or view paintings is not the same as grading papers. A better comparison would be between a critic and a professor – both of these are in a position to “grade” the work, and in this case I’d agree with you. I can’t really see Roger Ebert giving a movie a “thumbs down” because of the behavior of its star – but that doesn’t mean it will get good ratings.

    Of course, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does weigh in on this, and will consider awards based on social and political underpinnings as well as performance. I personally think they should stick to the quality of the performances and leave the social and political commentary out of it, but it’s not for me to say. It is, however, for me to switch the channel, which I do.

    The evaluation of students does extend beyond mere grading of papers, though – which is where you analogy may have some merit. The award of scholarships, for example, often considers “the whole student”, taking into account not only academic standing but citizenship and community service. In this case, a student’s behavior and morality definitely becomes part of the mix.

    There is some greater definition and some greater nuance when it comes to athletics. The “grading” of athletes is a very objective process, which has to do entirely with statistics and winning percentage. NFL quarterbacks have a number of “rating” systems dealing with a numerical formula that considers passing attempts, completions, yards, etc., that has nothing to do with anything else. Baseball pitchers have an ERA, batters have batting averages, “slugging percentages”, and hard-counts for RBI and home runs. None of this has anything to do whatsoever with viewer ratings, which are completely fickle.

    The opposite of this is also true – an athlete with mediocre stats can be very popular and garner high viewer ratings for their team. I remember the days of Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd with the Boston Red Sox. As a starting pitcher, he was not so good – a lifetime win-loss record of 78-77 and an ERA of 4.04, yet he was extremely popular because of his personality both on and off the field. He and other players in the 1980’s (including the starting lineup of the hugely successful NY Mets) used drugs heavily off the field, but the viewing public didn’t care. Today it would be a completely different story, as our collective morality and sense of mob justice has “evolved”.

    “Once again, people will feel as they do, but to let their feelings impact the assessment of the work would be an error.”

    I’m not really sure this happens, at least not in the way you phrase it. I can admire the work of Kevin Spacey, and evaluate his work in a separate context from whether or not I would choose to watch him. I can accept his Academy Awards and the critics’ evaluations of his performances objectively, and still leave the room when his face appears on the screen. One has nothing to do with another.

    The same is true for sports figures – as I’ve already pointed out with regard to my feelings about Ben Roethlisberger. I completely acknowledge his performances on the field; I think he is an amazing quarterback and his stats and his winning percentage bear that out. That is my assessment of his work, and I can prove by the numbers that I am not in error. However, I don’t like to watch him – and it is not up to you or anyone else to tell me that I should or shouldn’t.

    Nor is Netflix under any obligation to continue his show strictly on the merits of his acting, any more than the NFL is required to keep a guy like Michael Vick as quarterback, regardless of statistics or critical acclaim. Neither Netflix nor the NFL is concerned with showcasing “the best” – they are concerned with “ratings”. To the extent that these two concepts coincide (and they usually do), there’s a winner – but the minute the off-screen or off-field antics threaten the ratings (and thus the revenue), the decision may be made to cut and run.

    The viewing public is under no obligation to watch or eschew anything or anyone in any of these venues based on anything other than their own personal feelings, and no one has the right to tell anyone else how to feel.

    There are many people who are very disappointed that “House of Cards” has been canceled, but apparently not enough to make a difference. There were many people who were very disappointed when the NFL decided to ban Michael Vick a few years ago – and apparently there were enough to make a difference – because he’s back and just as popular as ever.

    Swinging around to politics, which is where I think this conversation really ought to be, IMO, I think there is a closer alignment of the ethics and morality of an elected leader with his or her effectiveness and policy decisions. While history might look at benchmarks having to do with foreign policy, economy, growth, and other factors, the general public is not merely an “audience”, and is required to live under the laws made by these people. For example, I think Bill Clinton was in many areas an excellent president – most notably in his ultimate compromise with a Republican Congress in implementing Welfare Reform – but I couldn’t watch the guy’s face on TV and to this day believe he should have been impeached, censured, and criminally charged for his rampant abuse of women and power. These are the people who not only make our laws, but believe themselves to be above those same laws – and are the ones we hold out to the rest of the world as the “Leaders of the Free World”.

    I suppose in this sense, “elections” are on some kind of parallel with “ratings”, and “history” would parallel “stats” or “critical acclaim”.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 5, 2017 at 6:53 pm

      Right, that is why I distinguish between evaluating works of art and how people feel about them. A person, as I noted in the essay, has every right to not consume art from artists they dislike. But, the assessment of the quality of art should leave out the moral qualities of the artist. There are, of course, people who think otherwise and regard the ethics of the artist as critical.


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