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Art and morality

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

A complex set of questions is raised by an examination of the relationship between art and morality. First there is a set of empirical considerations about the effect that works of art have on us – one obviously contentious case is that of pornography. Many would argue that the artistic merits of a work are independent of any attitudes or actions it may lead us to adopt or perform. This claim does not survive scrutiny, however, though there is a distinction to be drawn between artistic value and the value of art as a whole. Though there are no coercive arguments to show that we have to take into account the moral qualities of works of art, it is in practice very difficult to ignore them, especially when the point of the work is insistently moral, or when the work is conspicuously depraved.

There is a long tradition, dating back to Plato, of regarding art with suspicion for its power over our emotions, and much of Western aesthetic theorizing has been a response to Plato’s challenge. The longest-lasting defence justified art in terms of a combination of pleasure and instruction, though the two never hit it off as well as was hoped. In the early nineteenth century a new, more complex account of art was offered, notably by Hegel, in the form of a historicized view in which art is one of the modes by which we come to self-awareness; the emphasis altered from truth to an independently existing reality to truthfulness to our own natures, as we explore them by creating art. Taken into the social sphere, this became a doctrine of the importance of art as an agent of political consciousness, operating in subtle ways to undermine the view of reality imposed on us by the ideologies that hold us captive.

Citing this article:
Tanner, Michael. Art and morality, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M007-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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