Monday, December 17, 2018

Meaning, Value, and Ethics in Art

Jacob Lawrence, Struggle 1 (1965) brush and ink, and gouache on paper

By Mary Gabriel for the Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2018

[….] “How does one write, paint, compose or perform works that describe this age without being consumed by it, without producing mere propaganda? How does one convey the simultaneous confusion and conviction, the anger and concomitant longing for calm — in short, the irrationality — with any degree of certainty? And how does one project through art a better path when the route is constantly shifting? 

Faced with such a difficult task, many artists wonder if they are obliged to be chroniclers of their times. During periods of war, social strife, economic upheaval, massive industrial or technological change, is it the duty of the artist to record and reflect that chaos? Yes it is, in part because it is impossible for a true artist to do otherwise. Artists may work in isolation, but they are intrinsically messengers, their works communications. They also exist in a state of hyper-receptivity because every encounter and experience might produce material for the next sentence, song, photograph or canvas. Short of living in a soundproof windowless box, especially in an age such as ours, it is impossible for an artist to blot out the world.

But another, more important reason an artist must confront his or her time is that historically art and artists have explained and challenged, and that combination has produced greater understanding. 

In the 1930s and 1940s, newspaper headlines, cinema newsreels, radio broadcasts and public service posters disseminated information around the clock. But those reports chronicled events. It was left to artists to ascribe meaning. A young James Jones wrote his first novel, From Here to Eternity,  describing the wreckage of lives upended by war. Oscar Hammerstein’s 1940 lyrics for ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ evoked for generations the melancholy felt by those forced to flee Nazi advances in France. And two painters bookended the traumas of the 1930s and 1940s in their works: Picasso, with ‘Guernica,’ which depicted the 1937 Nazi attack on the Basque capital of that name and the first ‘total’ air raid in history, and Jackson Pollock, with his ‘drip’ paintings 10 years later. In the wake of World War II’s atrocities, from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, Pollock painted the world as it was, a world destroyed but not irrevocably so.

Today, in our own world of blogs, bots and perpetual ‘breaking news,’ it is left to artists to cut through the deafening noise as their forebears did in the middle of the last century — in a search for meaning and, most particularly in our case, in the service of truth.” [….] The entire article is here. 

Comment [The following is largely in reference to art which happens to be non-religious (which is not here synonymous with ‘non-spiritual’), in other words, art which is in the first instance deeply and broadly humanist.]: 

The moral duties and obligations of artists exist not only in “troubled times,” for they play a vital role for artists in any society engraved with eliminable suffering or conspicuous for the ongoing endeavor (or struggle) to realize the common good in the light of liberté, égalité, fraternité (the last is not gender specific but refers to those sorts of human community in which individuals have ample opportunities for personal fulfillment and eudaimonia, that is, the necessary conditions for individuation or self-determination and the pursuit of activities conducive to ’self-realization’).  Perhaps the most compelling argument for weaving tightly together ethical ideas and values with aesthetic values and purposes (so, for instance, we may speak of ‘moral beauty’)—which doesn’t imply art should teach us only about ethical matters—is found in Berys Gaut’s “impressive, sustained defense of ethicism,” Art, Emotion and Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2007). As Gaut explains, works of art typically prescribe certain emotional responses (which may or may not occur in us), and whether or not these are in fact merited is a question “sensitive to moral considerations.” In short, assuming the pivotal grounds on which art is valued refers fundamentally to concern with its beauty, its cognitive role, and its affective dimension, analytically distinct properties or features that are aesthetically intertwined in the work of art, the “ethical evaluation of art is inescapable.” 

Related Bibliography: Marxism, Art and Aesthetics


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