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Art and Moralism

  • Craig Taylor (a1)

Mrs. Digby told me that when she lived in London with her sister, Mrs. Brooke, they were every now and then honoured by the visits of Dr. Johnson. He called on them one day soon after the publication of his immortal dictionary. The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Amongst other topics of praise they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. ‘What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?’ said the moralist. The ladies, confused at being thus caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary. (H.D. Best, Personal and Literary Memorials, London, 1829, printed in Johnsonian Miscellanies Vol. 2, G. Birkbeck Hill (ed.) (London: Constable & Co.,1897))

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1 Moralism as I understand it here is to be distinguished from the way that term is used in the debate in aesthetics over whether or not the aesthetic dimension of art is autonomous. So my view is distinct from what Nöel Carroll calls ‘moderate moralism,’ the view that ‘a moral defect in a work of art can sometimes be an aesthetic defect’ (Carroll N., ‘Moderate Moralism versus Moderate Autonomism,’ British Journal of Aesthetics 38 (1998) 419–24).

2 Gallery website: Note that at the time of writing the image on the Henson 2008 exhibition invitation is no longer posted, though some of the other controversial images of adolescents remain.

3 For an extended account of the controversy over Henson see The Henson Case by David Marr (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008). While Marr is not exactly an impartial observer – he is firmly in Henson's corner – he does nonetheless faithfully record all the important events surrounding the controversy. The book also reproduces the nude image that produced the initial moral outrage.

4 Very little has been written on the nature of the vice of moralism. For some initial thoughts on this topic see a recent special issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy on moralism edited by Tony Coady, and in particular my contribution to that issue, Taylor Craig, ‘Moralism and morally accountable beings’, Journal of Applied Philosophy 22 (2005). As I acknowledge there the term ‘moralism’ may be used to cover a multitude of sins, and much more thorough examination of the concept of moralism and its connection to related vices such as self-righteousness and hypocrisy is certainly called for. This, though, is a substantial task indeed, and well beyond the scope of this paper. Here I consider just one aspect of moralism in one central and (I hope) easily recognisable form of the vice.

5 Greer G., ‘Through a lens darkly,The Age, June 2, 2008. I am not saying of course that it necessarily follows from the fact that a public figure, a politician say, calls Henson's image ‘revolting’ that they are guilty of moralism. In the case of a given politician it may be that they do reflect privately on their response to such an image, but that they are not prepared to accept the potential damage to their career of airing such thoughts or reflections publicly. While such a person may not be guilty of moralism, in so far as there is in their case a conflict between their public claims and private convictions they could reasonably be charged with the related vice of hypocrisy. I discuss the distinction between moralism and hypocrisy in Taylor (2005).

6 For an account on the censorship of obscenity in the arts in Australia, including the Ern Malley trial, see Coleman P., Obscenity, blasphemy, sedition: 100 years of censorship in Australia (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1974). For an extended account of the whole Ern Malley affair see Heyward M., The Ern Malley Affair (St Lucia: Queensland University Press, 1993).

7 Heyward (1993), 200.

8 Clarke in Ern Malley trial transcript as quoted in Heyward (1993), 208–9.

9 Heyward (1993), 185.

10 Vogelesang in Ern Malley trial transcript as quoted in Heyward (1993), 191.

11 One might argue that there is little agreement about what makes for an obscene or pornographic image. But the task of the Australian Classification Board would be impossible if there were not some consensus on these matters. And as I have noted this board has classified the image by Henson at the centre of this controversy ‘PG’.

12 McDonald J., ‘Gruesome voyeurism or social comment?The Sydney Morning Herald, November 26, 1988.

13 Note that while voyeurism is generally thought to involve watching others secretly for sexual pleasure, the pleasure of watching derived by the voyeur need not be sexual. (Note here the distinction between common usage and the clinical psychological condition.)

14 Surely a much more plausible example of the sexualisation of adolescents is the display of very young adolescents in some fashion photographs. While many people have moral reservations about such photography, this practice has not attracted the kind of extreme moral outrage that was directed at Henson's photographs of young people. While I don't want to push the point, my suggestion that Henson's images truthfully represent the sexuality of his young models perhaps provides some explanation of why that might be.

15 Isaksson F. and Furhammar L., ‘The First Person Plural,’ in Tulloch J. (ed.) Conflict and Control in the Cinema (Adelaide: Macmillan, 1977), 392. I thank George Couvalis for this example.

16 Isaksson and Furhammar (1977), 392.

17 Ibid., 393.

18 To consider a different but closely related point, it may be that a work of art is corrupt yet not corrupting. Indeed it may be that a work of art that we recognise as corrupt can be morally edifying in virtue of that very act of recognition. As Robert Stecker says on this point ‘the expression in a work of attitudes ranging from the morally uncertain to the reprehensible may do some good. For example, the latter may inadvertently harden us against behaviour based on such an attitude’ (Stecker R., Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Lanham MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2005), 210.

19 I am not saying that either you accept that Henson's work is morally unobjectionable or you are guilty of moralism. The fact that someone has moral qualms about Henson's work does not itself make them a moraliser; if the cap I have described – with moralism – doesn't fit they don't have to wear it. Indeed I would be myself guilty of something akin to moralism if I were to resort to this kind of crude moral accusation. I am saying however that morality requires reflection on one's own moral judgements and the motivations for them, and that the moraliser is peculiarly averse to that. So if a person is hostile to the mere invitation to think again about Henson and what we might make of his work I suppose they are ipso facto guilty of moralism on my account.

20 This paper has the limited aim of examining moralism about art, and I make no claims about the justification for censorship of obscene material. Similarly, I offer no suggestions as to what steps might be taken to protect children from real exploitation by artists. On the second point, I note though that the Australian government is currently considering possible guidelines for artists using underage models.

21 Many entirely innocent contexts are for some people opportunities for such pleasure. For Humbert Humbert, Lolita's tennis matches were just such an opportunity.

22 Armstrong J., ‘In liberal democracy, ideals inspire’, The Australian, October 18, 2008.

23 My point here is reminiscent of H.L.A. Hart's point against Lord Patrick Devlin in their debate over legal moralism. Devlin there argues that if the reasonable man, the man in the street, has a ‘real feeling of reprobation’ with respect to some practice then society has the right to use the sanctions of the criminal law to eradicate that practice. To which Hart replies,

in his reaction against a rationalist morality and his stress on feeling, he has… thrown the baby out with the bath water. When Sir Patrick's lecture was first delivered The Times greeted it with these words: ‘There is a moving and welcome humility in the conception that society should not be asked to give reasons for refusing to tolerate what in its heart it feels intolerable.’ This drew from a correspondent in Cambridge the retort: ‘I am afraid that we are less humble than we used to be. We once burnt old women because, without giving reasons, we felt in our hearts that witchcraft was intolerable.’ … We are not, I suppose, likely, in England, to take again to the burning of old women for witchcraft or to punishing people for associating with those of a different race or colour, or to punishing people again for adultery. Yet if these things were viewed with intolerance, indignation, and disgust, as the second of them still is in some countries, it seems that on Sir Patrick's principles no rational criticism could be opposed to the claim that they should be punished by law'. (Hart H.L.A., ‘Immorality and Treason’, Listener, July 30, 1959.)

24 Armstrong (2008).

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