What is the relationship between art and ethics?
In the last section, we saw how influential art can be in how it shapes our society. This is also true in how it affects our behaviour. Art can open us up to new ideas and beliefs, and artists can make a massive impact as role models, either in a positive or a negative manner.
Because art communicates with us on so many different levels, and appeals to our senses, emotion, reason, language, and imagination, it inevitably affects us more than other areas of knowledge. There are few of us who would pay to see a scientific experiment, but most of us are regular cinema goers, or visit art galleries and photo exhibitions. Because of that, it is easy to be affected by something we read or see that seems to us to be something to which we should aspire.
Here are two clips from films that show contrasting expressions of ethics, but are both played to perfection by the actors involved – Al Pacino, in Scent of a Woman and Orson Welles, in The Third Man.
Think about the following questions in relation to the films.
- What is your impression of the roles of Al Pacino and Orson Welles?
- How attractive are: a) Their personalities; b) The views of their characters?
- Are you persuaded by their arguments and beliefs? Explain your answer.
- Can you think of any other examples where you have been influenced by the messages of books, films, music, etc.?
Do famous artists have special ethical obligations?
Actors, film directors, celebrity artists, dancers – there is more success and money to be made in the art world today than there ever has been before. This places artists in a position of unprecedented exposure, and means that they impinge on our lives than they ever have done before. Some argue that this places extra responsibility on them as moral role models, and obliges them to behave accordingly. Some artists find this demand easy to meet, and embark on missions for the UN, set up charities, and speak out on issues that they feel are important. Certainly, this has a profound effect on society and our moral outlook, although longer term effects are more questionable. Examples include the Live Aid concert in 1985, which helped to bring the problems of East Africa to the attention of the world, Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental work (with Al Gore), and Sean Penn’s work in the Haitian Earthquake.
Others are more sceptical about the motives for such involvement, and whilst it cannot be said that all celebrity artists do charity work in order to brand themselves more appealingly, and increase their popularity, this is sometimes the case. The embarrassing photos of Peta activist Naomi Campbell (if she can be called an artist) wearing fur are a good example of a more cynical approach to good causes.
In addition, when Richard Gere broadcast a message to voters in the Palestinian elections in 2009, it seemed that he had got a little carried away, when he said ‘I’m speaking for the entire world.’ Jude Law even tried to negotiate with the Taliban, on a visit to Afghanistan in 2007, an event that disturbed some people who believe that foreign policy should be decided by elected representatives of national governments, rather than celebrity actors.
Are artists above the law?
If artists have special ethical obligations, are the implications that we should treat them differently. The recent case of the film director Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland, and eventual acquittal, for a rape that occurred in the United States in the 1970s highlights the question of the difficulties in applying the law equally to all. Read about the case by starting with this BBC article. Then read this article by A.C. Grayling.
Should we judge artists by their work or their ethical position?
Many artists have unattractive ethical outlooks. The composer Wagner was rabidly anti-Semitic, and fuelled Hitler’s hatred of the Jews. The film director Budd Schulberg informed on his friends during the McCarthy era anti-communist witch hunt, thus ruining lives and preventing artists from expressing their ideas. The writer Arthur Koestler brutalized and raped several women. The designer Eric Gill sexually abused his own children. Woody Allen married his step-daughter.
Can we appreciate the artistic achievements of such figures despite knowing their characters? Yet again, the answer depends on a combination of your own moral outlook, and your opinion of art. Some would argue that art should stand on its own, and we should not be judgemental about the ethical standpoint of its creator. Others would say that art – especially if it has some kind of ethical message – cannot be seen as separate from the person who created it, that art is an expression of someone’s emotions and character.
This blog from the New York Times deals with the issue.