Aestheticism and Moralism in Modern Media

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The combined release of Joe Berlinger’s film and documentary series about the serial killer Ted Bundy, with the latter being released on the thirtieth anniversary of his execution, have elicited a wave of both criticism and reactionary support on social media. The movie, which portrays Zac Efron as the dark killer and Lily Collins as his manipulated fiance, has been deeply criticised by those who see Berlinger’s dramatisation as being sympathetic to Bundy, the bulk of which stemming from a trailer that has an action movie tone and that, quite strangely, has the look of a victim fighting against the system. However neither this trailer nor the debate around it are the subject of this discussion. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to present a philosophical question, that being: should we consider moral value when determining the quality of art?

If you’re on either side of thesocial justice/free speech warrior spectrum than you may have already given your judgement; however, it is worth to know that this debate also exists, like many other things, outside of Twitter. Philosophy has indeed formulated its own version of both of these positions, which we may call ‘autonomism’,or ‘aestheticism’, and ‘moralism’.

The latter position, when taken in its most radical sense, is what the right-wing commentators would ascribe to the “looney left”, for that position dictates that artistic quality should always be considered in terms of its moral value and purpose. This is not a new position, for we may see this dialogue taking place even in antiquity. In Book III of Plato’s Republic, we are told that:

‘I intended to imply that we must come to an understanding about the mimetic art, –whether the poets, in narrating their stories, are to be allowed by us to imitate, and if so, whether in whole or in part, and if the latter, in what parts; or should all imitation be prohibited?’

Plato’s criticism of the poets, and of art is general, is that an imitation of the real world is too distant from reality to constitute what he considers a part of a ‘good” education. In the perfect city, Plato would have such imitations forbidden on the basis that such art could easily pull the youth away from true knowledge and towards immoral things. Although he was certainly not a moralist, for he judged the quality of things based on concepts of ‘beauty’, we can see here the beginnings of a moralist argument. Leo Tolstoy, in responding to claims that art can be equated with beauty, says:

‘The inaccuracy of all these definitions arises from the fact that in them all … the object considered is the pleasure art may give, and not the purpose it may serve in the life of man and of humanity.’

In the case of Extremely Wicked, the critics are judging its quality based on its morality as opposed to any formal, or aesthetic quality. Camerawork, the quality of the scripts, or other production elements are unimportant if the general message of the work is immoral. This position has already been argued to be too sensitive, or ‘politically-correct’ by the film’s defenders, but it should also be noted that there is a philosophical position to this argument as well. In ‘Against Ethical Criticism’, the philosopher Richard Posner attempts to give us the morality in not considering morality as a component of art. He claims that:

‘The aesthetic outlook is a moral outlook, one that stresses the values of openness, detachment, hedonism, curiosity, tolerance, the cultivation of the self, and the preservation of a private sphere – in short, the values of liberal individualism.’

Putting the paradox (which has been criticised) that ignoring morals makes you moral aside, Posner here is epitomising something central to ‘autonomism’, that being, that the purpose of art should be ignored in place of its formal, or aesthetic, quality. The link that Posner makes to the ‘liberal individualism’ in autonomism will ring well with conservative commentators, such as Shapiro or Crowder, for they would liken moralism to betraying such values. Of course, unlike regular moralists (see Nussbaum), these figures make a correlation between a morality-based argument and the problem of censorship. It is important to understand that moralism does not come hand in hand with censorship, in the same way that autonomism does not mean the development of a amoral attitude in one’s daily life. What makes an argument like Posner’s so attractive to conservative thinkers, however, is that such thinking allows one to ignore the social problems that a piece of work may be loaded with, which, as conservatives, they do not consider to be an issue.

In the case of the Ted Bundy film, what I am asking you to consider is the validity of cricising its aesthetic value on the basis of morality alone. If the film did sentimentalise the lifestyle of Bundy, does this immorality corrupt the worthiness of this film as a piece of art, and if so, how should we, as a society, interact with it and other works like it?

If you wish to read more about this subject, and more on the purpose of art in society, then follow this link to the ‘Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’. There is much in our everyday conversations that can be found in the world of philosopher, and much to be gained from engaging with it.

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