I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’ve decided to start an irregular series of posts in which I discuss sort of fundamental ideas behind how I approach texts, write for this site, and just generally approach the world. There will be at least a couple this and next week, mostly because I realized that I had something I wanted to say, but felt I needed to explain some underlying concepts first. And it just generally occurred to me that I might want to have some posts I could just point to and say “go here” instead of having to repeat myself in articles and comments. Anyway, this is the first of these posts.
One of the most basic principles underlying my approach to criticism is that aesthetics are inextricable from ethics. Before I go any further, I should make clear that I am emphatically not endorsing Chekhov’s view that all art should be didactic and encourage “good morals.” However, neither am I endorsing Wilde’s contrary ars arsa position.
First there is the trivial sense: the creation of art is an action, which occurs in the real world and has consequences for real people. It is thus impossible for it to not have some moral dimension–“it’s for art” is not a defense against accusations of immorality. (Although, to be clear, many “moral” objections to art are simply prudery; however, the correct response is not “art is above moral concerns” but rather “your morality blows.”)
More importantly, however, aesthetics and ethics are fundamentally connected at their root: both are expressions of values, which is to say that both aesthetic and moral judgment derive from some underlying sense that some things–objects, ideas, sensations, material social conditions, whatever–are better than others.That quality of better does not actually vary between the aesthetic and the moral; better is better.
So, while separate categories, the aesthetic and the moral are inextricably intertwined. You can see it in the way we sometimes respond to either, the way we might refer to an immoral act as “disgusting” or a particularly moral one as “beautiful,” or conversely the way we might refer to bad art as “wrong” and good art as “right.”
This entanglement, in turn, means that the moral dimension is a legitimate consideration in any form of criticism. It is not as simple as saying that aesthetically good art must also be morally good or vice versa; rather it is, as I said, that the ethical dimension is one thing to consider in making aesthetic judgments (and the aesthetic is one thing to consider in making moral judgments).
A short version: beauty is good, but it is neither necessary to, nor sufficient for, goodness. Goodness is beautiful, but it is neither necessary to, nor sufficient for, beauty.