Home > analysis, film > What are the Moral Limits of Art?

What are the Moral Limits of Art?

I was digging through some of my school files and I found this essay I once wrote. I find it interesting for the different mediums I utilize and like to analyze. I decided to go ahead and throw it in on here. Let me know what you think.

Art, for the most part, is derived from the culture of its originating place. It represents the social trends of that atmosphere and applies it in unique and greatly varied mediums. Art is a representation of how are cultures act and behave, in this art is confined the constant position of society. Art Historian John Manfredi reflects on art, “In any society there are persons who try to create sights, sounds, forms, and realms of thought that are more than what can be derived from the sensory world without the operation of the human mind” (Manfredi, 19). Manfredi captures the aesthetic, but also leads to the idea that art can reject culture, disregarding social and moral standards. Sometimes this can change those standards, returning to the idea that art is representation of culture. Popular art is outlined by social and moral constructs, while art that breaks new ground acts against those constructs and changes the definitions when applied to art.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century western art has been dominated by religious themes since the time of Rome’s Fall. With the split of Christianity there was also a diversification of art; Catholic art was still primarily religious, while Protestant art was secular which commonly had portrayals of the artist’s own cultural world. This trend continues much the same until the mid-19th century when there is an explosion in the means of artistic medium. The invention of the camera and cinema would greatly affect artistic expression. This explosion of artistic mediums coincides with the dawn of the twentieth century.

Social, political, and economic revolutions that made up the character of the 19th century branched out and expanded in the twentieth century. Almost more than any other century preceding it, the 20th C. was filled with social chaos and upheavals. In just the same fashion art went through a plethora of changes in the century. It represented cultures between the two world wars and challenged those values with the cold war in the middle and second half of the century which continues on to this day. In a century of constant changes such differences in art seem inevitable, but never before in times of social upheavals has there been such a challenge from and to the art world. One such example is the Nazi regime in Germany, which according to the Oxford University Press confiscated over 15,000 works by 1937 (MoMA). Degenerate art was considered opposed to the values of the Nazi state and thus Germany of the time. The art that was mostly destroyed came from the preceding decades that depicted social chaos espouses from the rapid rise of modernity, art inspired by tropical indigenous art, and the social fallout after the first world war. It was during this time that art took less of a defined shape and became more abstract. This abstraction helped establish the diversity of styles and artistic mediums in the century and the beginnings of art representing and rejecting society simultaneously.

Most people who compare art between the twentieth century and the time before notice this abstraction. There is a divide on whether this art is truly representational of culture. Some criticize that the artists have gotten carried away with abstraction and there is little point to majority of the works. However, other viewers of the art can see the social chaos that these more recent art styles represent; they represent the culture just as much as they reject. Author Rob van Gerwen states, “…that moral flaws in events represented in works do not, as such, count morally against the artistic merit of such works, since art assumes that the beholder takes on an artistic attitude which allows him to think and feel (morally) relevant thoughts about the represented without being obliged to act according to these thoughts and feelings” (Gerwen). This divide makes for the greatest challenge in understanding twentieth century art when applied to cultural studies.

The previously mentioned mediums of art, photography and cinema, introduced in the 19th century truly manifested themselves in the next century. Unlike most forms of art which are created from nothing but materials, both photography and cinema traditionally use what is already present. Think of it in art terms that the former is fiction and the latter as non-fiction. Because photography and cinema use images of reality it has seen the greatest limitations of cultural acceptance. In both mediums we can see what is good about cultures, and also recognize what is horribly wrong. In terms of presentation both forms can be criticized for depictions of things not kosher with most societies (i.e. violence and nudity).

While photography has a greater reign its only standard of limitations of mentioned depictions are criticisms. Cinema however is rated for the levels of acceptable values in individual films. The higher the rating (ratings go from G, the most acceptable, to NC-17, the least acceptable) the greater the age restriction and accessibility to the films. This same rating system was applied to music in the later part of the century. Never before has there been a system of measuring the social-kosher qualities of artistic mediums. Film critic Roger Ebert stated in a review, “Although the MPAA ratings were allegedly created as a way of heading off government censorship, some say that has always been a ruse — and, besides, a government system would actually require rules, documentation, transparency, accountability and due process. These are not things the secretive MPAA is fond of” (Ebert). While these higher rated forms can be appreciated there is still the pressure that they, in some manner, challenge socially accepted values. The greatest extreme of this system has been the use of censorship as mentioned in the Ebert review. Censorship typically comes from a government limiting oral, written, and visual voice from an author(s) to block any negative images of said government or society. Generally censorship is associated with the practice of the freedom of speech, but isn’t art one such expression of this? The use of rating systems and censorship are the epitomes of social limitations upon artistic mediums.

In this sense the twentieth century brought out the greatest differences of art being a representation of culture. The flux of artistic mediums in the twentieth century and the social changes allowed for art to change and be presented in a great multitude. The use of ratings and censorship is the literal use of social limitations on art. As such, there is a division in art that lies within those social limitations, and art that rejects those limitations and is later treated to expanded limitations. Those varied art mediums coupled with social changes presented an atmosphere where art not only can represent culture, but reject it as well.

Ebert, Roger. “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” rogerebert.com. 15 Sept. 2006. Chicago Sun Times. Web. 16 Oct. 2010.

van Gerwen, Rob. “Ethical Autonominism: The Work of Art as Moral Agent.” Contemporary Aesthetics. Unknown. Web. 09 Oct. 2010.

Kuhnel, Anita. “Entartete Kunst.” MoMA. 2009. Oxford University Press. Web. 16 Oct. 2010.

Manfredi, John. The Social Limits of Art. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982. Print.


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