Beauty vs Morality

Is art bound by ethical constraints?

It is tempting to think of beauty as being morally neutral. From an awe-inspiring sunset to a striking portrait, thinkers have often sought to categorise beauty as existing in its own unique space, offering artists the freedom to create without constraints. However, this is not always the case, as the beauty of an artwork is often contingent on its moral features, argues Noël Carroll.


With respect to evaluating art, are questions of morality categorically irrelevant when it comes to beauty?  A thing of beauty, it might be said, is beyond good and evil.  For most of the Western tradition, this idea would have been an outlier.  In the Classical and Christian epochs, beauty was treated primarily as a means of teaching virtue.  And even puritanical dissenters connected beauty to morality, albeit negatively.

But in the eighteenth century, seeds were sown that flourished in the nineteenth century, heralded by slogans like “art for art’s sake” and labels such as aestheticism, and, later, formalism, and autonomism that signaled that art, including beautiful art, is separate from morality. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the gleeful cry, “Beauty is back,” broadcast at least the hope that artists were about to leave off their politicized moralizing and get back in the business of beauty.

The story of how beauty came detached from morality is complex.  One convenient starting point is Francis Hutcheson’s definition of “beauty” as “disinterested pleasure.”  When we look upon a beautiful urn, we take pleasure in the sight, not because we own it or because our child created it. We enjoy just looking at it; we can’t take your eyes off it.  We have no personal stake in it.  Our feelings are disinterested in the sense we expect a judge in a court of law to be disinterested.  That is, it does not mean “not interested,” but rather interested in a way that is independent of personal advantage.

This rather innocent notion of “disinterest” expanded, however, most notably in Immanuel Kant’s notion of “free beauty,” to include freedom from moral and cognitive interests.  Here, Kant was thinking primarily of natural beauty, but he was misinterpreted by influential intellectuals like Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant in a way that gave birth to the idea of “art pour art.”  Championed by writers like Théophile Gautier, this battle cry celebrated art for being of no practical value.  Paul Valéry said: “The most manifest characteristic of a work of art may be termed uselessness.”  Needless to say, this excludes morality from domain of art, since morality is of inestimable social utility.


For Oscar Wilde, good-versus-evil is nothing more than a rousing plot device.


Across the English Channel, flying the flag of aestheticism, converging views were being evolved by Walter Pater, James McNeil Whistler, and Oscar Wilde.  Perhaps the best known and most succinct statement of this perspective comes from Wilde in, of all things, the preface to his Picture of Dorian Gray, where he asserts: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all.”

This declaration may surprise readers who may think that if ever there was a moralistic book, it is Wilde’s; see how Dorian is punished.  But for Wilde, good-versus-evil is nothing more than a rousing plot device.  He says to one of his critics: “An artist, Sir, has no ethical sympathies at all.  Virtue and wickedness are to him simply what the colours on his palette are to the painter.  They are no more, and they are no less.  He sees that by their means a certain artistic effect can be produced and he produces it.”

 In the twentieth century, these views mutated into formalism of various sorts, including Clive Bell’s concept of significant form, and autonomism, as defended by, among others, Monroe Beardsley who was once anointed “the Dean of American Aesthetics” by the famous philosopher Nelson Goodman.  Formalism and autonomism did not employ the language of beauty outright, but they inherited some of its leading ideas, including the separation of art from morality.

Undoubtedly, the sentiment behind this separation stemmed from numerous sources.  Saluting the uselessness of art struck a blow against the materialism of the nineteenth century – its reduction of all value to use value – and the accompanying consumerist culture of the bourgeoisie.  In addition, the claim of autonomy served as a brake against the threat of censorship, as deployed in recent memory in the formalist defense of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in the 1990 Cincinnati obscenity trial. 

 Moreover, philosophically, the separation of art from everything else, including morality, makes the theoretical task of defining art, as utterly distinct from every other practice and social institution, all the easier.  Indeed, a definition beckons certain philosophers almost automatically, since if they define the function of art as the affordance of disinterested pleasure or aesthetic experience, and that is thought of as distinct from every other function, then art must be a category unto its own.

But the error here seems to be twofold.  First, why should art be thought of as utterly distinct from every other social practice?  Surely, reinforcing morality, for instance, is such an important cultural function, that redundant channels for realizing it would evolve naturally.  Art is one, sport is another, and so on.


The communication of the ethos of peoples has been an essential characteristic of art from the beginning and onwards.


The second source of error is the temptation to think that art, including beautiful art, has only one function.  Focusing on beauty, it has at least two functions.  One function is undoubtedly to arouse pleasure, most notably to sight and audition (and descriptions thereof).  But beauty also has what might be called a rhetorical function; beauty, for example, often endorses that which it represents.  The painting of the Madonna and Child endorses a certain conception of the virtues of parenthood.  Likewise, saints and their virtues are underwritten by their beauty.  This function of beauty presumably belonged to art since its very inception where it arose in the service of religion. That is, the communication of the ethos of peoples has been an essential characteristic of art from the beginning and onwards.  For a secular example, just think of Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People.

Undoubtedly, beauty’s capacity to endorse has been one of the features of art that has enabled it to join almost every dimension of the conversation of cultures – not only in terms of ethical and religious ideals, but philosophical, political, and even scientific ones, among others.  Moreover, insofar as it’s having been a perennial feature of art to facilitate such social discussions, it would appear to be appropriate to evaluate it when it violates justifiable ideals as well as when it endorses them.

For instance, if we think in terms of beauty, Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will is often ravishing.  Hitler’s descent from the clouds into Nuremburg as the crowds below follow the shadow of his plane to the airport is stunning cinematically as are a number of other scenes and techniques in the film. But that beauty is placed in the service of endorsing the Nazi ideology and can be condemned for that reason.

Of course, the aesthete may agree that it may be appropriate to criticize the film morally, but then go on to qualify that concession by maintaining that, nevertheless, it would never be appropriate to count a moral defect in an artwork as a defect in the work as as artistic creation – in the Riefenstahl case, as a work of beauty.   

But why not?  As regards its function within a work of art, beauty does not always make a positive contribution to the artwork as a unified whole.  Orson Welles criticized Luchino Visconti’s motion picture La Terra Trema on the grounds that the way in which he photographed the impoverished fishermen made them look like fashion models, thereby undermining the realistic ambitions of Visconti’s film.  That is, in this case, beauty was a defect in the work as a whole.

Similarly, the beauty in Riefenstahl’s documentary may be at odds with an essential purpose of the film.  Surely Riefenstahl would have identified that purpose as a commitment to engaging the allegiance of morally sensitive audiences to the Nazi creed, especially in terms of enlisting their fealty to the movement united behind the Führer. 

But that is not something morally sensitive viewers can wrap their minds around; it is something that they will resist imagining.  It will be unthinkable to them to even imagine that a Nazi dictatorship is beautiful.  And in that regard, Riefenstahl’s artistic choice of beauty as rhetorical strategy fails to serve the essential purpose that governs the intended unity of the very artwork that Triumph of the Will is, thus refuting the aesthete’s conviction that it is never fitting to adjudge the moral defects in a work as, at the same time, an artistic failing. 

For, sometimes it is apposite to raise ethical considerations in assessing the adequacy of artistic choices, including the use of beauty, when evaluating an artwork, because sometimes the beauty of the work is ineluctably connected to a moral covenant that will alienate the audience that the work itself is designed to recruit.

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