A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 2

To recap, in my last post I talked about some of the things people mean when they say a work of art is “good”:

  1. A display of skill awed me
  2. I had a heightened experience
  3. The work gave me animal pleasure
  4. It is morally good that this work exists
  5. The work accurately described reality

Today I’m going to drill down on #4, the big M, m-o-r-a-l-i-t-y. What do we mean when we say (or think, or imply) that a work of art is morally good or bad? Is talking about morality with respect to art a necessary mode or a failure mode? That is, does it matter? How much?

When I was in high school, smart kids would eagerly remind you that Oscar Wilde said “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all”–and feel very clever. I had the entire preface to Picture of Dorian Gray in my Facebook quotes from 2005-2009  so I know what I’m talking about here. But even Oscar Wilde doesn’t really get into what he means by ‘moral’. And this is a problem because just about anyone can clearly perceive that art can have effects that are bad or intents that are good, and those things seem related to morality. So let’s taboo the word ‘morality’ and replace it with some other concepts.


The problem of morality can be broken into three parts: What do people want to happen when they make moral judgments? What do they think will cause it to happen? And lastly, has it worked?

There is a kind of implicit utilitarian reasoning that goes on when we think that something is moral or immoral. Something being “moral” and “immoral” fundamentally means that it is 1) the product of a decision, that 2) has either a positive or a negative effect. Causing someone pain is immoral because, well, pain is pain. On the flipside, suffering so that someone else does not feel pain is the height of morality. We generally consider cheating immoral in a monogamous relationship because it breaks an agreement that made any given number of parties happy. Rape, murder, lying, etc are considered immoral because they all violate consent (which causes pain, or interferes with self-protection) in addition to other kinds of pain caused. One could argue that sacredness is moral because it does the utilitarian reasoning for you, and knee-jerk reasoning that causes good things to happen is good! And in turn one could argue that violating sacredness, while perhaps not immoral per se, suggests that the violator is prone to not caring about people experiencing pain.

There are lots of examples in the history of art of the idea that just depicting an immoral thing is itself immoral, essentially tantamount to the immoral thing happening. The image above, for example, is a section of the Caravaggio painting Madonna of the Pilgrims (or Madonna di Loreto), which was famously controversial for depicting dirty beggar feet at what would have been a worshipper’s eye level, effectively equivalent to letting a real beggar into the chapel. In other religions, religious icons are equivalent to the religious figure they represent–profaning them would mean profaning an actual supernatural being. It took a long time, in other words, for art theory to grasp the separation between depicted and non-depicted reality.

While such attitudes are easy to paint as primitive and ignorant when they involve things we don’t consider immoral anymore, it’s harder when the moral question is something we might care about, like violence in a videogame or rape in a TV show. On the whole, I don’t think many would seriously believe claims that depicting a murder is the same as a murder, or depicting sexism definitely causes more of it to happen (And in case they do, let’s get it out of the way: depicting an unpleasant thing is often a powerful way of processing it. It depends on the depiction). But on the other hand, we have people boycotting Game of Thrones or praising Orange is the New Black, on the principle of them being (among other things) bad for rape or good for representation. So clearly, people seem to want less rape (and fewer attitudes that lead to rape) and think that boycotting shows that don’t treat it in the optimal way will get you there. Does that work?

Sometimes! There have been numerous studies that point to trends that the politically progressive would approve of, like exposure to people of minority experiences through media decreasing hostility towards those people or exposure to western media increasing feminist attitudes. But sometimes effect isn’t real, or counter-intuitive. For example, we see that availability of porn correlates with a decrease in rape. We see that rock music doesn’t have a ton to do with how often teenagers have sex or get pregnant (turns out cultural norms and birth control have more to do with it).

The reason that Oscar Wilde says that books cannot be moral, is because morality (as I said above) requires choice, and art is inert. A book is not a thinking being. So if we’re going to argue about morality–specifically, if we’re going to argue that a book contains an attitude (or advocates an attitude) that is either good or bad for the world–then the only relevant question is measurable effect. Because if you don’t care about effect, then you care about symbolism.

Which means that as far as art is concerned, it’s important to separate church and state. Church criticism has to do with how well an artwork or artistic choice fits something external to the work, such as a personal, political or religious belief system. I’ll never forget a Buzzfeed review of Snowpiercer, for example, that read:

Snowpiercer, in contrast, offers a bit of bare-bones exposition and drops you in the thick of the plot, expecting you to piece together narrative clues. You can do this because you are a human being with a modicum of reasoning and patience: It’s not that hard. But it feels novel because the contemporary blockbuster spoon-feeds us plot, oftentimes through clunky dialogue…The narrative may have high stakes, but the actual actions are cold, metallic, without true consequence”

In case you couldn’t tell, author Anne Petersen really doesn’t like blockbuster movies. Notice how Snowpiercer is positioned in contrast to them: Snowpiercer uses in media res, Snowpiercer uses minimal exposition, and because those things are symbolically good in the anti-mindless-blockbuster fight, Snowpiercer is good! When in fact, because Snowpiercer provides minimal superficial exposition, characters are constantly forced to explain their motivations and circumstances in dialog–perhaps the clunkiest tactic of all. Petersen even goes on to make this symbolic battle explicit, capping her review by urging readers that “by proselytizing for Snowpiercer, we can incentivize the production of films like it and, in so doing, revive the potential of blockbuster cinema to move, unsettle, and even entertain.” Only to someone that cares about symbolism would Snowpiercer be more than an average (if enjoyable to some) movie, worth optimizing and rallying around.

We like symbolism because symbolism is easy. It produces an illusion of effectiveness. I don’t mind people liking their illusions, and sometimes a very good illusion is indistinguishable from the real thing. I don’t mind people liking Mad Max: Fury Road for being feminist (or hating it for not being feminist enough if that’s what they want to do). But although a work being feminist might correlate with an artwork having a positive effect, or an artwork being good, it’s utterly meaningless as a measure of those qualities. It is, obviously, more effective to talk about things that are a measure of those qualities.



I’ve explained that whether or not a work of art might have a cascading effect that is either good or bad for the world, that still doesn’t tell us anything about whether the artwork is good as art. However, that isn’t to say that the same instinct that makes us make a moral judgement of a work of art isn’t hinting at something related to aesthetics.

In her classic essay Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag discusses the moral ambiguity inherent in war photography: “Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” Taking a picture of suffering instead of relieving the suffering, taking pictures of violence that might incite more violence and taking a picture of violence that might prevent violence each have different moral implications that affect our aesthetic experience of the photograph. Sontag dances around the idea that while morality isn’t necessarily an aesthetic boon, immorality can be an aesthetic flaw.

The problem with taking a beautiful picture of a boy falling off of a cliff instead of stopping him from falling, is that your picture about “the helplessness of fate” or “how falling looks like flying” suddenly becomes about how you didn’t help the boy and what that says about life and you. The work might be intellectually interesting (“Ah, humans are bad”), but it would no longer be artistically interesting, because it isn’t coherent. Especially according to what it purports to care about. Its purported themes have been mangled by its revealed themes, which means that all of the things it does to express a theme have been optimized for the wrong thing. Which is why The Cosby Show feels weird now, and something like Emma Sulkowicz’s work would feel weird if she weren’t, in fact, a victim. It’s why Glee being racist would be strange or why Inglorious Basterds being pro-Nazi-murder makes sense but The Sound of Music being pro-Nazi-murder wouldn’t. A work’s moral attitude, or attitude towards the world, is part of its artistry—sometimes a central part, and sometimes just a color, but when that color is dissonant the entire work becomes dissonant. And because moral attitudes are often a work’s organizing principle, the dissonance is particularly unforgivable.

But what about a work that’s coherently immoral? What if our cliff photographer intended to make a morally objectionable work, and perhaps even pushed the boy off the edge themselves? This is where I get more speculative, and risk perpetuating the failures of moral critics. I largely believe that one of the overarching goals of art is to be beautiful, and if that goal is not present, the work is not art but something else, or at least very bad at being art. And there are types of ugliness that are incompatible with beauty, and are themselves strong dissonant notes in the attempt to make something artistic. But the types of ugliness that cause this are badly understood, badly examined and badly described.


Art causing good things to happen in the world is more likely to be a product of art being good than art being moral. This is because art that is good isn’t merely symbolic, or trope-centric, or any other tactics that treat the symptoms of truth and not the disease. Being in favor of reality in art is like being in favor of freedom of speech: you’ll hear a lot of things you don’t want to hear, but overall getting all of the information is better for making decisions, moral or otherwise. Maybe not on the individual level, in which imperatives and manipulation might be an effective stopgap, but on the culture-wide level in which we decide what things would be worth manipulating people for (if we did that).

And secretly, I think other people think this too. Because one of the main points that moral critiques of art come down to is that the art wasn’t real enough. And one of the most frequent notes of support I hear is that finally a work of art depicted something never depicted, or finally depicted it right. “Representation” as a quota or guaranteed artistic and moral good is silly. Just like the Bechdel test as a hard and fast rule is silly. But “representation” as the idea that reality is vast, and diverse, and we benefit both from seeing our reality and unfamiliar realities depicted–seems pretty important. So when people are happy about one story and angry about another, I don’t think it’s merely sacredness, or symbolism, or politics, but often a very accurate sense of when one thing is more correct than another. If we see “representation” as a “step in the direction of correctness” and not as a symbolic problem to pay homage to, then that’s what we’ll talk about art in terms of.

Truth itself is a moral problem. And works we criticize for being immoral that are in fact untrue would be better criticized for being false or not optimally true than on nebulously moral terms. A stereotype of a money-grubbing Jew just doesn’t help me understand Jews, and an artwork that utilizes it sincerely reveals itself as not being interested in understanding Jews either. As I discussed in my last piece, a work of art being “realistic” isn’t enough to make it good either, but a relentless pursuit of truth is a step in the right direction, and it doesn’t require (although it can use!) harshness, as harshness is not all of truth.

I remember, for example, watching Transparent and thinking about how it wasn’t really any kind of technological improvement on the upper middle class sexual angst story, except with added queer. Its characters embodied a bit too clearly what the show was determined to talk about, and it seemed vaguely fetishistic. On the other hand I noticed that its handling of queerness in a more-or-less normalizing manner added a layer of kindness in the way the story thought about people. It was strange to see that kindness in a sexual angst melodrama, and I appreciated it. Intense emotions come from somewhere, and if you’re hell-bent on depicting them, and criticizing them, you need to know what the beast really is, and it is difficult to do that without some “loving the person as they love themselves.”

I want to finish by stepping back from the latest political issues and obvious moral dichotomies, and in fact from morality altogether. Because morality is boring. Morality is a prerequisite. Our attachment to symbolism and social belonging renders loving science fiction tropes and loving moral tropes to be nigh indistinguishable. What is hard is telling a coherent truth, with enough kindness to be insightful, and enough ugliness to be accurate. What’s hard is creating something inventive and strange and skillful. Morality is the training wheels for the harder problem, and it should be accorded exactly as much respect as such.

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About Haley Thurston

Haley Thurston is a resident blogger. In her posts, she explores what it would mean for us to move away from a self-reflexive, tvtropes understanding of how art works to something more fundamental. You can find out more about her on her website.


  1. ** crickets **

    I think you intimidated everybody :)

    Two thoughts:

    “Art causing good things to happen in the world is more likely to be a product of art being good than art being moral.”

    This reminds me of an analogous thought on technology I’ve been discussing with a client: just replace “art” with “technology.” So a good puzzle app that is good at being a puzzle is better than a morally motivated water pump designed for poor Africans.

    Second thought is my 2×2 of art: moral vs. immoral, beautiful vs. ugly which we discussed elsewhere. I’ve now concluded morality and beauty are usually the same thing. The immoral+beautiful category turns out to be a false beauty in some sense, and moral+ugly turns out to be sort of hidden beauty.

    I think morality and beauty come together in some notion of truth. When art reveals a truth, it is both. When it does not, it is neither.

    • Ah, well. Perhaps I should come up with more catchy titles…

      Well a water pump that’s good at being a water pump sounds like a good idea, but between a puzzle app that’s good at being a puzzle app and a water pump that’s moral but bad at being a water pump–there’s a strong argument for the puzzle app.

      One of the best insights I got from religion (actually) growing up was the idea of truth, beauty, and goodness as a triumvirate of sorts. One doesn’t exist quite independently of the other, and things that are effective on a more ‘transcendent’ (ugh, need a better word) level tend to have elements of all three.

      • This is the bad water pump example that prompted my earlier comment. It’s a great extended critique of do-gooderism in nonprofit world and how things going badly wrong is the norm rather than the exception. The water pump story there is an ill-conceived attempt to design it as a playground toy that children could operate in the course of play. You can imagine how the train-wreck unfolded.

        Unfortunately, too much do-gooder tech is like this.

        Your triumvirate reminds me of this triangle I made up, which is close.

  2. Greg Perkins says

    There are two ways I would interpret the phrase “It is morally good that this work exists”:
    4A. I agree with the artist’s motivation to create this work.
    4B. The existence of this work signifies something about society which I find proper.

    Of course, it’s crucial to remember that both of these are statements about the viewer’s relationship to the work, as are all of the 5 (aggregation might provide some sense of “objective” morality but it would be highly dependent on the selection context, as your examples show).

    Under that framework, the beggar’s feet example fell squarely negative (in its social context) on axis B, though the intent seems rather neutral.

    The falling child photograph arguably would violate our current standards on axis B (depending on how able the photographer would have been to help, I suppose) but interestingly it might have a positive resonance for contemporary viewers on axis A (intent).

    The stereotype of a money-grubbing Jew might have negative values on both axes, as are Bechdel test failures. Transparent seems like it was mixed on axis A (intent), but positive on axis B (significance), to you.

    Personally, my preference in art is extremely related to my morality. For instance, postmodern installation art resonates on both axes: it indicates that there is an experimental playfulness in the gallery scene, and it tries to reinforce agency and challenge pure detached observation.

    I strongly disagree with your conclusion, though — I think considering the moral judgements surrounding artwork can be an immensely fulfilling method of situating them in historical and evolutionary context.


    PS: the “dirty beggar feet” section shown was from the Madonna of the Rosary, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madonna_of_the_Rosary_(Caravaggio) not the Madonna di Loreto, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madonna_di_Loreto_(Caravaggio) though it was the Madonna di Loreto which caused the contemporaneous conflict (http://thepinesofrome.blogspot.com/2012/02/madonna-of-loreto-caravaggio-vs.html)

  3. Think there’s a #6 here, which is:

    6. I derive pleasure from the notion of being the sort of person who enjoys this work.

    It’s a sort of meta-pleasure, devoid of any real reaction to the work itself. It involves an understanding of the work’s place in current culture as a philosophical or aesthetic statement; an a desire to position onself against that.

    Put simply, it’s getting high on yourself, not on the work. This related, but not identical to, to #4.

    It also goes some way toward explaining many thesaurus-abusing Pitchfork reviews, for example.

  4. Finally got around to reading this, just two remarks, more about factual stuff and not the actual thing you are trying to say. 1) I heard the emma girl might not really be a victim. As in her case is disputed by some. 2) according to some psychological/ social research a lot of stereotypes are actually true. (A researcher had a long list of studies proving this). This latter baffled me myself. As it went against a lotfof what I was told.

    Sorry that I dont have sources atm. Reading this while in transit. Could look then up later.

  5. Thinking about this some more, I realize I just described stoicism.

    Enjoying art for its own sake = hedonism
    Enjoying the notion of your own sophisticated tastes = stoicism

    As usual, the humorists are the true philosophers: