Thursday, October 4, 2007

In the past few years I've often found myself among friends turning over the question of what exactly is the relationship of art and morals. Do we impose upon them a direct correspondence, such that the quality of a painting, book or sculpture is to be plotted according to the spiritual purity or impurity of its creator? Conversely, do we impose a complete dissociation between these categories, to the end that art is art, and goodness goodness, and never the twain shall meet? Neither option really satisfies me; I certainly feel pious trumpeting the first, but must countenance the absurd naivety of so doing; as for the second, I am not comfortable supposing that even the most accomplished of the Muses' chosen technicians, devoid of all of conscience's better angels could ever produce any work that contains no hint of the repulsive. Thus the nature of the impass, with examples on both sides pointing to this joint conclusion. It is difficult to condemn the works of E.M. Forster, about as noble a figure as Secularism can afford, for being "ugly," in either a moral or aesthetic sense. There is a definite desperation about them, the grasping of the hand of the lost for The Other in the dark, but never in any gross, survivalistic way. As often as not, the blind lapses of his characters lead them across roads indistiguishable from the Path of the Righteous, and whether or not Forster shared his characters' dimmed vision, it is impolitic to tax him over the question of ethics. And yet the man was no Christian; do we then dismiss his ouevre in its entirety?

On the other hand, after we have presided over the divorce of art and morality, the evidences of the outcome lean no more in our favor than previously; has there ever been a great writer, or even a writer who approached greatness who had no interest in the nature of good and evil? If this new philosophy of ours were impressed upon the works of which we are the critics, would we so willingly nod approval as we keep telling ourselves? Honestly, I'm not at all sure the question can ever be fully satisfied. The odd bisection implied by the creed "Ars Gratia Artis" has never really ingrained itself in any poem or novel so thoroughly that questions of morality have ceased to arise, and having arisen to find a reply. Artists ask it often without thinking, or ask it while pretending not to. Even Oscar Wilde, the walking figure of the man who pretended uninterest in questions of goodness or wickedness gave us "Dorian Gray," which is nothing if not inquisitive of the inseperable nature of art and the soul.

I think, after all of this, that something of a valid middle ground is left for us; we measure the stature of art in relation to moral rectitude insofar as the ethical and metaphysical frame in which a work of art exists alters its appearance for better or worse; when the grotesqueries of a twisted philosophy warp the surface of that philosophy's artistic exposition, then the moralist and the critic in us can, and ought to speak with a united voice of reproof. At other times, each works his chosen office with respect to the limits of his voice's relevance; the one is judge of Beauty, the other of Goodness, distinct from each other, though never quite detatched.

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