Sunday 10 June 2012

Why Can't Art Be Ethical?

Locked Out of the Main Republican Party!
I haven't had the best of weeks. On Sunday the police prevented me and child 2 from waving our ‘Make Monarchy History’ banners at the royal barge at the Jubilee. They rounded us up along with hundreds of other Republicans in a street well away from the cameras of the world. But on Tuesday I was caught on video being shouted at myself in a soaking tent in the borderlands of England and Wales.

Art of the temple of Brauronian Artemis

The context was a festival of ‘philosophy and music’ at Hay on Wye (not the much larger and more prestigious literary festival, founded in 1988, which Bill Clinton once described as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’).  I am usually quite good at running debates,  and  was invited to chair a panel asking whether the modern Art Gallery has become a substitute for the Church (it must be admitted that my sole qualification for this is that my father is an Anglican priest). I was intrigued by the topic because in ancient Greece, temples and art galleries were indistinguishable. The place with all the paintings and the statues and the ‘installations’ was always a temple complex: the Greeks thought the gods loved art and wanted religious buildings jam-packed in their honour.

Back in Britain, with loud folk-rock pulsating through the canvas of the tent, I tried to get the ‘freelance philosopher’ Jonathan Ree going, plus  two of the  top people in the Art world: Charles Saumarez Smith, CEO of the Royal Academy, and Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Modern.

Charles and Penelope agreed that art galleries resemble churches socially in that there is rivalry between different cities to build the most splendid new architectural edifice to dominate the local skyline. They were in absolute disagreement that visual art could or should have an effect on the viewer of any spiritual or metaphysical kind—Saumarez Smith thought transcendence possible, while Curtis thought it was actually undesirable. They both think that the main aim of art is to invite the viewer to ‘look at looking’, that is, reflect on what s/he is doing while contemplating the artwork (i.e. in the language of a ‘festival of philosophy’, do something cognitive or epistemological). All very postmodern, self-aware, 'sef-reflexive', 'meta-' and (to my mind) so very onanistic and ‘last-century’.

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern
And then I put my foot in it. My understanding of one of the reasons why people (used to) go to church is to get moral guidance. Religion can provide ethical standards, codes of behaviour, and encourage unselfishness and charity. I asked whether art could or should substitute for the ethical function of churchgoing. Both luminaries shuddered in absolute horror. How could I have raised such an obscene question? You would have thought that I had proposed legislation dictating that art could only feature youths in love with tractors, as in Stalinist ‘socialist realism.’ The implication was that connecting art and ethics was profoundly dangerous and would lead immediately to political censorship.

The audience response was fascinating. One woman spoke about how art had given her a reason to live by creating vistas of hope and possibility when she was widowed. Another suggested that churches were too conservative and authoritarian in the art that they displayed and should encourage congregations to participate in creating inspiring visual environments. 

But one middle-aged man launched an attack on me which was clearly a visceral reaction to the question I had raised, even though it took a personal form (“How can someone as ignorant as you be a Professor of Classics?” and “I can’t believe they asked someone with your ego to chair at this festival!”). I always did know how to charm people.
Horace reciting to Virgil and Maecenas

Ancient critics thought that art was divinely inspired (Homer) and could give you a metaphysical tingle (Longinus in On the Sublime). But they also agreed that at its best it was useful to the community as well as pleasurable, utile as well as dulce (Plato, Aristotle, Horace). Yet another reason we need to keep in touch with the wisdom of our cultural ancestors?


  1. Interesting. The mass art we see on TV is full, surely, of moral direction, ethical quandaries, good goodies and bad baddies. Nobody seems to regard that as the thin end of the fascist wedge (well, almost nobody anyway). Indeed, I suspect your excitable assailant would be rather against deliberately amoral TV.

    But I suppose you don't see a lot of TV in galleries, which presumably are reserved for the sort of High Art that can only truly be appreciated by people as well-informed and humble as the twerp who had a go at you.

  2. Charlie, I completely agree. There is something very strange going on here to do with elite versus popular artforms!

  3. I always thought religion was just a cack-handed attempt at the artistic examination of right and wrong, as executed by petty tyrants and frustrated artists (the two usually go hand in hand), i.e., art without the subtlety or the admission of complexity, by the kinds of people who instinctively fail to grasp the notion that there isn't always a right or wrong answer, or that the right one mightn't be achievable anyway. At the other end of the spectrum, the really pretentious highbrow art stuff - which I suspect your critics at this debate would worship as some kind of pure ideal - seems to me to be the smoke and mirrors of the subtle and the complex without having the courage to really use it to say anything at all. Maybe that's what they're afraid of: having to say something.

  4. I rather think you are right, Matt.