Art & Morality

I don’t remember the speaker’s name or most of what he talked about. It was at Rhode Island College about 15, maybe 16 years ago and he was talking about his experiences during the Bosnian War. What I do remember, and remember with profound sadness, was the speaker’s description of his ex-professor of Shakespeare who, during the war, became one of the military leaders whose hated and bigotry lead to obscene instances of violence and slaughter. The speaker talked of the profound cognitive dissonance he felt when considering the man who had taught him the beauty of Shakespeare’s verse and the humanity and power of Shakespeare’s drama but who had turned into an architect of violence and murder. I remember feeling a sense of disbelief back then, unsure how to reconcile a lover of drama and a teacher of Shakespeare with a man responsible for rapes and mass executions committed in the name of racial purity.

I was reminded of this moment the other day when reading Isaac Butler’s recent essay, “Then Let’s Keep Dancing,” in which Butler reflects on the meaning of art in the face of the Senate Torture Report. Butler notes that many of us involved in the arts and humanities like to argue that the arts make us better people:

Art makes us more human. Fiction increases empathy. Music awakens us to the beauty of the world. Genre allows us to explore politics while keeping the audience entertained.
Perhaps you’ve heard — or, if you’re me, written and said — some variation of the above over the past decade or so. Those of us who care about art, about culture, about the wondrous creations humans can get up to when they set their minds to it, have said something along these lines at some point. We’ve had to make the case for pursuing the arts, or caring about them so damn much, around the dinner table, or in letters to our elected representatives justifying the spending of millions of dollars on what often amounts to a bauble for the wealthy.

He then asks if “we’ve been lying to ourselves.”

I struggle with these same questions regularly. In the face of the violence and inequity and injustice that pervades our culture, what do my few attempts at artistic creation mean? Is my work as a theatre scholar and teacher inherently selfish or even pointless? Furthermore, because my PhD advisor is heavily invested in how the cognitive sciences can inform theatre scholarship, I have read a number of arguments claiming that theatre viewing increases empathy in audience members. Even without the cognitive sciences angle, the book my department uses for our acting classes claims that acting “is life-enhancing,” and that the student will “gain insight regarding others, as individuals and groups,” and that they “will observe more carefully and…interact with greater sensitivity.” To which I respond, somewhat facetiously, has the author met any actors. I have spent most of my life in and around theatre practitioners and scholars and I can say with a good deal of confidence that there are just as many selfish, self-centered, callous, and emotionally cruel actors as in any other demographic. Look up some of the statements made by Kevin Sorbo or Adam Baldwin and tell me if their actor training has increased their empathy for others.

Yes, in today’s cultural environment those involved with the arts are on such uncertain economic grounds that pointing to any potentially verifiable and statistically quantifiable aspect of the arts makes sense for funding. But we need to be very, very careful not to ascribe magic moral powers to either observing or making art, neither of which provides any guarantee of ethical or moral standing. No amount of fMRI experiments will necessarily predict ethical behavior out in the world. I am reminded here of Darley and Batson’s study, “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior,” where even seminary students planning a talk on the Good Samaritan were no more likely to help someone in need than others when pressed for time. Sure, reading or seeing plays can, perhaps, give one a greater and more varied sense of humanity in the abstract. But Ferguson is not abstract. Guantanamo Bay is not abstract. Bodies tortured are not abstract. Empathy for others can so very easily be short-circuited in the real world that to argue for the arts as a solution to bigotry and hatred, violence and warfare, is to ignore human history.

This is not to say that the arts aren’t important. They are fundamental to humanity in profound ways — but they are fundamental to all of humanity: killers, racists, and fascists have as much claim to the arts as academics, saints, and artists. Sometimes those two sets overlap completely. To pretend that exposure to, or creation of, art will lead, necessarily, to ethical behavior is to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be human. I agree with Butler’s conclusion that the “deeper virtues and pleasure of art, the ones beyond the surface sheen, are valuable,” but that they “might also be worthless,” inasmuch as worth in a quantitative fashion is the wrong measurement — like calculating distance in ounces. A recent Twitter post encapsulates a more qualitative and, I think, valid measurement for the worth of the arts and their meaningfulness for our species and cultures, as well as what their worth to individuals, both as audience and as creators.

From Chris Skaife this image speaks volumes to me about the joy and importance of art in general, but yes, performance in particular.

Twitter post by Chris Skaife

In a single image, Chris reframes the conversation from what art is worth in some supposedly scientific or economic way, to the ineffable quality of joy. This shows, in a simple, blurry snapshot, the way art helps us to feel and live and play and explore, both ourselves and the world around us. This is reason enough for us to fight for the arts, to claim value beyond worth: a little girl dancing in front of a painting.

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