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The Relationship Between Art And Philosophical Ethics

1520 words - 6 pages

The relationship between art and philosophical ethics can be divided into a dichotomy of two, radical understandings: aestheticism and moralism. Aestheticism prioritizes, if not entirely isolates, the artistic and technical value of an artwork over its moral implications. The aesthetic tradition asserts that art ought to be composed solely “for art’s sake,” hinging this position upon the assumption that only the essential component of an artwork—the sense to which the artwork is intended to appeal—is relevant in its critique (Peek, “Ethical Criticism of Art”). Within classical aesthetics, this conception of artistic value is epitomized by Enlightenment-era rationalist Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, in which he argues that one’s judgment of art must be of inherent “disinterest,” unconstrained by concepts of utility and morality. Kant suggests that art ought to be judged only upon its formal properties, such as design and composition, instead of for its perceived practical or moral worth. In this way, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for example, would not be judged based upon da Vinci’s perceived psychological neuroses nor for the paintings modern relevance and fame, but on its arrangement: the use of contrapposto, pyramidal perspective, curved and straight lines.
This perspective is rivaled by Moralism. The Moralist theory emphasizes that the aesthetic value of an artwork is determined, or at least influenced, by its ethical premise. This school of thought formed the foundation of the modern philosophical study of art, making the discipline of recurring interest and debate since Plato’s aesthetics. To reference his “Parable of the Cave,” Plato interprets the arts not as shining indications of the enlightened world beyond the cavern, but rather as shadows on its walls. In his Republic, Plato asserts that the role of the actor, for example, is one of pretense, as he believed theatre offers only a troubling parody of reality. This assertion, that art is inextricably linked with a moral component, was later re-visited by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, though he had approached the subject with a more ambivalent mentality. Tolstoy understood art a method of communicating and forming ethical and emotional positions, holding that “without art, humans would be ignorant of others’ feelings, and we would be savages.”
Yet, we must ask, to what extent is Tolstoy’s position a defensible one? What role, if any, do the arts play in the development and expression of our collective ethical identity? These questions expand into much broader inquiries, concerning whether the possession of knowledge in and of itself is charged with ethical associations and responsibilities. Art is knowledge producing in that it provides us examples of, or exercise in, morally relevant activities. That is to say, particular and practical knowledge is to be gained from art, as not only does artwork prompt an immediate moral response from the spectator but it also grants imaginative...

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