By Neil Lightman
Art has been a centre point of human civilisation for millennia. We treat the mastery of an artform as a goal worthy of pursuit and spend billions of dollars every year on financing art. But nowadays, when a piece of art manages to be the topic of discussion on a news program or television show, the art is usually accused by some of being immoral or improper in some way. How can art be immoral, is immoral art of any value, and should it be possible to regulate immoral art?
What is an immoral art piece? The following pieces of art have all been accused of being immoral: A sculpture of a policewoman in mask and riot gear called Petra, squatting, and peeing onto the floor; drawings of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which prompted an attack on the magazine office that resulted in the death of twelve people and wounded many more; the song ‘Fuck tha Police’ performed by N.W.A., which was the only song in history to receive a public response from the FBI; a picture of Kathy Griffin holding up a doll’s head, made to represent the bloodied severed head of US president Donald Trump.
The first noteworthy aspect of this topic is that claims about the supposed immorality of an art piece usually come shrouded in an assertion about how the art simply is not ‘good’. This was true for all four examples listed above. The usual line of attack by outraged peddlers is ‘It’s just ugly with no artistic skill’, which is simply a subjective opinion about an art piece and is therefore as valid as any other.
However, this is often quickly followed by ‘… and just vulgar and offensive’. Now, we have reached the domain of immoral art, where art isn’t bad because it is subjectively of no artistic value to the speaker, but because of a claimed ‘corrupting influence’ on broader society. It seems that this clever switch from ‘immoral’ to simply ‘artistically untalented’ is done to remove any burden of proof from the accuser’s shoulders. A subjective claim about liking or disliking art is often simply accepted at face value, and not challenged further, but alleging immorality and indecency requires good arguments to support the allegation, which are often lacking.
How can art be immoral? It is often claimed that immoral art pieces are an insult to some group, and that the censorship or elimination of this art piece is necessary to prevent harm. The sculpture of the policewoman Petra was claimed to be misogynistic and offensive to police officers. CNN and BBC contributors called the cartoons of Muhammad offensive and culturally insensitive. The song ‘Fuck tha Police’ was accused of spreading hate towards police officers, and its message and strong language were cited as bad influences on children and teenagers. Kathy Griffin was portrayed as encouraging violence against the president and furthering the divide between Republicans and Democrats. All of these pieces of art or corresponding artists were censured in some way or another.
Why do certain people have such strong reactions to artworks? After all, if you don’t like the Transformers movies, you don’t have to go and watch the new one. No one would claim that making the 27th Transformers movie is immoral and should not be allowed. But for some reason that logic doesn’t apply to things like cartoons of Muhammad or explicit rap music. But, to some, it seems wrong to allow the creation and distribution of ‘immoral’ art in the first place.
It is a moral panic, which can teach us more about the outraged speaker, than about the art itself. An ‘immoral’ art piece usually hints at a truth that is supposed to be left unsaid.
For example, Petra shows a person of authority who is dressed to intimidate and convey strength. The mask and riot gear all remove her humanity and are supposed to signal that she is untouchable. This, however, is undercut by the awkward position she is caught in. It shows that she is not faceless and tough, but an individual imprisoned by her armour, vulnerable to attack.
Similarly, a cartoon of Muhammad is usually argued to be offensive, since it is against the instructions of the Muslim faith. But why? Why would God care about a picture of his prophet, whom he presumably wants everyone to know about? One conclusion that could be drawn is that a physical representation of a man would highlight that he is exactly that – a man. All mysticism and divinity could be stripped away based on the whims of the artist. To an extremist, that is intolerable.
‘Fuck tha Police’ shows a stark contrast between growing up in a poor, majority-black neighbourhood in the US and a majority-white, middle-class area. It describes the struggle of people of colour in America, when dealing with the police, an issue which is deeply uncomfortable to many Americans who would prefer to look at their police force with rose-tinted glasses.
Kathy Griffin’s picture with a severed Trump head very plainly showcased the strong hatred that many Americans have for their president, something which until recently was viewed as unpatriotic and un-American. The days are over of pretending that the president, despite being viewed as incompetent by some, is still loved by every American.
Often pieces of art that spark outrage have one thing in common; the message to be conveyed can be quickly and easily understood by everyone, regardless of their upbringing or education level. This is in contrast with a speech, which requires more time investment and can be twisted and buried under high-level jargon. Historically, when art was expensive to produce and its manufacturing was controlled by the wealthy who could afford to commission an artist to produce a piece, art was only seldomly used to contradict the ruling class. This role was instead filled by humour; the court jester famously being the only one who was allowed to tell truth to power. Like art nowadays, jokes spread like wildfire and were nearly impossible to control. The totalitarian tendencies of a civilisation throughout history can easily be judged by how the jesters were treated. If a joke could land you in jail or worse, the rights and freedoms of the population were usually quite limited, and the culture’s demise would often soon follow.
Perhaps our controversial artists are the court jesters of today. Whenever we feel outraged at an art piece, we should ask ourselves why it is not good enough simply to not look at it, but why we instead feel the need to restrict or ban it or the artist. If a picture or song produces enough anger to be featured on the news, then we should analyse its message, since it could only have emotionally affected that many people if they already feel strongly about the issue. These strong emotions will not be erased by banning art pieces, instead we should accept them and work to fix the problem.
More of Neil’s work can be found on the Lot’s Wife website: https://lotswife.com.au/