“Problematic Faves” Talk Balances Morality and Hollywood

Claire Kissane

Recent developments in popular culture have forced us to reckon with the moral failures of once beloved figures such as Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Cosby. On Thursday, Nov. 14, Bates hosted a talk with Erich Hatala Matthes, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College to discuss the intersections of popular culture and ethics in a turbulent moral landscpe.
The event was an opportunity to hear Professor Matthes’s views on how we should think and feel in response to immoral acts committed by popular artists, and to hear about the book that he is developing about this topic. The event attracted such a large crowd of Bates students, professors, and community members that it had to change rooms.
Matthes began the event by asking, “Do immoral artists make worse art?” He then gave a general overview of the structure of his book, with his thesis being “an artist’s moral flaws can render their work aesthetically worse; but this is unusual.” He explained three different kinds of moral criticism of art: moral criticism of a person (the artist), moral criticism of an artwork, and aesthetic criticism of an artwork.
Then, Matthes went on to explain two different types of criticism for art that can be used to assess the moral flaws of artists. “So what I want to think about is, is it something about the work that we’re responding to… is there some aesthetic flaw generated in the work by the immoral act of the artist that makes it the case that we turn away in disgust. We’re responding to something that’s gone wrong.”
Matthes finds problems with applying both of these arguments and criticisms to artists and their immoral behaviors, but explains to us that the relevance of the immoral works of the artists need to be established case-by-case. “In other words,” Matthes says, “the artist’s moral flaws matter to the aesthetic success of their work only when they influence or alter its meaning.”
“The life of the artists and the acts of the artists influence the way we view an artwork,” Matthes claimed. “It raises the stakes as well. There may be movies or songs that present a morally problematic situation as acceptable. But, it’s a fiction and we can explore possibilities in fiction. When the thing that’s being reflected is real life, it seems like it’s trying to marshal the audience to accept an artist’s immoral actions.”
During the question and answer portion of his talk, students and professors alike posed umerous evocative questions. However, when asked about The Cosby Show, Matthes admitted that he still did not know how to feel about it. This only further emphasized the relevance and difficulty of contemplating this topic.
Matthes hopes that his book, potentially title, Problematic Faves, will be published in 2021.