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Problematic Faves

On Nov. 14, Professor Erich Hatala Matthes from Wellesley College, Massachusetts, gave a talk at Bates regarding how people should react and interpret art created by morally questionable artists. Professor Matthes is a professor of ethics, politics, and the aesthetics of cultural heritage, art, and the environment at Wellesley and is currently writing a book called Problematic Faves: When Good Artists do Bad Things. In this talk, he discussed one of the book’s main topics: “Do immoral artists make worse art?”

One of the popular subjects of exploration within modern aesthetics explores whether or not one could assign moral value to individual works of art. On the surface level, this might not make much sense––artwork is inanimate, it cannot act, and has no will of its own. However, art by definition is a created work, made by some person who is capable of acting and willing on their own. Therefore one could argue that although the piece of art does not contain any innate moral character, the creator of that work is worthy of moral judgment.

With the rise of the #MeToo movement and increasing scandals against celebrity musicians, actors, and film-makers, exploring the relationship between aesthetics and ethics has become increasingly pertinent. Professor Matthes’ talk operates on the premise that due to the nature of artwork being created by moral subjects, it makes sense to examine the relationship between the moral character of the artist and the aesthetic quality of the work they produce. The thesis of this talk is that “an artist’s moral flaws can render their work aesthetically worse, but this is unusual.”

That stance seems to be sufficiently nuanced to remain applicable in an increasingly morally ambiguous world. Professor Matthes makes it clear that individuals like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen are bad people, but he goes on to argue that their work as artists has been hugely influential and worthy of aesthetic evaluation.

Due to the recent sexual assault allegations brought against him, Allen’s films, particularly Manhattan (1979), are coming under increased scrutiny to see whether or not his immoral actions diminish the quality of his work. That certainly makes it difficult for a person to publicly say that they are a Woody Allen fan; meanwhile, watching Manhattan might be more uncomfortable than it was previously, but its influence on subsequent cinema is undeniable.

Furthermore, thousands of people love most of Allen’s filmography and arguably even more people enjoyed The Cosby Show. Does that imply that the fans of art created and starring immoral artists are committing moral “crimes” by liking them? Professor Matthes doesn’t explicitly answer that question in this talk, but he concludes that film and other artistic media generally retain their aesthetic value even if the artist has committed moral transgressions.

A topic that I wish Professor Matthes had expanded upon in this talk is how one should react to intentionally morally transgressive artwork. Specifically, how should we judge the aesthetic merit of art and literature explicitly made to offend our moral sentiments when it’s created by morally questionable people like Le Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire, and Georges Bataille?

All of those authors are known for their flippant disregard of moral norms, none more infamously than de Sade. However, the art they made has been highly influential on intellectual history, especially in the wake of the 20th century. One cannot defend the amorality postulated in Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom or its vivid depiction in Bataille’s Story of the Eye with a straight face, but does that imply that those texts are devoid of value? I and many modern philosophers would beg to differ.

Furthermore, is it, in fact, possible to claim that because the authors of those texts were moral transgressors themselves, they elevated the aesthetic quality of their works? I sincerely hope that Professor Matthes addresses what he thinks about the value of morally transgressive artwork when he finishes his book––I look forward to reading it.

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