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The Ethics of Aesthetics by Karl-Gustel Wärnberg

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The Ethics of Aesthetics

In 1971, Chris Burden arranged a performance in which he had himself non-lethally shot. Even at the time this was seen as going too far, yet since then, exhibitions such as Burden’s have come to be known as both ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘pushing the limits.’ The question as to whether ethics has—or ought to have—any connection to aesthetics has been neglected. But looking at the history of aesthetics, it becomes clear that the aesthetic ideal is never far removed from ethical standards. 

Can anything at all be termed “art”? Looking at the modern world it could easily seem so. A universal shift in the appreciation of art appears to have commenced with Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917. The irony is that Duchamp was conceivably pointing the finger back at self-proclaimed critics, showing them that they were in fact easily duped into calling anything art. This very move might legitimise a urinal as a piece of art, which—coincidentally?—was first displayed on April Fools. But what about pornography? In Westminster College, there is now a course on pornography which calls it “an artform that deserves serious contemplation.” Piero Manzoni filled 90 cans with his faeces in 1961 and called it art. Is it art? The list of examples can go on. The key point is that there must be some agreement or discussion as to what can be classified as ‘art’ or art in good taste, if we are ever to proceed with a reasoned debate. The connection to ethics, I argue, is one criteria which has always been central to aesthetics, and it is one which has been severed to the great detriment of both art and humanity.  

The classical, Platonic, and correct way of viewing art is as a project of ennoblement. For Plato, art is an image of an image, as it depicts the world, which already is a depiction or reflection of the Ideal realm. This Ideal realm is not to be thought of as an actual existing place, somewhere up in the skies. Instead, it implies that there are absolute standards which hold true in any possible world, such as mathematics, is always the same, independent of place and time. Two plus two will always equal four. A human will always be a human, because he bears the imprint of that which makes him human as opposed to, say, a donkey. Art stands even further away from this Ideal form, as it is a copy of what is already a particular instantiation of the ideal and universal. Being so removed, it can be distorted, and care must be taken to ensure a viable and respectable copy is produced. 

According to the ancients, that height to which art aspires is beauty. Plotinus, arguably the most important commentator on Plato, wrote his earliest treatise about beauty. For him, beauty is a composite of beautiful things, ordered and harmonious. Visible things as well as sounds can be beautiful. But beauty has a moral dimension too. He compares beautiful things to a beautiful soul and shows us that a soul that is corrupted by evil is what we call ugly. Beauty is one of the transcendentals, along with Truth and Goodness, and hence the connection between moral goodness and artistic beauty are written in the Divine. Evil, it is often agreed from a Platonic perspective, is the lack of goodness. We all seek what is good, and a misdirected good or negligence of the good is what constitutes evil. Presumably it is similar with ugliness: it is a lack or negligence of beauty. But ugly things strike us as replete with being, and so the paradox remains. The solution is not easily explained, but rests in an understanding that for Platonists evil is not a thing which exists and which has potency. Rather evil comes from lack of order, from disorder. What better word summarises modern art than disordered?  

Plato and the Platonic tradition’s treatises on art are amongst the first aesthetic reflections in the Western intellectual tradition. Yet, art didn’t become a separate field of enquiry until the entry of German Idealism on the philosophical world stage. There had been some initial discussion by philosophers such as Shaftesbury, Burke, Batteux in France, and A. G. Baumgarten in Germany. It was Baumgarten’s mentee, Immanuel Kant, who ought to be considered the first modern philosopher to give aesthetics a central place. He dedicated the third of his critiques to the Critique of Judgement

In his critique, Kant argued that we can reason our ways to taste, giving explanations for why certain works of art are better than others. There is a distinction between the subjective experience of art (what we call aesthetic judgement), and the objective side corresponding to natural manifestations of design. The paradox is that aesthetic judgement seems to be both aesthetic (expressing subjective experience) and also a judgement (asking for universal agreement). According to Kant, we make judgements about the thing we are judging when we call it “beautiful,” and not a judgement about ourselves. Aesthetic experience points us to something beyond ourselves and so humbles us to our hubristic aspirations. We cannot know the world other than from the perspective that is ours, yet by encountering the beautiful and the sublime which reside in works of great art, we glimpse a world that beckons to us from beyond but which can never be fully possessed. Moreover, Kant ties this aesthetic realisation—that art directs us towards the transcendent—with the conclusions of his Second Critique (Critique of Practical Reason). Doing so, Kant shows us that practical reason, which deals with morality, gives us a limited insight into the content of the transcendent: the Divine is related to Goodness. Aesthetics and practical reason, then, are two sides of moral reasoning, and only through morality do we discern transcendence and the Divine. 

Art is meant to elevate us. It provides a mirror through which we see ourselves anew and glimpse the structures of our predicament. A man shooting himself is not art. It is certainly not good art. A can of faeces is an old container holding something that should since long have been flushed away. Naturally, definitions of art may vary and shift over time. Most likely, we will never reach a final definition of art, nor may it be desirable. But we need some agreement as to the scope of concepts, or at least to start arguing about them, or else we have no discussion. The ancients firmly held that art has moral implications and that it ought to call us to a higher way of life, not harm or degrade us. If we accept a divide between ethics and aesthetics, we may indeed widen the gap for the definition of art, but it comes at the cost of also widening the gap between being moral and immoral beings. 

Karl-Gustel Wärnberg holds an M.A. in the History of Science and Ideas from Uppsala University. He is the editor-in-chief of Fighter Magazine, Sweden’s oldest martial arts magazine.