Today’s post centers around the question raised in the title and will consist mostly of questions rather than answers. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are the ones that cannot be answered. Perhaps our question cannot be answered, but it is well worth asking.
It arises in the case of such things as the extraordinary propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” made by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935 at the behest of Adolph Hitler. It turned out to be one of the most remarbable pieces of cinematic magic, incorporating numerous technological feats never before attempted — and tricks such as filming Hitler from below to make him look taller! But it was also incredibly effective, attracting thousands of young men and women to the Nazi fold. It does raise the question whether the film-maker did the right thing. Should she not have made that film?
During the Renaissance painters of considerable reputation used their mistresses as models for the Modanna to the horror of the spiritually certain who regarded such things as blasphemy, worthy of condemnation of the artist and a refusal to even look at such paintings. So it is with the spiritually certain, and, though few of us would worry about such things as blasphemy these days, we might still ask the question whether the artist has an obligation to show only “morally approved” subjects and avoid even the hint of the morally reprehensible.
Is the artist, in a word, above the moral law? Does she or he have license to create works of art that not only convey immoral messages, but perhaps even promote them? China Achebe, the African novelist and critic, wrote an essay condemning Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because of the liberal use of the “N” word. He argued that folks should avoid reading the novel because the novelist was a racist and his book promoted racism. I published an essay that takes Conrad to task because the case cannot be made the (a) Conrad himself is a racist and (b) his novel does not “promote” racism. In fact, his use of the “N” word — like Mark Twain’s use in Huckleberry Finn — is entirely appropriate since that is the way folks spoke at that time and place, especially seafaring folks. Novelists, like any artist, I argued, need not be overly concerned about the hang-ups of the slightly paranoid and overly sensitive. At the very least the text can be used as a platform for discussion about the morality of the use of prohibited terms.
We have found our way to the root of the “political correctness” tree that spreads its broad, dark shade over so much of what is forbidden to be said these days. It is argued that not only artists but all sensitive folks need to avoid saying anything that might possibly offend somebody some day some where. This is, of course, absurd. But there it is. We might call it the reductio ad absurdum of the argument that novelists and artists, not to mention the rest of us, must never offend anyone.
I do not wish to deal with the question whether there is a moral right and wrong. I take that as a given. But, granting that there is a right and a wrong, the question whether artists should avoid offending sensibilities is well worth asking. Personally, I think they should have license to say anything they want — short of inciting a riot — because there is no one holding a gun to the head of those who might read or see the work and who might just as easily simply avoid doing so. Censorship in any of its nasty forms seems to me to be out of place.
A similar problem arises in the case of the scientist, of course, who might be asked to curb his or her desire to work on weapons of war. Does science have a license to do whatever is required to “advance” human knowledge regardless of the consequences? As Tom Lehrer sang of Wernher Von Braun who worked on rockets: “If the rocket goes up who cares where it comes down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” His only “department” is to make sure the rocket goes up. Is it?? Should scientific medicine continue to find ways to prolong human life on a planet that is already overcrowded and in danger of facing widespread human starvation? These are serious questions and in both cases, that of the scientist and the artist, the issue is whether art and science trumps morality or the other way around.