Thursday, February 18, 2016

Art and Responsibility - How Immoral Is Art Allowed to Be?

Moral education is one of the reasons - if not the main reason - why art even exists.

Morality and responsibility ... Let's be honest, art is known for both entertaining its audience with violence as well as for moral education. While there's a long tradition of showing war and battles in heroic light there is also another tradition with artists like the painter Vasily Vereshchagin who aimed to show the horrors of war in order to promote peace.

At the same time there's also law. For example, here in Germany those who describe violence as beautiful, romantic or otherwise positive and/or harmless can be sentenced to financial penalty or even go to prison for a year. Most countries in the world have similar laws. Being a moderator of (, a German mass archive for fanfiction, prose and poetry, it's my task to lock stories that violate the German law and the rules of the website, for example by plagiarizing, downplaying rape or uploading pornographic texts. What's interesting about this is that many immature "writers" who obviously don't care about the rules or even the laws of the country they live in consider it an insolent restriction of their freedom. They say we're just power-mad and enjoy suppressing them, and our admin was even labelled as a dictator. And no, it isn't a joke.

Art and Law

Even though some of the rules of may be strict (for example the regulations for character profiles) they all exist for a reason. I've rarely seen an internet community that focuses on cooperation with its users as much as which is one of the reasons why I'm still there after 11 years and even agreed to work there as a moderator for free. However, what some users accuse our team of indeed happens in the world: In many countries artists are restricted in what they are allowed to say and what not. Or rather: The restrictions are there in every country of the world, because, as mentioned above, if you use your art to propagandize some harmful crap you sooner or later will be arrested, no matter how liberal your country might be. Different countries differ only in what is defined as "harmful crap", and this always depends on a country's culture, history, ideology and its current situation.

Defining what is to be considered "harmful crap" often leads to discussions and dilemmas. Apart from the "western world" loving to interfere in national affairs of other countries unmindful of their cultural values (because apparently everyone who doesn't share the "western values" is considered archaic, uncivilized and less human in general) there are also such general problems like: How much swearing, alcohol, sex etc. should be allowed in art? Russia, for example, has banned swearing from movies. On the one hand, I do understand why they did it and appreciate that they actually try to somehow deal with the really serious problem of Russians swearing too much. On the other hand, I also have to agree that swearing is an important part of Russian culture and there are many things that can be expressed only through swearing.

Art and Education

Laws may be perceived as good or bad, but they're often linked to moral values. If violence is considered bad by a society it will restrict its use in art, simply because education is one of its most important functions. People always knew that art has an educating effect. Hundreds and thousands of years before Christ people already used stories and paintings to teach each other about what is right and what is wrong. Myths, legends, even cave paintings ... They weren't created just like that. They were there to teach the audience: Which gods to worship, what is necessary to be considered a good person, or simply how to kill a mammoth. From its very beginning art has been closely tied to religion - and religion is all about moral education. So let's lay all our excuses like "It's just a story/movie/game/whatever!" or "It's just for fun!" aside and accept that moral education is one of the reasons - if not the main reason - why art even exists. And so - yes - it does matter how you portray violence, women, sex, interpersonal relationships etc. Art does have an educational effect, whether the artist intends it or not. The simplest proof to that is that art was and is successfully used for propaganda by every regime so far, no matter whether it's a dictatorship, monarchy or democracy. And yes, there are artists and even artistic epochs (modernism) out there claiming not to try to educate the audience. Much as I appreciate such art, I still believe that everyone who says such things simply lives in denial.

Art and Entertainment

However, if art is about moral education - why is it often so brutal? It's funny, actually, how another major fuction of art appears to be the direct antagonist of moral education: That art isn't just about fun doesn't mean it isn't about fun at all. On the contrary, art is very much about fun, and without fun it wouldn't even get enough attention to fulfill its function of moral education. So in the end art actually needs what it tries to educate against.

This paradox raises the question: Why are such things as violence even entertaining in the first place? Becaese entertaining it is. It used to entertain the ancient Romans in form of gladiator fights and it still entertains us in form of carefully choreographed fighting scenes. The fact that it usually isn't part of our everyday life makes violence a visual adventure, it draws us away from our daily worries, and sometimes it comforts us with power fantasies and thus is even able to give us the optimistic feeling that we can deal with our own problems just like the hero was able to deal with the villain. This is why in art violence has an absolutely necessary psychological function.

Holding the Balance

With every society trying to protect its members against what is considered dangerous, with the educational function and with the need to be entertaining creating art seems like a balancing act. You always need to be cautious of the restrictions imposed on you, whether you accept them or not. Or you can choose (and sometimes even have) to violate the rules and laws, but in this case you should be prepared to bear with the consequences. In some cases you can still argue with the government and society, so the rules and laws can be changed. Every aspect about art is important, even if some of them are in conflict with each other. Yet this is one of the reasons why art is so fascinating, isn't it?

This was, of course, only a very superficial dive into this topic and I have some ideas for essays in which I would go deeper in certain aspects, but I'd still like to know your opinion: Do you agree that artists have responsibility towards society that restricts their artistic freedom? Or should the restrictions imposed by society be banned? Do you feel free as an artist or do you wish you could do something society wouldn't appreciate? Do you try to educate your audience or do you prefer not to care about the educational effect of your art? Or do you generally disagree with me and believe that art can be without an educational effect? How do you decide whether violence, sex or another difficult topic was handled responsibly or not in an artwork?

I'd really love to know what you think!

Feael Silmarien

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