Do the right thing? The moral responsibility of the artist
‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’ Oscar Wilde’s view of art as essentially an aesthetic pursuit, one concerned with transcendent beauty and the human condition, has arguably now been superseded. In many cases, the poststructuralist view of art as the playing out of intersectional power dynamics is informing how artistic and fictional works are received. Many now believe that art and morality are inextricably intertwined.
Writers, filmmakers, novelists, and other artists are being routinely ‘called out’ if their work represents minority groups in a light that is perceived as negative. Some publishers are employing ‘sensitivity readers’ to ensure that their authors are not potentially causing offence. Major theatres such as the Royal Court employ people to monitor the diversity of both casting and the content of plays that they produce. Recent films such as Black Panther and the all-female Ghostbusters reboot have opened up debates about the relationship between commercial cinema and identity politics.
In all of these cases the valuation of art has apparently shifted, with artists now being judged on whether or not they conform to current ethical trends. Social media is the new tool through which artists are policed and judged if they fall short. Media Effects Theory, the concept that mass media consumption has a direct effect on the moral behaviour of the public, is now taken as an article of faith and applied to art, in spite of the fact that six decades of research has yet to produce any secure evidence for it.
Do works of art really have the power to influence the behaviour of a malleable public? Should art be policed on the basis of whether or not it is sending the right message? And, if so, what are the implications for artists themselves?