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viewpoint

Art is amoral

| Monday, September 5, 2016

On the wall, there’s Picasso’s blue nude in blood red bright from the ceiling light in the middle of her mandala: why did Picasso choose blue, and why did she choose Picasso?

I asked her, “Why Picasso?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “I just like this one.”

We looked at it: her back turned to us, hunched over her knee, depressed.

Then she asked, “Why me?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I just like this one.”

Then she laughed, and I laughed too. Because it’s funny; not like haha-funny, more like Greek-funny. See, it’s all absurd really, art and love and the rest of it.

Rules of grammar, lines in a coloring book; it’s perfectly fine to say that things are and I think only a madman would disagree, but it is complete nonsense to say that things should be.

If, however, we are truly bereft of a moral framework, then we are faced with a dilemma because our lives are discretionary — we must decide and act, if for no other reason than to keep on living.

Why does a man even wake in the morning if not according to some should: I should go to work, I should create a work of art, I should eat, I should live. Without morals, how are we to choose?

A dose of existential nausea, I know, which is why it might be easier to begin with art as an analogy.

I love art for the same reason it is neither right nor wrong that I do: because art is amoral. There are no good or bad works of art.

My intuition is that people are much more comfortable with me saying, “Art is amoral” than they are with me saying, “Life is amoral.” But where do we draw the line, between the canvas and real life? Where does art stop and the rest of the world begin? To what extent is man himself a creation of his own imagination just as he might create a symphony or a novel?

Imagine a critic trying to argue that a painting is bad: he might say it does not accurately depict its subject, but this is empirical, not moral, and further, the critic must have implicitly assumed that his conception of the subject’s objective reality is the same as the artist’s.

Or, he might say that he personally does not care for it; however, one man does not give meaning to the word ‘bad.’ In fact, I would agree with A. J. Ayer that ‘bad’ is a word without any meaning at all.

Though it would indeed take volumes of argument to prove, it is at least something that is easier to say about the art world where everything is aesthetic and abstract. But in the real world, we have crime and justice, and man has his relations with other men and God.

Thus, our love of morality seems at least rational: though not necessarily of any interest to a man alone in nature, it is certainly in the best interest of the community to impose moral sanctions on the individual which promote the general welfare — J. L. Mackie writes brilliantly on this line of thought. In this case, morality is not an objective truth, but a social invention.

As always, my point is only this: that we might think for ourselves why it is exactly that we do what we do. If you’re skeptical of morality like me, I think you have to be asking: how am I supposed to behave? My best guess is to create ourselves like a painter paints. If my life was a painting, it would be Jackson Pollock’s Convergence.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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