- Morality and Art:The Case of Huck Finn
In the following essay, I argue that in the case of some works of art, moral evaluation should not play a role in artistic appraisal. While I will reject the strong ethicist's view—the view that moral evaluation may inform the artistic evaluation of any artwork—I will not do so in favor of the aestheticist's position. The aestheticist argues for a rigid distinction between the moral and aesthetic evaluation of an artwork. On this view, the moral status of the work is independent of and irrelevant to artistic value. This view would allow us, for example, to evaluate Leni Reifenstahl's film The Triumph of the Will as a superior work of cinematic art, while at the same time condemning it on moral grounds.1 Rather than support a strict separation of aesthetic and moral elements in an artwork, I will suggest that in the case of certain types of artwork, it is inappropriate to use moral criteria in their artistic evaluation—even though the work's moral content contributes to its artistic value. This is the case in artworks that (1) are "interrogative" in form and (2) have moral dilemmas as their principal theme.
Briefly put, an interrogative artwork is one that poses a question or problem that remains unresolved in the work. I will begin by explaining in more detail what I mean by an interrogative artwork. Using the example of Duchamp's "ready-made" sculpture Fountain, I will argue that it is inappropriate to artistically evaluate such works by appeal to criteria that they themselves call into question. I will then turn to the specific issue of morally interrogative artworks. I will consider Mark [End Page 125] Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a paradigmatic case of an interrogative artwork that poses an unresolved moral problem, and will contrast my own rejection of the moral appraisal of the novel to Wayne Booth's attempt to provide a morally informed positive assessment of the novel.
The debate about the moral appraisal of art usually centers upon our understanding of what elements of the artwork contribute to its artistic value. The strong aestheticist restricts artistic value to formal aesthetic properties, while the ethicist believes that the moral value of an artwork's content may be a component part of its artistic value, and consequently concludes that moral criteria may inform our artistic judgments. The issue then, is what kinds of criteria should inform artistic evaluation. However, when framed in this way, the question of the moral appraisal of artwork takes for granted a very questionable understanding of what an artwork is or must be. What is assumed is that a theory of art should always be the ground of artistic evaluation. The idea seems to be that the art theorist knows what art generally is, and at least in some respects what it ought to be (what standards it should meet). Armed with theoretical criteria of a work's success, the theorist can tell us whether a work of art is or is not successful. The debate, as it has been set up, is merely whether these criteria of success should include moral criteria.
This perspective eliminates a different possibility that I think is worth consideration. What if some successful artworks are not an attempt to produce an object that meets certain criteria of artistic merit, but rather the exploration and source of those very criteria? Some artworks may be a kind of a concrete experiment, an exploratory activity that runs ahead of our concept of art and our criteria of artistic merit, providing our theory of art with its criteria, rather than running behind it, trying to embody those criteria. Put another way, what if artworks need not be objects that present themselves as instantiations of beauty or merit, but can instead be interrogative in form? Such an artwork would pose in material form the questions: "What is beauty?" or "Is this art?" If an artwork can be an empirical experiment in the theory of art and artistic value, if it can even interrogate and test the concepts of a theory of...