Does the AJIL tolerate the representation of evil or sensitive subjects in Art?
The Representation, Depiction, and Contemplation
of Evil, Wickedness, and Private Acts
in Art, Literary or Otherwise
Our attitude toward this question involves consideration of the distinction between three levels of artistic treatment: representation, depiction, and contemplation.
When bad behavior, acts that should be private, or evil events are represented in art, the audience is given to understand that bad behavior, private acts, or evil events have occurred. How that understanding is conveyed may vary. It should be conveyed artistically, of course. A good example would be the practice in films informed by the classical theatrical tradition, in which acts of sex are portrayed with the actors fully clothed. The way this translates into written art is simply that the reader is not given a mental image of the act. In a work of art the entire point of which is to point to some evil or private act, this method of mere representation would probably defeat the purpose.
We do not consider the mere representation of evil, private acts, or wickedness to be obscene or objectionable. However, one must pay attention to the way in which the story or poem's structure ends up pointing the reader's thoughts and attention toward a particular conclusion, tension, or idea.
When wickedness, private acts, or evil events are depicted in art, the effect is more intense than had it been merely represented. In the case of depiction, the reader, viewer, or audience is effectively made a witness of the evil, obscenity, or wickedness rendered in the art. Objections can be made to this practice.
First, the baldness of such rendering often means that depictions cannot be presented as artistically as in mere representation. The reason is that evil is really quite dull and uninteresting. The more straightforwardly you depict it, the less interesting, and the more sickening, it becomes. On the other hand, if one tries to make it more interesting than it really can be in its own right, that has moral and ethical consequences. It may debauch the reader.
Another objection is that becoming a witness to something which ought to be private, or which is evil or wicked, presents a challenge to the reader's purity of heart. In real life this is also true. Despite the fact that misfortune, evil, and wickedness really do occur, their occurrence always presents a temptation to lose faith, peace or integrity.
Korean mothers have a practice of covering their children's eyes at such moments, not to keep them naive, but to keep them from "getting the impression." It's hard to imagine that defiling the heart of the reader could be the proper function of any work of art; however it is almost universally held now that art ought to disturb. Yet nothing disturbs the heart except the presence of evil.
Purity of heart is held by many to be a moralistic, rather than an artistic, concern. Of course if 'moralistic' means 'the regard of Law as the source of goodness' then that is a genuine concern. However, if Goodness itself is held to be moral, and if Beauty is good, then the questions cannot practically be separated.
So, it is not so much a question of "Ought art to depict evil?" as it is a question of "How can art best delight the best people?" Our Journal does not exist to reach the debauched. We aim to give the most delight possible to the best people, both around us now, and through all time.
And so we conclude that the depiction of evil is usually problematic, dulling the overall effect of the art. However - and this is important - depicting the effects of evil can be properly aesthetic, when they are depicted to arouse pity and other noble feelings.
Art, in this view, is a sort of gymnasium for the affections. In a world where evil is a genuine problem, there are many noble feelings which are aroused only by the contact of good people with evil - provided that they respond as a good person should, and not by compromising their integrity. Such feelings can be cathartically aroused in good art without any challenge to the reader's purity of heart, or integrity of mind. In fact, they may strengthen the reader for his own life's challenges.
In genuine art, the overall effect is aesthetic and imaginative, not argumentative and propositional. As long as that holds true, the effect may also be morally radiant without diminishing the artistry. In fact, we hold that moral radiance will establish and elevate the artistry.
Finally, there is art which not only represents or depicts evil, but actually engages in, and provokes, the contemplation of evil.
Contemplation is a particular kind of attention. It is the kind of attention that all genuine art provokes - that is its proper function.
Contemplation has an important effect on the psyche. It creates an inner wholeness, or a movement toward wholeness, by approaching union with whatever is contemplated. Everyone who makes art must think about what it is that the reader, viewer, or audience will be left contemplating when the art has been fully taken in.
The direction of contemplation is largely determined by the structure of the art. Structure, or form, draws the attention of the reader toward some part of the content. This part is naturally pointed up by the progress of the reader's movement through the work. The artist of integrity gives thought to the point of his art, and the effect it has upon people.
If a work of art provokes contemplation of evil, it's no good protesting that art is amoral. To put it in a syllogistic form,
If contemplation of evil is itself evil,
And if a work of art produces contemplation of evil,
Then that work has produced evil.
If evil is a moral quality,
and if a work of art produces evil,
Then that work of art has produced a moral quality.
If only morally active works produce moral qualities
And if a work of art has produced a moral quality,
Then that work of art is a morally active work.
If what is morally active cannot be amoral;
And if art which produces the contemplation of evil is morally active;
Then: art which produces the contemplation of evil is not amoral.
There may be works of art which are amoral, or at any rate un-moral - but if so, none of them has ever provoked the contemplation of evil.
(Actually, some of us regard everything which moral agents produce to be by definition morally active - if only at a subtle spiritual level - but there is some disagreement on this point, on the basis of experience which suggests that some works of Man are simply inert. Those who find nothing inert may have a broader definition of morality.)
Art the purpose of which is to draw attention to social injustice or political causes almost always provokes the contemplation of evil. However powerful a tool it may seem, such a result is ethically forbidden. If you can do it right, feel free to submit it.
Many people may wonder what our definition of good and evil may be, and how one can avoid depicting or contemplating it. It is true that evil has been largely redefined - or undefined - and that many people now believe that both moral and aesthetic judgments are purely subjective. Naturally we think that is bunk. While certain acts are taboo in some cultures and not others, there are many basic moral principles which one consistently finds active in most cultures, and at most times. They are known to be true because they generate human happiness, prosperity, and integrity. At times they require a sacrifice of the immediate individual desires, but we know what all adults know - that desires can lead one astray.
For more on this topic, and to get an idea of what we consider to be basic human morality, please read C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. It's quite engaging, and not at all long.
We are not interested in unusually harsh, strict, venomous, or punitive treatments of moral issues or immoral people. Punitive self-righteousness is also an evil.
The Representation, Depiction, and Contemplation of Goodness
From what has been said above, it clearly follows that goodness which takes the form of a private act (such as marital relations) should be represented, when important to the story or poem, rather than depicted (in most cases and in large part.) However, such matters may well be contemplated. Privacy demands, not that one pay no attention but that one refrain from witnessing.
Goodness of all other sorts is so neglected that we are practically salivating to see it represented, depicted, and contemplated in art. Generally, it seems that the more attentive and intense the level of attention, the better - when it comes to goodness.
The quality of art, like the quality of an ordinary sentence, may be judged by two matters. First, what is conveyed, and secondly, the skill with which it is done.
The moderns had a vain dream of art that was all conveyance, with nothing conveyed. The postmoderns, once that short, sheer cliff had been sufficiently jumped off, responded by returning to substance, but refusing all kind of judgment about the quality of what is conveyed. We don't need either of these paralyzations.
Finally, we have one subtle judgment to offer on that particular kind of art which attempts to represent the insignificant or meaningless on the theory that everything is really the same.
We don't mind at all a story or poem about someone or something which is insignificant, provided that the point - the locus of contemplation - is not on the insignificance.
So for instance, a story about the most ordinary 7-year-old in the world will be vomitous if we are left contemplating nothing but his ordinariness. That would be the aesthetic equivalent of someone shouting "Look, look!" and pointing to nothing in particular. "Hah! Gotcha!" is the unspoken snicker behind such stunts.
In such cases however, the person himself, being inherently good, is worth contemplation - no matter how insignificant in some relations. The trick is to find some relation in which a person who is ordinarily insignificant is found to be significant, after all.
And we would reject a story or poem if the point were the work's own meaninglessness. Mere negation is not worth the contemplative attention which art inescapably provokes. It certainly is not worth the paper and pigment, or time spent typing, and the trouble of laying out the story. Such activities inherently suggest significance and someone rather important once said, "Thou shalt not bear false witness."