On Morality in Criticism

Zero Dark Thirty

An interesting question has been making the rounds in certain critical circles since the release of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty this past December.  And I’m not talking about the question of whether or not the film endorses torture (it doesn’t).  I’m talking about the broader question that has been phrased this way by Danny Bowes at Movie Mezzanine:

[…] is a critic under any obligation to render a moral judgment on a film?

After pointing out that the debate extends beyond Zero Dark Thirty to films like Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bowes states:

With each of these films, critics praising the aesthetics of each have been accused of ignoring, rationalizing, or even siding with offensive content therein. In response, critics have been forced into a “no I do not” defensive posture, and a great deal of huffiness about art for art’s sake and the primacy of the work over the given critic’s personal beliefs and austere objectivity and so forth has ensued.

In the past, I would have agreed with the l’art pour l’art critics who claim that they can separate their personal beliefs from their aesthetic evaluations of a given film and adopt an “objective” or an “impersonal” position from which to judge the work in question.  But not anymore.  Indeed, it is my understanding that an aesthetic judgment is inseparable from a moral judgment, and vice versa.  I think that Bowes agrees:

Every act of criticism is a moral judgment, and not in a glib, media-trolling, mid-’60s Jean-Luc Godard way, either. However objective any critic tries to be in evaluating any work, the evaluation is being conducted by a matrix of observation, cognition, and the innately unique assembly of life experience and education that makes up all the things the critic knows and how s/he knows them.

Yes.  Each person who makes an aesthetic judgment on a work of art cannot escape his or her “unique assembly of life experience and education,” and this assembly includes a person’s adopted morality.  Thus, I cannot consciously separate my moral leanings from my critical evaluations of artworks any more than I can separate my aesthetic taste from my moral judgments, no matter how hard I might try to hide the influence of one over the other.  As the character Bill Haydon says in regard to his treason in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one.”

Bowes writes at the end of his piece:

The decision a critic makes to approach a movie on its own terms with as much objectivity as s/he can muster is a moral decision. Not everyone succeeds in completely divesting their preexisting baggage.

Not exactly.  I would say that no one succeeds in this and that the morality present in a work of criticism is never a “decision” but inevitable.  In addition, we can never really know the multitude of factors that have brought us to our critical assessments (factors as disparate as temperature, mood, and peer pressure), so how can we choose to ignore some while allowing for others?  We can’t.

In Daybreak, Friedrich Nietzsche writes:

You dislike him and present many grounds for this dislike—but I believe only in your dislike, not in your grounds!  You flatter yourself in your own eyes when you suggest to yourself and to me that what has happened through instinct is the result of a process of reasoning. (D358)

Though criticism remains our best attempt to account for our likes and dislikes, we must recognize the limitations of the undertaking (e.g., the fact that it might just be a post-hoc rationalization of a knee-jerk judgment).  And we must stop pretending that we can consciously control what influences our opinions and what doesn’t, whether it be our moral conditioning, environmental factors, or something else entirely.  The best we can do is be honest regarding the extent of our knowledge in this area.  In most cases it will be minimal.

Further reading:

5 Bizarre Factors That Secretly Influence Your Opinions

5 thoughts on “On Morality in Criticism

  1. And isn’t the logic behind “art for art’s sake” itself a moral stance, since “art” could be substituted for “murder” or “plumbing”?

    Besides, the attempted nonmoral/amoral evaluation of a work of art seems silly when, I would argue (and welcome counterarguments), no work of art exists that was originally created in a moral vacuum. The very act of creating a work of art assumes, or possibly requires, a moral stance/intention on the part of the artist. Therefore, does it not become absurd (in the highest philosophical sense) to critique that work of art from a non-moral perspective?

    • Yes, I agree completely. And here is another Nietzsche quote to support the thesis that nothing can be created or judged in a vacuum (which also relates to the discussion we are having on the previous post):

      “There are no isolated judgments! An isolated judgment is never ‘true,’ never knowledge; only in the connection and relation of many judgments is there any surety” (WP, 530).

  2. (We could spend lifetimes evaluating the “strictly aesthetic” qualities of Hitler’s speeches and George W. Bush’s paintings, but surely morality ought also to be involved, and if in extreme cases, then why not in mild ones?)

    • Again, I agree. My original draft of the above blog included a discussion of Leni Riefenstahl. Can we enjoy “Triumph of the Will” for Riefenstahl’s filmmaking and in spite of its meandering glorification of nationalism? I can only speak for myself, but my answer is no. Riefenstahl later claimed that her film is an objective work of historical documentation. The cinematography tells a different story.

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