On the (Im)morality of Art

Because I have a lot of potential ethical issues to explore in my paper, I decided to use this blog prompt to find one source that offers a variety of ethical perspectives related to art, rather than a source that discusses only one. Using the WorldCat search, I was able to generate a lot of results for art, morality, and ethics. In fact, the article I chose was titled “Art, Morality and Ethics: On the (Im)Moral Character of Art Works and Inter-Relations to Artistic Value” by Matthew Kieran. In it, he discussed a multitude of schools of thought that can be used to evaluate the relationship between morality and art, including how the moral character of art can detract from or enhance its value as a work of art. I’ll outline the major schools of thought presented in the article below:

Cognitivism: art’s value lies in its cognitive stimulation of its audience (the value of art is that it makes you think about that piece and prepares you to better think about other content you encounter). This is going to be a really key idea for me to explore, based on Fairey’s concept of “phenomenology,” as discussed in my last post.

Ethicism/Moralism: where the moral character of a work is relevant to its artistic value, a moral flaw or defect decreases the value of the work as art while a moral virtue increases the value of the work as art. For example, a film that portrays a flawed or morally bankrupt character has less value as a work of art because of that character, while a film that portrays a heroic or morally virtuous character has more value as a work of art. This would be interesting to explore in my paper because the design purposefully doesn’t have a clear sense of “morality”- that evaluation is contingent on the viewer’s interpretation.

Immoralism: the moral character of a work is still relevant to its artistic value, but the relationship between morality and artistic value can be inverted. In other words, a work that uses immoral concepts can still convey a moral message because of how the audience is meant to react to it (shock, guilt, horror, etc.). For example, a film’s use of racist themes or content can increase the value of the film because the audience is meant to be horrified by the immorality of it, so they end up with an enhanced sense of morality. It will be interesting to compare moralism with immoralism in my paper if I discuss the myriad potential interpretations of the “OBEY” stickers, and whether the viewer’s perception of them being “immoral” or “moral” influences the artistic value of the sticker.

Autonomism/Aestheticism: art exists for the purpose of aesthetic beauty alone, and should be evaluated purely on those grounds. This probably won’t be all that relevant to my paper.

In addition to introducing me to these schools of thought, the paper itself cited a ton of other sources, so I can dive into each area more specifically and deeply. Kieran even cited his own previous works several times, so it will be very helpful to understand his theories more completely.


Kieran, M.,. (2006). Art, morality and ethics: On the (im)moral character of art works and inter-relations to artistic value. PHC3 Philosophy Compass, 1(2), 129-143.

Featured image of my pal Kieran: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/images/matthew-kieran-4325-340×200.jpg


3 responses to “On the (Im)morality of Art

  1. SOme would argue that the films by Tarantino, like Django are immoralism because they use sensationalized images of revenge violence to highlight immorality of slavery.

    The key question is whether Obey is art? I mean, where are the lines between art and commercialism? Not easy to answer, but at least for your paper, can you make the case that the creator understood himself to be, or was seen to be making, art?


  2. I also think the idea of “cool hunting” is relevant. This is where companies mine culture, street culture, for trends to market and make cool.

    Malcolm Gladwell has discussed it somewhere, in his New Yorker articles or his book The Tipping POint.


  3. Pingback: Blog Council: Ethical Resources | Stakeholders:Uncensored·

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