Is Art Intrinsically Moral? (And Why the Answer Matters)

Art, in its every form, has always been volatile. It challenges people’s beliefs. It forces them to face uncomfortable realities. It constrains them to see the world through an entirely different set of eyes. In experiencing any form of art, but perhaps particularly the novel, we are plunged into the mind of another human being. And no matter closely the author’s thoughts may align with our own, then never align perfectly. There must always be a moment of friction: a word, a phrase, or an image that jars, a view with which we cannot agree, perhaps even one with which we passionately disagree.

This is where we find the groundwork for the interminable arguments over the morality of art. Since the beginning of time, since the very first artistic endeavor, humanity has struggled with whether or not the creative act of art is inherently good or inherently evil. Books and movies, paintings, and even music have been banned in every age, by every religion and every government. Some artists are decried as debauched infidels, only be praised by others as extraordinary visionaries. Why is this? Why do we find art spit upon by some and extolled by others? And which view is correct?

Why Fiction Is Moral

Fiction is always inherently moral. Because every story must set forth questions of a moral nature regarding the characters’ arcs, it must also propose answers. Within these questions and answers, the author is inevitably putting forth a moral viewpoint. He is bound to communicate the truth as clearly as he sees it. All of fiction, even blatantly unrealistic venues such as science fiction and fantasy, must be grounded in the reality of human life. But because this reality is subject to every author’s personal beliefs, it is inevitable that no piece of literature can be universally agreed upon anymore than the author himself, as a person, will be universally agreed with.

The Soul Tells a Story by Vinita Hampton WrightIn art, we explore. And what kind of explorers would we be if we kept to the beaten paths and never ventured into the shadows of the mountains and the canyons? Good art not only asks questions, it asks difficult questions. Artists cannot be content to wallow comfortably in stagnation; we must grow, we must question, we must study. In The Soul Tells a Story (affiliate link), Vinita Hampton Wright points out:

[Exploring] gets artists into more trouble than any other aspect of creative work. Artists are put on earth to explore, to push the boundaries, to ask yet more questions, and sometimes to do away with—or at least challenge—traditional assumptions.

This trait can look like rebellion or simple contrariness, but it is in fact the nature of creativity. Creativity looks for a new way to say or depict something that’s been around forever. Every day we must rise and go about our life, and if creativity did not provide fresh ways in which to perceive our experiences and articulate them, we would grow dull and tired and aimless very quickly. …

When you embark upon creative work, it will push your personal boundaries. It will open up parts of yourself with which you have been unfamiliar. … The exploratory nature of creativity makes it scary at times. But it also adds intrigue and sizzle to life and moves the mundane into the realm of wonder.

Are Art and Spirituality Inextricable?

Whether a piece of fiction is labeled “moral” or “immoral” often has more to do with current societal mores than it does with the actual morality of the work itself. Art rolls in and out of fashion with the times, depending upon current arbitrary views. Has the writing of Solzhenitsyn changed by so much as one letter since 1945 when it was labeled subversive? Only the times have changed to make his work, and the work of hundreds of others, acceptable.

None of this is to say I believe the morality of any piece of art cannot be definitively labeled. As a Christian, I look to the Bible as the bottom line in any moral argument. But I can find nothing therein to support the idea that art is inherently evil. In fact, I would have to argue the opposite—that fiction can be used just as strongly, if not more so, for good as it is for evil.

Art and spirituality are inextricable. Our religious and psychological views inform every area of our art, just as our art inspires exploration and growth in our spiritual beliefs. They are linked at their very core. I cannot believe that someone who is out of touch with his inner self, and therefore his inner beliefs (whatever they may be), will be able to create art that will harmonize with, influence, and tough the life of anyone else. In Creative Spirituality (affilaite link), Robert Wuthnow wrote,

Art and spirituality are nevertheless similar in that both are sets of activities that infuse all aspects of a person’s life and gradually shape that person’s worldview.

Our art influences our religious views, and our religious views inform our art. It is an unbreakable cycle.

Art’s Morality Is Its Power

Because of this inherent connection, I not only believe art is far from being inherently immoral, but that its considerable power can be wielded for great good. The novel, in the hands of an artist who is willing to commit his every word to wherever the leading of the Spirit may direct, is not only an intellectual force, but a moral force.

In light of that thought, let me close with one more quote from Wright:

When you are attentive to the spiritual dynamics in your life, you don’t do something just because you can. You don’t create a work of art simply to create a sensation. You do it because the time is right. You do it because your own growth requires it. You do it because you have discovered a new way to see something that might help others see it too. You do it because the community of which you are a part needs for you to do it. That doesn’t mean that the community is always ready for it; sometimes the Spirit uses art to upset us and make us search ourselves. But the artist who follows the spirit is sensitive to doing the right work at the right time.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you believe art is inherently moral, immoral, or amoral? Tell me in the comments!

Is Art Intrinsically Moral? (And Why It Matters)

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Your writing is incredible! I’ve been reading post after post… the thoughts you share are so inpiring. Keep up the good work!

  2. I agree with what you said about how writing can be used for good or evil. I think that movies and books can change the way people think in different areas of life. That’s why it’s so important to make an effort to set a sentry in our minds to guard what we write, read, or watch because it could change us for the better or the worse.

  3. Thanks for reading! It’s always encouraging to know someone enjoyed a post.

  4. To reiterate the old cliche: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

    Fiction has a special power all its own, and with that power comes the responsibility of making sure we wield it for the good of others (and ourselves).

  5. Art can be extremely powerful. I think that sometimes the movies that affect me the most (in a positive way) are those that *don’t* agree with my personal worldview. I guess that’s why I’m not very quick to dismiss particular movies or books as “bad” or “evil”. Even if their messages contradict the way I believe I should live my life, they give me good thought for reflection on why I live how I live and why I believe what I believe. Thanks for the great post!

  6. I found the article very interesting, but I’m inclined to disagree a little. I think because art (and writing in particular) is a reflection of humanity, it’s hard for me to call it moral or immoral. In both my novel and screenplay, the characters struggle with moral choices and more often than not, they fail pretty hard. And there aren’t always negative consequences….in my screenplay, the heroes get away with literal murder as a prelude to their happily ever after.

    I am a person of Christian faith, and my writing does often focus on themes of sin and redemption, but the stories i feel moved to tell are dirty, messy, human stories. I’m certainly not trying to hold these people up as a yardstick for morality.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I actually love what you’ve written here. It’s true that almost all stories display immorality of some type. Perfect people, after all, are boring, and the difference between “moral” and “moralistic” is tremendous. In my experience, some of the dirtiest, messiest stories are the most morally powerful. I don’t want to read (or write) about perfect people leading spotless lives. I want to read about people who fall and fall hard, because their fall (and perhaps redemption) is where the juicy questions come up. Those juicy questions are the ones that always impact me in profound ways.

  7. Morné Fouché says

    For me, art can definitely seem amoral. Like a tool. It can be used for good, as well as evil things.

    Of course, on the other hand – I really don’t like to call immoral expressions/celebrations “art” at all… So… Moral… True art must be moral (insert also: good, pretty, benevolent, edifying etc.), for me at least, to qualify as “art.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Of course, I agree with this. What I’m really arguing is that art is a moral fore, and as such it can be used for either good or ill – mostly because people don’t agree on which is which. :p

      • Morné Fouché says

        Indeed. I definitely agree that art can be used (or abused?) as you mentioned.

        I suppose one can get very philosophical about art and it’s morality, but what’s more important is that the artist use art for moral and not subversive purposes.

        One thing about art (in this case literature) is that it can often show us human nature and the moral failings thereof. This is definitely a moral aspect. William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies” is a good example here.

        Thanks for a thought-provoking blog post! 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Lord of the Flies is an absolutely great example. And, BTW, that should have been “moral force” in my previous comment. :p

  8. I there that there can be a moral to art, like you said. And it can, in light of the current culture, read as good or bad. It’s a fine line that every artist needs to decide how to walk (or not walk). It’s interesting, to see people’s reactions to different works, especially now when the internet makes so much available to so many people.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If there’s one thing we definitely know, it’s that art is inherently subjective. I believe truth is objective, but the way in which we all view that truth is tremendously subjective–so, of course, our approach to the morality of specific pieces of art is going to reflect that.

  9. I’ve always enjoyed your blogs as well as your fiction, but this may be the best thing I have read from you yet. Huzzah!

    I have long held to the value of art. In fact, one of my long term projects is to write a book on aesthetics. And as a Christian gentleman, I plan to tie art to spirituality.

    I tend toward the classical/neo-classical aesthetic (at least parts of it). This means I have read a lot of Aristotle, Burke, Schiller, and Goethe. I plan to look at the sources you cited here. Can you think of any more good resources on art and spirituality?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Neal! I appreciate that. C.S. Lewis is always a good resource, and although it’s aimed at filmmakers, I enjoyed Outside Hollywood.

  10. thomas h cullen says

    The current Israel-Gaza conflict – an issue which humanity can go nowhere but forever round and round over…

    To actually ask the question – how far can art go, in educating a person?

    How well can it inject a new sense of morality into them?

    With The Representative, such quintessential questions have been definitively answered.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t know that any one work of fiction can definitively answer any question.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Its not perhaps the correct choice of words – the spirit of the point behind it still stands however:

        The Representative’s an utterly unprecedented force of nature, in possession of a level of power never before experienced.

        It’s exactly the entity to finally encourage an end to the routine violence and hatred recurringly experienced throughout the world….such as that between Israel and Gaza.

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