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Freedom of Art Is a Prerequisite of Morality

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To many, freedom of art is a synonym for freedom of speech, but the former is best understood as a distinct subset. Unlike normal speech or rational discourse, the purpose of art is not primarily to convince or to instruct. It is to make people experience a visceral reaction. Art, and particularly literature, allow people to sense the emotions, psychology, and consequences that accompany possible lifestyles and actions without having to assume the risk of them. Art enables people to glimpse what it feels like to be another human being. As such, it occupies a unique niche in human discourse. It is emotional information.

The Copenhagen-based organization Freemuse released a report earlier this year entitled “Art Under Threat,” which chronicles global violence against artists in 2015 (PDF). Oddly, the report does not count the many attacks on dissident media cartoonists, such as those who worked at Charlie Hebdo. Nevertheless, Freemuse concludes,

in 2015, sadly the year was dominated by a 20% increase in registered killings, attacks, abductions, imprisonments and threats, and a staggering 224% increase in acts of censorship.

In total, Freemuse registered 469 cases of censorship and attacks on artists and violations of their rights in 2015, making it our worst recorded year yet, nearly doubling the number of cases from 2014 with a 98% increase from the year previous, wherein 237 cases were registered.

The artistic expression of taboo subjects has always been under attack, with the most common one being graphic sexuality. Today, however, a growing taboo surrounds the free artistic expression of religious attitudes. In both cases, the art is suppressed in the name of morality and on the assumption that the art is itself immoral or causes immorality.

The opposite is true. Art, even bad or so-called offensive art, is a prerequisite of or precursor to morality.

The relationship between art and morality

Oscar Wilde wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”

Agreed. Morality is a freely chosen code of beliefs and behavior. The importance of choice cannot be overstated. If a robot is programmed to kill, the robot is not immoral but amoral, because it does not choose. Inanimate objects are neither moral nor immoral, although many can be put to immoral uses.

But an extremely important relationship between art and morality does exist, and it is comparable to the relationship between free speech and morality. Morality requires a free flow of information about the possible alternatives, both good and bad, in order for an individual to choose. If information is artificially restricted, then the ability to choose is as well. A person cannot choose freely if no investigation of his choices is possible.

Art presents people with alternatives. Every person who can read or even watch movies has access to hundreds of cultures, each one of which offers different answers to age-old questions such as the meaning of life and death. Through such art, a person can track the fate of thousands of characters who hold ideals or not, who behave well or badly. He can viscerally join with a character to experience the emotional consequences of being kind or cruel, passionate or cynical. Through art, the emotion becomes concrete; the choices become clearer.

Even in our everyday lives, we all accrue the benefits of free-flowing art because we live in a culture-rich society. The streets themselves brim with art and the information art provides. The teen humming a song or thinking about last night’s movie, the woman wearing a t-shirt with a logo, a newspaper stand, a window display, a style of architecture … the impact of free-flowing art is inescapable. It fills society with color, sound, sensations, and choice. It fills the streets with life.

By contrast, communist societies are often described as “gray.” The severe limitations imposed on culture by the state and the resulting self-censorship seem to drain society of color.

In such a gray society, a watered-down morality may well exist. By “watered down” I mean a morality in which alternatives have been artificially and severely restricted. People still have free will, but they are unable to exercise it without risking penalties, including death. Even innocuous acts, such as drawing a caricature, can be lethal. To the extent that a person’s ability to choose is limited, his ability to be moral is limited as well. If a person does not drink alcohol because it is illegal, for example, his abstinence is not an act of virtue. Forcing him to do the “right” thing at the point of a gun does not produce morality. It produces obedience or amorality.

What does it mean to call art immoral?

One meaning is that the object itself is immoral. Radical Islamists seem to approach depictions of Mohammad with this attitude, for example.

Most people do not mean that good or evil reside in a thing, however. For instance, when they call a novel immoral, they mean it depicts a lifestyle or a set of actions which, if it existed in real life, would be immoral by their standards. Thus, they think, it is immoral to depict that lifestyle.

An additional charge is usually laid. The “immoral” art encourages people to pursue the lifestyle or the set of actions in real life. In other words, it points out the possible advantages and pleasures of acts that the aspiring censor considers to be immoral. The novel acts as an advocate of evil. The censor becomes so distressed by the resulting feelings that he refuses to look at this work of art and forces others to look away as well. (Ironically, the fact that it produces such dramatic responses often means the novel is a well-written one.)

It is true. Books influence people, and the influence may encourage behavior — good or bad. But there are fundamental problems with calling a book immoral on the basis of its possible influence. For one, the influence is only potential in the book, and it could go in either direction. For another, it assigns a passive role to the human being and an active one to the artwork. A person may decide to act on the emotional information provided by a novel — The Catcher in the Rye has been associated  with several murders and murder attempts — but the person decides. He is the active agent. The novel is responsible only in the same sense that a knife is responsible for buttered toast.

But, assuming for the sake of argument that the novel and the butter knife bear partial responsibility, that does not mean destroying them will result in morality. It will result instead in ignorance and incapacity. The suppression limits another area of choice, and culture takes another baby step toward amorality.

There is an unbreachable difference between depicting an immoral act and acting immorally. It is the difference between an idea and an action. Censorship of art aims at restricting thought and expression, whereas just law aims only at restricting actions through which one person wrongfully harms another. Limiting thought diminishes what is distinctly human about people: their ability to reason and choose.

Conclusion

The flow of information provides people with knowledge of their choices. The choices people make establish their morality, whether their behavior is conscious or not. When choices are artificially restricted, the ability to be moral shrinks, because morality springs from and expresses choice.

In the creation of alternatives, art plays a unique role, because the information it imparts is emotional and connects people to each other through dynamics such as empathy. If freedom of speech is the life of the mind, then freedom of art is the life of the heart. Morality requires both to be vibrant in order for people to choose.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).