Art and Morality

A couple of years ago I was driving somewhere with my wife, and the song “We Are All On Drugs” by Weezer came on the radio: lots of hard rock and screaming, and the chorus pretty much just repeats “We are all on drugs” over and over, and my wife frowned.

“I don’t like this music, it gives me a bad feeling.”

So we changed the channel, and a nice peppy Billy Joel song came on. Instead of hard rock and growling guitars there was a cute bouncy piano line, and a strong melody, and the song was pleasant and infectious.

“This is so much better,” said my wife. “Keep it here.”

“Are you kidding?” I asked. “You objected to the last song, but not this one?”

“That song was gross, this one is nice. It’s Billy Joel.”

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s Billy Joel’s ‘Come Out Virginia.’ It’s about a guy convincing a religious girl to break her moral standards and sleep with him. The song you didn’t like was about how we need to learn to think for ourselves in a mindless consumer culture. Don’t you even listen to the words?”

“The song I didn’t like was just screaming and noise, and this one is fun. Don’t you even listen to the music?”

I don’t tell this story to make fun of my wife, who is awesome, but to point out a massive schism in the perception of morality in art. When we say that a piece of art is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ are we talking about the subject matter, or the medium, or the artistic quality? Is ‘Come Out Virginia’ a good song because it has a great beat and catchy chorus, or is it bad because it’s about something morally questionable? Is ‘We Are All On Drugs’ a good song because it makes us think, or is it a bad song because it comes from an angry, noisy subculture that many people don’t even consider to be music? How can we separate the different elements? Do we even need to? Should we even have to?

One of my favorite thoughts on artistic criticism comes from Roger Ebert, who said that when considering art it doesn’t matter what it’s about, but how it’s about it. Let me give another quick example just to really hit this home. While I was on my mission one of my companions started listening to a tape of LDS pop, and I rolled my eyes and said I hated it. My companion stared at me, aghast, then tried to compose himself and asked, very diplomatically, “What exactly do you hate about it?” He paused. “The message?”

“Of course I don’t hate the message, just the style. Yes, it’s about Jesus, and Jesus is awesome, but it’s a bad song—it’s boring and trite.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but . . . it’s about Jesus. How can you hate it?”

Once again, we have the question, which we continue to see crop up almost daily, especially those of us who work as Mormon artists: is something good or bad because of what it’s about? Or because of how it’s about it?

Let’s take a deeper look at a particular work: I’m going to choose the fantasy book A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, because the TV show just debuted and it’s on my mind. This is essentially a fantasy version of the War of the Roses: a sweeping epic about many different characters, spanning many different kingdoms and generations, locked in a deadly struggle to claim the throne. It’s a fantastic story and, just like the historical events it’s based on, a lot of it has to do with violence and sex. One story in particular makes our dilemma clear: a young princess named Daenerys is given away, in an arranged marriage, to a barbarian king, very much against her will. Let’s start there. Is this kind of behavior good? Certainly not in our society, where arranged marriages are looked down on very strongly. The fact that these kinds of marriages happened, though, was a historical fact, and a story about them could be very interesting. Let’s move on.

The next bit of the story gets darker: Daenerys is given away, the marriage happens, and on her wedding night she is coerced by her new husband into sex. Once again we have a case where the act itself is wrong, but telling a story about it is not automatically wrong. There could be a lot of powerful insights in the story of a women taken against her will, and especially in how she deals with it. If she handles it well, other women in similar situations could be inspired by the example; if she handles it poorly, it could become a cautionary tale or even a heartbreaking tragedy. All are worthy subjects of art, but the content is really starting to fight with the form.

Alright, let’s step it up a notch: in the book, the rape/seduction of Daenerys is fairly graphic. On the one hand, this gives it a much stronger impact—you can’t just sit back and relax while reading this scene, because the details force you to participate and make an opinion. On the other hand, this scene has more graphic sex than many people want to read. What the story is about (the realities of arranged marriage in a misogynist society) is becoming overshadowed by the method of delivering that story (graphic sex). A lot of people, including me when I read this in high school, simply refused to read any further. Does that make the art bad? Does that make the method bad? If an artist loses readers because of a stylistic choice, does that make the choice wrong? I would say no, losing portions of the audience is never a sign of bad art, because I refuse to accept that broad appeal is the end goal of art. And yet filling your art with material some people find objectionable could very well be a bad artistic choice. Whether or not Martin’s choice in this case was a bad one or not is not for me to say.

Let’s take this one step further: in the TV show based on the book, the actress playing Daenerys is topless for a portion of this scene. For many people, especially the primarily religious readers of this blog, that’s a damning point all on its own: it doesn’t matter how amazing the story is, how morally or artistically valuable it may be, the fact that it includes nudity puts it over the line. The issue is no longer one of art, but of something else entirely; some forms of content, such as extreme gore, profanity, and nudity, seem to inhabit a realm of their own.

I do not believe that there are taboo issues in art; anything can be discussed if it is discussed well. A Game of Thrones goes to great lengths to show that illicit sex is rife with consequences that can ruin not only one life but thousands, and I personally feel that the depiction of consequences is one of the hallmarks of ‘moral’ literature; if you show two people having an affair, for example, that’s not automatically horrible, but if you show that the affair has no consequences and everyone involved is happy and wonderful, I find that very irresponsible. And yet no matter how responsible a story might be in its depiction of darkness, I know that many people—such as my wife, as illustrated earlier—will prefer to simply consume an entirely different piece of art, because the darkness itself is not something they want in their lives.

For me, the art itself is what I value. If you write a stupid book I’m not going to like it even if it’s about Jesus; if you write a wonderful book I’m going to love it even if it’s about alcoholism destroying a family. Even the Bible, if you ignore the message of redemption and resurrection, is a book about killing Jesus.

It doesn’t matter what the art is about, but how it’s about it.

About Dan Wells

Dan Wells is the author of several supernatural thrillers, including I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR. MONSTER, and I DON'T WANT TO KILL YOU. He is a co-host on the podcast Writing Excuses, for which he has won two Parsec awards; he also won the Whitney award for Best New Author of 2009. He plays a lot of games, watches a lot of movies, reads a lot of books, and eats a lot of food, which is pretty much the ideal life he imagined for himself as a child.
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10 Responses to Art and Morality

  1. Grant says:

    Goshdangit, I did it again! I didn’t realize that this was by Dan Wells until the blurb at the bottom of the post!

  2. What can I say? I think this makes a lot of sense.

    No argument from me, sorry. :)

  3. Well, on second thought….

    Maybe that’s why there’s a bit of a divide (unbridgeable chasm?) between some of the works that (and readers who) focus on what stories are about as opposed to how they are about. Maybe that’s why Clive Cussler is a best-selling author, because his readers care more about the stories he tells than they do about the way he tells them, for example. There are best-selling authors who’ll probably never write “art,” and I suspect that they cry about it all the way to the bank.

    I’d rather read something that has focussed on what the story is about AND how it is about, but when it comes right down to it, a really great story can distract me from not-so-great writing, even though I’ve become a pretty picky reader and tend to “edit” stories that are not so great as I read them.

    I hope that made sense.

    • However, on third thought, I’m in that group that has a problem with poorly done stories and songs and other “artistic” expressions about spiritual things. After all, if it is worth doing (and I believe that talking about spiritual things is worth doing, as the Spirit prompts), then it really is worth doing as well as we possibly can, as eloquently and elegantly as we possibly can, and by implementing feedback that will help improve the HOW as much as we, with our finite and human weaknesses, possibly can.

      As an example of one of my “pet peeves” about songs: there is an LDS “pop”-style song that has “God” on the downbeat at the beginning of every line (or so it seems to me when I have heard it), and that seems to me to be too much use of the name of deity, so I switch stations when that song comes on the radio. (Most of the songs by this songwriter have very spiritual lyrics and good messages, but so many of the tunes sound so much like each other, that I am not impressed with the overall songwriting–and that’s as a mere listener.)

  4. C. M. Malm says:

    I very much hear you, Dan.

    Going off on a tangent here, perhaps, but thinking about your essay and about “how dark is too dark?” in art brought my thoughts in this direction. Quite a number of years ago, I read Deerskin by Robin McKinley. I found it to be a very annoying experience–not because it was too dark, but because I felt that it wasn’t dark enough. For those who haven’t read it (or the fairy tale it’s based on), it’s about a princess who has to run away because her father wants to marry her. Yes, that’s already pretty grim. But what bothered me (and admittedly, this might have been my own reading of the book; others might feel differently) was that McKinley seems to avoid the whole issue–which to me seemed thematically essential to the plot–of the emotional betrayal of the parent/child relationship. It felt like a punch pulled so far that it doesn’t even connect. And that artistic “absence” ate at me for months. Finally, I ended up writing a story on the same theme that did NOT pull those punches; a dark and terrible story, the very existence of which is somewhat troubling to me to this day. It was also one of the weirder writing experiences I’ve ever had: it felt strangely as if I had to get that something–that absence, that avoidance, that wrongness of “how it’s about”–out of my system.

  5. Th. says:

    .

    I love Billy Joel but I do not want “Virginia” stuck in any good Mormon child’s head. Of course, without the context, the one line of Weezer ain’t much better, but still. Weezer wins this round.

    Can you defend “Hash Pipe” though?

  6. Scott Hales says:

    When I taught Introduction to Literature courses, I used to teach Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” alongside Billy Joel’s “Virginia” as a way to talk about theme (and the ways artists continue to revisit the same kinds of ideas and images). Arguably, Marvell’s poem is better than Billy’s song, but the message remains the same. Does that make Marvell’s poem unworthy of our admiration? Or, does the fact that its a smart, well-written poem make it defensible, despite its questionable morality?

    I tend to justify my reading habits based on quality and craft. Hardly any work of art out there wholly conforms to my moral standards, and I’ve long since given up trying to force art to fit within the certain guidelines of “appropriateness.” That approach to reading is far too frustrating.

    Part of what makes art important is that it forces the reader to take risks. Often, the risk is exposure to world views and moralities different from (and even threatening to) your own. Good art, I think, is that which rewards you for the risks you take–art that makes the risk worth it. Bad art, on the other hand, leads you to take risks that don’t deliver, that make you regret the risk in the first place.

  7. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Great post!
    About C.M. Malm’s comment about pulling punches, that’s something I stuggle with sometimes. I’ll be writing a certain character or scenario and suddenly I know it would go a certain way, or that a certain piece of information needs to be included, but I pull back, thinking, “Oh, but that’s not the audience I’m going for on this one.” It’s kind of annoying, actually. Sometimes I submerge that impulse and plow through anyway, staying true the character or story, and sometimes I’m like, “No, REALLY, that’s not the audience I’m going for!” And sometimes I compromise and imply, or hint, or suggest, which actually is often just as intriguing and adds some nuance to the piece.

  8. Pingback: Defending Our Own « Course Correction

  9. Megan K says:

    Curse it, Dan I didn’t know you were writing LDS blog posts too – do you ever sleep?

    My mom was always more of a “bad lyrics are worse than bad music” and I know it rubbed off on my. The summer I started dating my husband the song “Follow Me” by Uncle Kracker was all over the radio. He didn’t understand why I clenched my teeth and growled after being forced to listen to it five times a day at our job.

    “It’s such a sweet little song,” he said.
    I stared at him. “Did you even listen to the lyrics?” I recited the second verse of the song to him and he looked shocked. I don’t think a lot of people listen to the lyrics.

    That having been said, these 10 years later there’s a Christian-ish program that plays on a local radio station at night and the love to play that song – but the cut the second verse which I find HILARIOUS.

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