Moral Art and Readers’ Responsibilities

A few years ago I was sitting in a ward council meeting when my bishop told a story. A young man in our ward, he said, had been struggling with pornography addiction. But over the last few months that young man (whose anonymity the bishop preserved) had confessed and was working to overcome his problem.

Despite this young man’s confession and his desire to change, he was having a rough go of it. He’d fallen into a pattern, the bishop explained. He’d commit himself to avoiding pornography with the sincerest conviction, but in isolated moments, he’d let himself be drawn back to it. Afterwards, he’d be wracked with guilt, call the bishop, and renew his commitment to stop his interactions with pornographic material. This pattern, it seemed, had been going on for months.

Earlier that week, the bishop said, this young man was home alone. His parents were out shopping, and the internet—his window to pornography—was right there. He felt his old urges well up, so he tried to distract himself. He played video games. He ate a sandwich. He watched television. But through all of it, the temptation to get online and seek out pornography stayed with him.

He decided to check the mail. His hopes, the bishop reported, were that some distraction in his mailbox—a letter from a friend or maybe even an interesting piece of junk mail—would rescue him. But the only thing in the mailbox was a Kmart advertisement.

This young man flipped through it, and on one of the pages, he saw pictures of women wearing bras.

And for this broken, distressed young man, the game was then over. He let the rather mundane images of women in their underwear undo his resolve, and he succumbed to temptation.

My bishop’s point in telling this story was to illustrate just how difficult it can be to extricate ourselves from addiction’s ugly grasp, and to remind us that we need to be vigilant, because even simple, everyday things, like Kmart ads, can tempt us.

I agree with my bishop’s points here. I believe we must be vigilant, and though I don’t know who this young man is or what eventually came of him, I long for his healing, and I hope he’s managed to break his addiction.

I share this story here, however, for a very different reason.

I want to make a point about texts and how readers use them. I think this story illustrates an important idea—that the morality of a text is intrinsically linked to what readers do with those texts. I’m not comfortable, for example, calling the Kmart ad in this young man’s story “pornography.” Though the Kmart mailer did present women in their underwear, I don’t think sexually healthy people are aroused or titillated by Kmart advertisements.

So, the Kmart ad in this story isn’t an immoral text (at least not in a pornographic way). But it isn’t a moral text either. It’s just a text—a mindless mailer designed to showcase Kmart products and prices. It’s neither moral nor immoral. It’s amoral.

But it was used by the young man in my bishop’s story in a decidedly unhealthy way. So here’s what I’m thinking:

Perhaps what constitutes moral and immoral art is less a product of texts themselves and more a product of how readers interact with them.

Consider, for example, this scene from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a book I regularly teach at BYU-Idaho. The main character, a teenager named Holden Caulfield, is staying in a hotel in New York City, and he’s accepted a prostitute into his room. I’ll start the scene when the prostitute asks Holden his age:

“Hey, how old are you, anyways?”

“Me? Twenty-two.”

“Like fun you are.”

It was a funny thing to say. It sounded like a real kid. You’d think a prostitute and all would say “Like hell you are” or “Cut the crap” instead of “Like fun you are.”

“How old are you?” I asked her.

“Old enough to know better,” she said. She was really witty. “Ya got a watch on ya?” she asked me again, and then she stood up and pulled her dress over her head.

I certainly felt peculiar when she did that. I mean she did it so sudden and all. I know you’re supposed to feel pretty sexy when somebody gets up and pulls their dress over their head, but I didn’t. Sexy was about the last thing I was feeling. I felt much more depressed than sexy.

“Ya got a watch on ya, hey?”

“No. No, I don’t,” I said. Boy, was I feeling peculiar. “What’s your name?” I asked her. All she had on was this pink slip. It was really quite embarrassing. It really was.

“Sunny,” she said. “Let’s go, hey.”

“Don’t you feel like talking for a while?” I asked her.

Having encountered this scene, readers have a choice. How will we choose to process what’s going on here? Perhaps somewhere there is an immature reader who will fixate on Sunny pulling “her dress over her head” or on her wearing nothing but a “pink slip” and use these images to gratify selfish desires.

Or perhaps there are other immature readers who will see a prostitute undressing in front of a teenage boy and condemn the book on its subject matter alone. “What’s happening here is wrong,” these readers might say, “and I don’t want this wrongness anywhere in my life.”

But what’s really going on in this scene? Is this scene meant, even remotely, to be sexually gratifying? Absolutely not. When Sunny begins undressing, Holden feels “peculiar” and “depressed.” His encounter with Sunny is full of lies about names and ages and, more significantly, intimate emotions.

This is what we should take away from this scene—not any twisted sexual gratification at having witnessed a woman undressing in print, not any equally twisted moral objections to mature issues being handled in literature, but an acute awareness that hollow physical intimacy leads to depression and discomfort and is not a real cure for loneliness.

That’s Salinger’s point. And it’s a beautiful one, but Salinger can’t just drag us to that conclusion. We have to choose to go there with him. And if we choose instead to interact with Salinger’s text in an unhealthy or immature way, we can get left behind. We can even, if we choose, use this text to gratify immoral desires.

So, it seems that at least some of the burden of creating moral art falls squarely on readers and on how those readers choose to interact with texts.

Of course, all of this talk about readers’ choices and responsibilities doesn’t excuse writers, and these musings are not an attempt to pass on to readers the responsibility to create moral literature. Those of us who write still have an intense responsibility to create works that are honest and moral.

And I understand there are potential pitfalls with the ideas I’ve outlined here. For example, certain texts are simply not worth examining. There’s just not enough ethical or moral material in them for us to work with. Literature that turns people into sex objects, celebrates immoral behavior, or ignores the natural consequences of actions seems particularly troubling. And I’m uncomfortable with the argument that we can read whatever literature we want as long as we don’t use it in a bad way.

In all honesty, my musings here scare me a little bit. Because my argument, if truly understood, doesn’t make it easier for us to read “bad” literature. In fact, my argument makes it harder for us to read anything. If readers are somewhat responsible for drawing morality out of a text, then reading turns into a non-passive act. Reading becomes an active moral pursuit—a quest to uncover and create that which is virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy, not through sifting the good from the bad, but through developing a sustained habit of constantly choosing the most moral, mature path.

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8 Responses to Moral Art and Readers’ Responsibilities

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Josh,

    I agree with your basic point. I think it’s all too easy to put the agency into the thing itself (the work of art, in this case) and not into ourselves as readers. We need a less deterministic perspective on the reading experience. However, I do want to quibble with one part of what you wrote.

    I think it’s important to be cautious in characterizing readers as “immature.” There is, I think, a specific and useful meaning to immaturity in this context: that is, as applying to readers who are (a) personally immature (e.g., children and adolescents), and/or (b) lack experience and/or sophistication as readers. While these definitions probably apply to your first case of an immature reader (the one who fixates on Sunny pulling the dress over her head), I don’t think they fit as well with your second instance (condemnation of a book because it contains evil). In fact, it’s quite easy to find mature and even fairly sophisticated readers who take this stance.

    I’ve noticed a tendency in literary criticism to use “immature” as a general pejorative. This, it seems to me, is unfortunate in two ways: (a) it misdiagnoses the problem or issue in many cases, thereby sometimes making it easy to ignore or dismiss differences rather than investigate them, and (b) it makes immaturity seem like a moral or intellectual fault, rather than a simple condition of existence (to be cured, presumably, by the passage of time and/or gaining additional reading experience).

    My point is: if readers are genuinely immature, then there is no shame in them acting immaturely. There’s a whole fruitful discussion that could take place on legitimate differences between mature and immature readers and the way they process texts, and the extent to which writing in different contexts should or shouldn’t take that into account. I’d point out, for example, the Catcher in the Rye has been marketed and taught as a good novel for teens to read, so surely any discussion of its value in that context needs to consider an immature reading experience as the normative one for that context. On the other hand, not every way of interpreting literature with which we disagree, or even which we think may be flatly and demonstrably wrong, is necessarily immature in a technical sense. Calling it such in these cases doesn’t bring us any closer to seeing what the issues really are.

    Thanks again for raising such thought-provoking questions.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    As Bruce Jorgensen says, in order for us to have a “pornographic event”, we need “three elements: a porn author, a porn text, and a porn reader. In fact, it seems to me that the porn even seldom requires all three, though it always requires one: just a porn reader.”

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    An insightful post, once again made to the choir, I think. This is one of those posts that I read on this blog that makes me sad it isn’t more widely read. I think there are many Mormons who have not encountered this thought before and would find in it some thing to really think about, digest.

    This is where its taken my brain tonight: Certainly what Josh says here is applicable to the way we approach scripture. I teach the 14 year olds and I struggle to get them to read beyond the words, to figure out the backstory behind the simple stories in the gospels. Religious types talk a blue streak about making the scriptures applicable in our lives, but it seems to me the way to do that is to make our lives applicable to the scriptures. Why would Christ go out on a boat and then turn around and preach to the people he just left? What would make *you* do that? In bringing our own lives and experiences (reasoning, thinking, feeling), we begin to do exactly what Josh is talking about. Its fairly easy for us to recognize that, in reading a modern text, we evaluate and interpret it according to our own life. We give it the moral spin, so to speak, that makes sense to us. Whatever that is. People, obviously, have been doing this same thing with the Bible for centuries, but few recognize that they do it. So many in our culture don’t read stories at all because, it seems to me, they have the expectation that an author has set about to preach/teach to them, instead of expecting to interact with a set of characters, principles, ideas. We read the scriptures expecting to be preached to, but rarely looking to interact with the “characters” and ideas; this requires our intellectual and emotional participation. Maturity? Perhaps that’s a good word too.

  4. Jayme says:

    This reminds me of the beach scene in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Daedalus sees the girl at the beach and redefines his aesthetic; he changes his view from sexual to artistic. I think often, especially in Mormon culture, we are quickly to jump to sexual when things are intended to be artistic. Now, this is not to say that a K-Mart catalog is artistic- for it is certainly not – but to agree with you, that reading/looking/watching/whatever is an active act, and we can choose to see the girl on the beach with her dress pulled up around her knees as artistic, or we can see her knees and immediately jump to sexual and bad.

  5. Scott Parkin says:

    Someone needs to take the other side of this, so I guess I’ll try.

    I think many conservative reactions to things tends to be more on aesthetic than artistic merits. The question tends to be why *this* symbol or metaphor instead of another, with the (often unfair) judgment that by choosing a particular symbol the artist is requiring appreciation of a particular moral stance?

    Why a prostitute as a symbol of facades and affected masks (lies) rather than one-upsmanship at the local bar? Twain did a marvelous job of showing (harmless) puffery with his two rogues on the raft, one claiming to be the Dauphin—and nary a prostitute in sight. Why participating in the services of the prostitute rather than observing? By drawing me through these specific details the author asks me to trust in situations that I’m inherently distrustful of.

    There are good artistic reasons for those choices, but many conservative readers believe the same end can be achieved by a different means. They are jarred by the aesthetic choice sufficiently that they choose not to engage on the symbolic, metaphorical, or artistic level—not because they incapable, but because they are disinclined to immerse in that particular symbol.

    To me the problem is that both sides use binary thinking and dismissing the other without really attempting to understand the reason. Mutual application of the strawman.

    The conservative reader says that because the symbol (or setting or situation) itself is distasteful, the meaning of the symbol is irrelevant and they walk away without even trying; they prefer works that offer a similar symbol without requiring the distasteful journey. The artist bleats that the symbol has deep meaning and the only way not to see that meaning is to be either uneducated or immature.

    They are both right for a certain segment. Some artists do choose the most bizarre or jarring symbol precisely because it is distasteful, and many a self-righteous consumer assumes that something that is aesthetically offensive to them must therefore be utterly devoid of value or meaning for anyone.

    But for many of the rest of us it’s a balance. Some look at Frank’s vision of the cowboy Jesus and see the value of a depiction of a cussing and spitting Jesus as symbolic that the Savior speaks to us in words and images that make sense to us and speak to our own minds and experience. But that same reader may wonder why the vision had to be seen in the swirling waters of a urinal rather than while sitting in his truck, or even while walking out of the bathroom—one step too far, one grotesquery too many. The art was defensible, but the package drew too much attention and distracted from the meaning to the point that the cost outweighed the benefit.

    Arguably, like pretty much everything Lady Gaga (or Marilyn Manson) does—defensible and even profound, but the package is just too hard to swallow (for some readers).

    To me that argues less about the maturity of the reader than their aesthetic thresholds (and I don’t believe it’s fair to tie aesthetic threshold to either emotional or intellectual maturity—too many variables in human experience to make that broad an assumption). They might well be more than capable of appreciating the symbol, but feel justified in walking away from what they see as unnecessary packaging.

    If the reader is incapable of seeing the metaphor they are immature (or uneducated in those areas). If the reader sees the metaphor (or at least the potential of the metaphor) but walks away on aesthetic grounds (think Serrano’s Piss Christ), I think that’s much different than immaturity, and the artist dismisses the consumer for the wrong crime.

    That aesthetic evaluation has more to do with audience (limited market segment) than with skill or value of either the author or artist. As we’ve discussed many times here, many people simply will not read sf regardless of how well written, intricately plotted, or symbolically brilliant it may be—if it has aliens or a spaceship, it’s gotta go.

    As an sf writer I can moan about immature readers, but the fact is that they’re simply outside my audience. The package offends regardless of its defensible merit—not because the reader is immature or stupid, but because they just don’t like it (and some might be immature, but they’re not all immature).

    There’s value in separating inability to see from unwillingness to engage and understanding those reasons separate from the metaphor itself. The underwear catalog is not intended to be viewed as porn, but it *is* intended to be both visually engaging and aesthetically pleasing—elements that porn shares for those who like it. In other words, there is an overlap at the level of aesthetics that draws the eye and engages an emotional response. In the porn addict that response is sexual (imagining what lies beneath); in the underwear buyer that response is pragmatic (the pattern is nice or the cut is flattering).

    But the catalog is most certainly intended to engage—and even titillate—at a surface level. That’s what effective marketing and advertising does. And while its intent is to get people to buy underwear, an inevitable effect is that a certain segment will imagine other scenarios (most of them briefly and harmlessly) and a small subset will cross over to harmful focus.

    That a harmlessly intended symbol (or image) can be understood harmfully suggests that audience and art are an interactive experience, and that interpretation is at least partly out of the control of the artist—putting the onus on the audience to interpret reasonably.

    But the artist does choose the symbol with the expectation that it be understood a certain way (or at least within a certain range of ways). That choice carries a certain level of responsibility—and creates a certain audience segmentation. No text is universal, and no metaphor works for everyone (railroad bridge and dead child as metaphor of the atonement as a fine example discussed here in years past).

    I have a bias against Mormon pop music because it seems to trivialize things that are very important to me. It’s really hard for me to listen charitably, but when required I will do so. It’s not because I don’t understand the metaphor or because I’m unwilling to extract it. Rather, it’s a value analysis for me where I determine that the benefit of that metaphor was insufficient to justify the aesthetic hell I have to endure to reach it. I know the artist intended it well, but I just can’t go there with anything like joy or hope.

    To switch media for a moment (and further belabor the point), for me Pulp Fiction is powerful and uplifting, while for another it is simply too violent and too grotesque to be useful. For me it has value; for another it’s just porn. On the other hand, Flesh for Frankenstein is just dumb (in my opinion) and the broad comment on pop culture simply doesn’t justify the inane package or offensive content.

    The underwear catalog is porn for a very small subset of the public. It is not reasonable to see it as such, and the publisher bears little or no responsibility for those unreasonable reactions. But the reaction is real and it’s useful (if not necessary) to know what the triggers are when producing similar materials in the future.

    In other words, it might *also* be about audience maturity. But it’s not *only* about audience maturity. Many elements factor in—some of which we bear responsibility for as artists, and some of which we bear responsibility for as audience. Along with a whole lotta things that cross over into both.

    (Sorry for the length. I’m avoiding mowing the lawn, but I’ve now run out of both time and excuses. Sigh…)

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Scott,

      Thanks for this. I think you’ve done a good job of doing justice to some of the complexities involved.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      On additional blow to that poor, poor horse…

      I understand (and largely agree with) the argument that a mature reader will at least give the symbol a chance (aka, they will read to completion and honestly cogitate a bit) before evaluating and (possibly) dismissing, whereas the immature reader reacts reflexively to a potentially unpleasant or distasteful element with instant rejection without consideration.

      As with so many things, it’s not an easy prescription. I tend to resist the idea that to be literarily mature one must simply hold one’s nose and swallow foul medicines because while the aesthetic experience is lousy, the ultimate effect on the soul is beneficial. Not all lousy tasting elixirs are useful, and more than a few are directly damaging.

      I can’t argue with the idea that hard experience is often the most effective teacher, and avoiding the unpleasant leaves one generally unprepared to cope when harsh experience is thrust upon us. Certainly one value of literature is the ability to gain vicarious experience through story while retaining some level of abstraction or safe emotional distance from actual events.

      Still…the symbol is rarely self-contained, and the author (artist) has already given the reader a sense of both their skill at handling such things, and their overall trustworthiness as host to the reader. This earned credit—aka, this general artistry—carries all readers (but especially the immature reader) through the challenging symbol or image because the reader trusts the artist as host.

      Which suggests that while the reader does bear responsibility to be open-minded, the author bears no less responsibility to be a good host both in creating and delivering symbol—as well as providing evident value for discomforts inflicted.

      It seems to me that this is where good report comes in. I would like for everyone to read widely in both comfortable and uncomfortable subjects, forms, and genres. But the reality is that with the massive preponderance of titles there is simply no way for everyone to read even a general survey of current literature in a single category, no less across the marketplace.

      So we rely on the good report and the praise of others whose voice we have learned to trust to act as native guide to new or potentially troubling works. And we expect a heads-up that this one might be uncomfortable, but that it’s worth the risk and the challenge. Thus criticism and review in addition to writing and marketing.

      I’m just not prepared to put the onus more fully on the reader than the author to justify or create art. Yes, it takes two—but it does take both sides, and to my mind the author has no less responsibility to wrest art in the presentation than the reader does in the interpretation.

      (In an odd twist I’m currently taking Humanities 101 through independent study, and as such am reviewing some core texts on approach and criticism. As such, I’m likely to pop up with tangentially related posts like this that are really more an argument with the textbook than with the post itself. Sorry about that; I have no self-control.)

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    “To switch media for a moment (and further belabor the point), for me Pulp Fiction is powerful and uplifting, while for another it is simply too violent and too grotesque to be useful. ”

    For me, that movie is Dogma.

    Good thoughts. Separating aesthetic (aka the squick factor) from maturity.

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