Morality and art: The case of Huck Finn (Mark Twain's The'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn')

Philosophy and Literature 31 (1):125-132 (2007)
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In the following essay, I argue that in the case of some works of art, moral evaluation should not play a role in artistic appraisal. While I reject the strong ethicist’s view—the view that moral evaluation may inform the artistic evaluation of any artwork—I will not do so in favor of the aestheticist’s position. The aestheticist argues for a rigid distinction between the moral and aesthetic evaluation of an artwork. On this view, the moral status of the work is independent of and irrelevant to artistic value. This view would allow us, for example, to evaluate Leni Reifenstahl’s film The Triumph of the Will as a superior work of cinematic art, while at the same time condemning it on moral grounds. Rather than support a strict separation of aesthetic and moral elements in an artwork, I will suggest that in the case of certain types of artwork, it is inappropriate to use moral criteria in their artistic evaluation—even though the work’s moral content contributes to its artistic value. This is the case in artworks that (1) are “interrogative” in form and (2) have moral dilemmas as their principal theme. Briefly put, an interrogative artwork is one that poses a question or problem that remains unresolved in the work. I will begin by explaining in more detail what I mean by an interrogative artwork. Using the example of Duchamp’s “ready-made” sculpture Fountain, I will argue that it is inappropriate to artistically evaluate such works by appeal to criteria that they themselves call into question. I will then turn to the specific issue of morally interrogative artworks. I will consider Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a paradigmatic case of an interrogative artwork that poses an unresolved moral problem, and will contrast my own rejection of the moral appraisal of the novel to Wayne Booth’s attempt to provide a morally informed positive assessment of the novel.
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