Is art an amoral (or even immoral) luxury or a moral necessity?

(The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, built during the worst famine in Japanese history.)

In a world with hunger, war, and great inequalities, although I live a simple life as a student, I do so within the richest societies of the world: the US, Japan, and Germany. I have the luxury of traveling to other countries, and I have rarely chosen to go to countries less privileged than my own. One may call this socio-economic – even a form of nationalistic – discrimination, but I will openly admit my own weakness when faced with other people’s suffering. I want to help, but know not how.

And then, there is what I do. I spend all my time pursuing the most luxurious pastimes: education and art. Both of these are only practicable when all other needs are satisfied, but they do satisfy the spirit like no other activity. Some artists and many scholars talk about the internal drive that governs their activities in art and research. I would say this drive is more fundamental than some basic needs, but why is that so? That’s what I would like to think about here, but of the two, education is perhaps more easily justified as moral. So, I would like to focus on the question:  How can art be justified?

Many would say art is not justified. A criminal’s interests in literature and art even now are presented in courtrooms to condemn the criminal’s moral capacity. So it may be said that art makes evil inner desires apparent. Certainly I agree with that, and in that sense art is an indulgence, but in the act of engaging in art in whatever form, those inner desires are externalized for inspection. The artist and the audience both can then draw their own moral judgment of the situation presented artistically. Therefore, a person’s preference in art may show the challenges that person faces, but not that person’s level of moral judgment. So, art is a tool for developing moral judgment.

However, art is still a luxury. Some art forms like opera, architecture, haute couture, or noh require large sums of money, which may be difficult to justify collectively. Each expenditure must be judged for its own moral value. However, luxury arts in almost all instances explore the extreme limits of beauty. I will not discuss the moral value of beauty here, but in the process of its exploration, art highlights a fragile balance between beauty, happiness, and satisfaction on one hand, and all the challenges of being human on the other. Such challenges include gender, racial, and socio-economic equality, the transience and fragility of life, and the very question of how much affluence is necessary for human happiness.

So, my current answer for the question in the title of this post is, the morality of art depends on the viewer’s level of engagement. However, even if the viewer engages in art purely to satisfy personal desires, in the process of externalizing those desires, the viewer has an opportunity to examine the morality of those desires. The more that opportunity is taken advantage of, the more moral the enjoyment of art becomes, no matter what its content may be.

Therefore, in my work with noh, I want to show the moral challenges it presents. I want to highlight the problems it raises: the balance between the inner mental world with the outer world of society, human exploitation, the power of human emotion, the human ability for destruction, the limits of reason and rational interference into events, and more.  These issues are all expressed in noh.  If only they can be made apparent and easily understandable, I think noh’s audiences and supporters would grow.

Particularly now, at a time of year when we celebrate what we have, I hope we can also remember the costs for our good fortune.

9 thoughts on “Is art an amoral (or even immoral) luxury or a moral necessity?

  1. I am told that the burning down of the Kinkaku in the 1950s came as the result of the arsonist’s belief that it represented an immoral extravagance.

    I am entertained that you should use the same example, but at the opposite end of its history, to illustrate a quite similar argument.

    1. The reason I put up the picture of Kinkaku-ji is not because I have an answer to the moral questions it poses, but because it holds so many challenges. In the past, I have dismissed it as gaudy, and I still think it is gaudy, but it just might require another look. Do, please, tell me what you think about it!

  2. Huge topic, and a fascinating one. As you know I am also tackling issues of morality in my research on the ethics of Noh, which gives me a lot of satisfactions as well as a lot of headaches! Is your moral stance as non-Japanese with a consistent experience in Japan satisfying a Japanese moral standard – or that of your (our?) Master? To what extent is morality ‘culturally specific’? Suggested readings: Adorno and Berys Gaut.
    PS – yes Travis, let’s see an opposite example!

    1. To say morality is “culturally specific” is dangerous, I think, because you don’t want to be accused of a double standard. I think morality doesn’t change from one culture to the next, but it does have to be approached differently. Certainly, someone like our teacher, who has staked his life and ambitions in this art form, does not want to be told its immoral, but if you can explain a conflict to make it sound challenging and interesting, there should be little problem.

      I remember before Sensei’s performance of Motomezuka, Rebecca-sensei and I discussed our reservations about the standard presentation of the shite. We even brought out the passages of the Ise Monogatari to back up our understanding of her role. Perhaps I’ll have to write about that discussion some time soon.

      You know I often disagree with the representation of women in noh. That is exactly what I’m talking about, and many many plays are repressive of women or misrepresent them. I have found that people in the Japanese cultural arts do not want to be sexist. They often don’t know the problem and don’t know how to address it. The challenge is to make the problem less overwhelming for everyone. It doesn’t hurt to give it a romantic or mysterious spin, something that makes it fascinating and fun. I think I need to write a post about this as well… Do tell me what you’re thinking about in your work!

  3. Fascinating. I have a feeling gender studies and feminist theory is not very much developed in Japan.. I wonder if you are in touch with Barbara Geilhorn? There is an urgent need for literature on women and Noh – I’m sure this field will eventually expand in the near future. It is certainly worth looking into those conflicts you mention above.

    Morality is ontologically universal, indeed. However, I would not assume it actually is in culture history. Different philosophies develop focuses and especially means for moral enquiry and action which might greatly differ. The same goes for the understanding of the relationship between art and morality: postmodernists hold substantially different claims compared to classic Greek philosophers.

    1. Thank you Diego. I have been in contact with Barbara Geilhorn before, and just wrote her an E-mail asking her about her work and her dissertation. (Her e-mail is bouncing!) Let’s hope there will be more literature on noh and women in the near future. I will do my best to help in that endeavor.

      As to the universality of morality in history or from one culture to the next, I do think the focus of morality has changed and developed over time, but the underlying question and intention is still the same. In our goals, I think the similarities may need to be emphasized. To emphasize differences is to exoticize a culture (to put it nicely) or to alienate one culture from the next (to be precise). Certainly cultural identity is important and diversity is valuable, but not without critical analysis, for to let a hundred flowers bloom may also lead to condoning discrimination and exploitation. Any cultural differences can be addressed as they are brought up, but I do think they will be differences in terms and in protocol rather than in intentions or goals.

  4. Surely a critical perspective will be aware of specificities and I do agree we are talking in terms of emphasis. I think there is a bigger risk at universalising, rather than exoticising cultures. In my view, there is good and bad alienation (but I might be influenced by my Brechtian readings!). I think it’s positive to discuss and approach the issues from different perspectives (as we are doing now), since too often internationally accepted declarations of absolute goodness and badness stem from an essentially unilateral discourse on ethics or other. I think of the Declaration of Human Righs, or, to be on the art side, of UNESCO.

    Having said that, I sympathise with your feelings, of course, and I subscribe your declaration of intent!

  5. I realize now that I relieved the artist of moral judgment and of influence on his/her audience, and will have to rethink a lot of what I said. . . I look forward to hearing any further comments, but I will not stand in defense of what I said in this post.

  6. Thoughtful topic.
    I just want to tell you that the primary source of ‘Motomedzuka’ is not ‘Ise-monogatari’ but ‘Yamato-monogatari'(chapt.147)’, and a few songs of ‘Man’yoh-shu’ would be the secondary source. They are merely the sources, however, they faithfully represent what Kwan’ami, the author of the play (cf. ‘Go-on’ or ‘Five sorts of singing’)and his comtemporaries recognised the background of the plot. Recently, very few people have sympathies for Unaiotome, me neither. Nevertheless, I’m afraid that the feminist reading wouldn’t be able to clear up my awakwardness for Unaiotome though…(not only for Motomedzka).

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