Harking back to a previous post, I was surprised to find this passage from John Ruskin in Culture and Society. As Williams notes, the excerpt is exceptional in the context of Ruskin’s broader legacy, which generally valorized all worthwhile art as being endowed with moral purpose:

As the great painter is not allowed to be indignant or exclusive, it is not possible for him to nourish his (so-called) spiritual desires, as it is to an ordinarily virtuous person. Your ordinarily good man absolutely avoids, either for fear of getting harm, or because he has no pleasure in such places or people, all scenes that foster vice, and all companies that delight in it…. But you can’t learn to paint of blackbirds, nor by singing hymns. You must be in the wildness of the midnight masque — in the misery of the dark street at dawn… — on the moor with the wanderer or the robber…. Does a man die at your feet, your business is not to help him, but to note the colour of his lips; does a woman embrace her destruction before you, your business is not to save her, but to watch how she bends her arms.

This no-holds-barred aestheticism would blossom into a cause all its own, with Oscar Wilde, a pupil of Ruskin’s, as patron saint. France would give birth to the Decadent Movement and Arthur Rimbaud, and the 20th century would offer up an expansive pantheon of like-minded talents. Celine, the Beat Generation, and Susan Sontag immediately spring to (this Westerner’s) mind. And the attitude clearly persists,  in our independent film industry, our more mainstream but still risque cinema, our literary talk of the town, our most highly regarded television series, and of course, our art world itself. My concern isn’t with whether or not this is a positive development, or how it stacks up to Ruskin’s otherwise moralist leanings. That’s a debate that’s been had too many times to count, and it’s largely irrelevant (keep reading). What I’m curious about is how this reality coexists with The Culture of Nice; the emoticon, the anti-bullying campaigns, the political correctness, and the Kumbaya politics and religion.

One reply is that the question itself is built on a category error, that the people who rush to the art house to see the latest Lars von Trier aren’t the same people who are banning words like “terrorism,” “divorce,” and “disease” from city-wide public school tests. Fair enough. The same could be said for the disjunction between our smiley face t-shirts and our imperialist wars, our Kafkaesque prison system, or our cutthroat political economy. Perhaps the latter examples get more to the point. The great divide today isn’t between pure morality or pure aesthetics. As Ruskin’s own contradictions imply, such a clean choice probably never existed in the first place. The choice today (as always) is between moralities and aesthetics that take a long hard look at reality, and those that don’t. We, as both idealistic and carnal actors, are tasked with helping the dying man and noting the color of his lips as we do so. It’s a tough charge, and one that’s rarely answered without lapses in one direction or the other. But as many of the avant-gardists of yesteryear attest, it’s possible to play  both voyeur and morally serious actor in the same breath.  In fact, each role informs the other. And if the roles are divorced, as they mostly have been, you end up with a surfeit of social injustice, pornographic entertainment, and sentimental slosh.

And this is all just one elaborate plug for Steve McQueen’s Shame.