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The Moral Countenance of Art

Emrys Westacott asks if we can really tell what it is that films and other art are either condemning or condoning.

In 2012 two major films, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, provoked considerable controversy.

Few dispute the technical quality of these movies. Spielberg and Bigelow are superb directors, and the acting, staging, cinematography and screenplays, are first-rate. The controversies were not about form and style, but about content; more specifically, about the messages the films convey. Zero Dark Thirty has been accused of countenancing torture, since it suggests that the successful hunt for Osama Bin Laden benefited from a lead obtained through the use of torture. Lincoln has been criticized for reinforcing the idea that passive black slaves were liberated by good white guys, and also of vindicating corruption, since it shows how the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery, was passed by means of blackmail, bribery, and the willingness of politicians like Thaddeus Stevens to cast aside deeply held moral principles.

These films and the debates they inspired thus raise the question: how does one decide if a work of art countenances something? The thing in question need not be objectionable, of course. Pride and Prejudice is generally held to countenance true love, Delacroix’ famous painting Liberty Leading the People to countenance rebellion in the name of freedom. But the question seems to present itself more sharply when what is supposedly condoned is deemed offensive. So let us address this question by focusing particularly on Zero Dark Thirty, probably the most controversial film of 2012.

Difficulties In Judging Intention

One obvious way to determine a work’s moral message is to give maximum weight to the artist’s intentions, either as explicitly stated or as these can be clearly inferred from the work. If one does that here, the criticisms of Zero Dark Thirty appear misplaced. In interviews, Bigelow has unequivocally condemned torture. Her response to the charge that Zero Dark Thirty condones torture is to point out that “depiction is not endorsement.” If it were, she says, “no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no writer could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

Zero Dark Thirty
A moment of reflection from Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty stills © Annapurna Pictures 2012

Of course, an artist’s conscious intentions do not settle the correct interpretation of a work. To think they do is to commit what literary theorists dub the ‘intentional fallacy’. Critics continually find meanings in works that go beyond, or even against, what their creators had in mind. Even more obviously, an artist’s intentions do not fix the impact the work has on its audience. The filmmakers who produced Westerns that depicted Native Americans as cruel savages may not have intended to reinforce this stereotype or to condone the forcible taking of Native American land by white settlers, but it’s hard to deny that these messages were to some degree conveyed and absorbed.

What about an artist’s unconscious intentions? Can they determine a work’s meaning? This seems an even less promising path. It involves establishing claims along the lines of, ‘I know she said she was aiming at x, but her unconscious purpose was y’. Such speculative claims about motives that even the agent is not aware of are extraordinarily difficult to justify.

Perhaps, then, in order to determine if a work of art countenances something we should look at its effects, in other words, the audience’s response. Certainly, this is what the critics of Zero Dark Thirty seem to be mainly concerned about. They worry that the film will make people more tolerant of torture, while reinforcing simple-minded views of Americans as the ‘good guys’ and Muslims as the ‘bad guys’.

An obvious problem with this suggestion is that audience response is rarely uniform, and can range from enthusiastic acclaim to vehement condemnation. Thus, whereas Chris Hayes of MSNBC pronounced Zero Dark Thirty to be “objectively pro-torture,” filmmaker Michael Moore described it as a “disturbing, fantastically-made movie [that] will make you hate torture.” But not all responses to a work have to be treated as equally valid: audiences may sometimes take seriously what the director intended ironically, or laugh raucously at something intended seriously. Moreover, clever critics will occasionally come up with radically new interpretations of a work, sometimes even suggesting thereby that the rest of us have managed to miss the point entirely. So if the message of a film is to be determined by looking at how viewers respond to it, the question then becomes: which of the possible responses indicates its moral meaning?

There are two obvious candidates: (a) the most common response; (b) the response of the experts – i.e., those whose knowledge, experience, and critical acumen best equip them to arrive at informed, insightful judgments about the work.

We immediately run into difficulties with the response of the experts. One problem is that the experts often disagree: witness the contrasting views of Chris Hayes and Michael Moore on Zero Dark Thirty. So consulting the experts only pushes the problem back – we still have to determine which expert is right. Another problem is that the experts’ critiques typically presuppose a sharp distinction between their own response and the response they imagine most other people will have. For instance, Toronto Star journalist Michelle Shepherd, writing about Zero Dark Thirty’s torture scenes, argues that “for the greater movie-going public it will be hard not to walk away with the impression that this type of interrogation was a necessary evil.” And former Guardian columnist Glen Greenwald asserts: “There is zero doubt that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured.” Shepherd and Greenwald evidently share Chris Hayes’ feeling of “moral revulsion” toward Zero Dark Thirty. But this feeling is triggered by their fear that ‘the standard viewer’ will not share their reaction.

This fear is based on both the character of the work and the cultural environment into which it is released. Like many other critics, they plausibly argue that after 9/11 (amd the film opens with a reminder of that day’s horrors) most viewers will derive satisfaction from seeing Maya, the CIA agent whose dogged determination eventually leads to Bin Laden, succeed in getting her man; and that they will, during the mesmerizing final forty minutes, inevitably be rooting for the Navy SEALs to complete their mission without mishap. Consequently, by the end of the film, they are likely to be less outraged at the grizzly methods used by the CIA, less disturbed by the point blank shooting of women in the Bin Laden compound, and more inclined to shrug and say, “Hey, whatever it takes.”

Yet it is hard to deny that there is a whiff of condescension here. Why will the ‘standard viewer’, ‘the greater movie-going public’, unlike Shepherd and Greenwald, unwittingly imbibe the moral poison putatively put out by by Bigelow’s film? Presumably because they lack the critics’ perspicacity and critical detachment. But how do the critics know how ‘the standard viewer’ will respond?

In some cases, at least, they extrapolate from their own visceral reaction. Thus Slate’s Emily Bazelon, who sees the film as “pro-torture” writes: “At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, Maya’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to US interests.” In the immediacy of the moment, drawn in by the film’s powerful narrative, Bazelon is affected in a predicable way: she finds herself siding with the heroine and the CIA. Afterwards, she uses her reflective judgment to arrive at a view of the film that becomes critical of that initial response. But she and the other critics who interpret the film as pro-torture presumably believe that most viewers will be less able or willing to adopt this reflective standpoint; less likely to temper their sensibility with sense.

They may be right. The fact that a critic’s attitude can be made to sound condescending is hardly a knock-down objection to it. After all, there are times when such an attitude is hard to avoid. Analogous critiques of films that fetishize guns, or of political ads with racist subtexts, typically assume that the critic sees what the target audience doesn’t. Nevertheless, this assumption is often problematic. How do we rule out the possibility that the artist is seeking to provoke just the sort of unsettling moral oscillation that Bazelon experienced – the kind that results when we eventually realize that we’ve been sucked into viewing torture or corruption sympathetically?

Consider for instance John Ford’s famous 1956 Western The Searchers. In this film, a band of Comanches destroy the home of a family of honest, hard-working settlers, killing the men, raping and murdering the women, and kidnapping Debbie, a young girl. Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, leads the search for Debbie, whom he eventually finds and carries back home. Throughout the film, all the male Indians are grim, brutal warriors, while the female Indians are portrayed as childishly simple. Other white women who have been rescued from Indians are shown as having been driven insane by their unspeakable treatment. This sure as hell looks likes a lot of negative stereotyping, as John Wayne might have said if he had not himself held views that most people today would consider racist. Yet in his recent study, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth (2010), Robert Pippin argues that The Searchers is a sophisticated study of racism and self-deceptive historical mythologizing. He concedes that “perhaps most of the viewers simply glide over the fact that Ethan is a vicious racist, and are able to keep ignoring this until he finally rescues Debbie and this presumption about his ‘basically good and heroic’ character seems finally confirmed” (p.135). But Pippin thinks that Ford deliberately invites us to apply crude stereotypes as part of his strategy for unsettling conventional thinking. And even though most viewers may ‘glide over’ these complications, according to Pippin, The Searchers is nevertheless, “one of the greatest and most ambitious films ever made” (p.107).

The essential point is that the moral message of a work cannot be determined by considering how the majority respond to it. The ‘standard’ viewer, listener, or reader can be mistaken. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Born in the USA’. It was taken by many, including Ronald Reagan, to be a nationalist anthem; yet in this case the many were surely mistaken. Anyone who studies the lyrics will probably agree with Springsteen, who said that far from being a celebration of America, it is about the spiritual crisis of a working class man who “has nothing left to tie him into society anymore… [who is] isolated from the government, isolated from his family… to the point where nothing makes sense.”

The Searchers
Is it always so easy to tell who the bad guy is?
The Searchers stills © Warner Bros Pictures 1956

Truth, Lies, And Film

Another consideration we might take into account in trying to determine the meaning of any artwork is the relation between representation and reality. Bigelow’s critics put a lot of weight on the point that according to informed sources, torture did not produce the vital lead to Bin Laden. Thus Mehdi Hasan, political editor of the Huffington Post (UK) writes: “the entire plotline of ZDT is built on a lie… In pushing this false narrative, the movie effectively excuses and implicitly condones the torture that was done by the Agency.” Notice though that this argument is somewhat at odds with the idea that the film’s moral meaning is revealed by the response of the standard viewer. Instead, the film is now said to condone torture because it falsifies the record to say that torture was useful. Yet suppose that torture had in fact helped the hunt for Bin Laden. That is obviously possible. However much we might hate to admit it, torture presumably does sometimes work. But if the film turned out to be historically accurate, could it still be accused of countenancing torture? If the crucial question is historical accuracy, the answer would be no. But if what matters is how the film affects the greater movie-going public, the answer may still be yes, since most viewers presumably do not know to what extent the details of the narrative are accurate: they only know the broad historical framework of the story, from 9/11 to Abbottabad. So provided the film stays within plausible parameters, their response will not be affected by whether or not the details of the story are true.

We don’t have to pose this dilemma hypothetically. Lincoln poses it directly. Spielberg did not have to fashion any dubious connection between dirty means and audience-satisfying end. Everyone agrees that the 13th Amendment only passed when it did thanks to some dubious back-room sausage-making. So can this story be told accurately without corruption being countenanced in the telling?

Most critics, I imagine, would say that the filmmaker does not have to choose between truth which harms or falsehood which edifies. That dilemma is false on two counts. First, it fails to recognize that the message of a story can depend greatly on how it is told; second, it rests on too simple a notion of truth.

Regarding the first point, Thomas Frank, writing in Harpers, notes that much of the corruption depicted in Lincoln is carried out by three loveable scamps, invariably to a cheery fiddle and banjo accompaniment. This encourages us to view it lightheartedly, and therein lies a condoning. The point is well taken. Form counts as much as content.

The second point, concerning truth, takes us back to the ‘Where is Fred?’ criticism of Lincoln. By leaving out Frederick Douglass and the African-American contribution to the abolition of slavery, Spielberg opens himself to the charge of failing to adequately contextualize the events depicted. Bigelow has similarly been accused of failing to provide the wider context in which the hunt for Bin Laden took place – a context that includes, for instance, the US invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and rising anger in many parts of the world at the American government’s seeming indifference to the civilian casualties caused by its actions.

This line of criticism is doubtless sometimes justified, but a problem with it is that it can be made of just about any work. Most American and British films about World War II entirely ignore the indispensable role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Nazi Germany, thereby reinforcing distorted ideas about the relative contributions of the allies. Jane Austen’s novels omit any critical discussion of the slave plantations and imperialistic enterprises which generate the money that supports her characters’ leisured lifestyles; nor do they mention the dark satanic mills closer to home. The general problem here is that in order to achieve the desired unity and intensity in a work, artists must restrict the range of their attention. To the objection that they have not told the whole truth, they can often reply, reasonably enough, that what was omitted belongs in a different work altogether.

Artists certainly have a moral responsibility to consider the likely effects of their work. But critics must also appreciate that artists have to follow aesthetic imperatives as well; what they produce must work artistically. And sometimes there can be a genuine tension between aesthetic and moral considerations. If Bigelow had left the torture scenes out of Zero Dark Thirty, she would undoubtedly have been accused of whitewashing the CIA; but if she had included them with no clear narrative link to the main story, she would likely have been charged with serving up gratuitous violence.

LincolnPolitical fixes by lovable scamps
Lincoln images © 20th Century Fox 2012


The critics of Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln make many good points, but they draw their conclusions about what these films countenance too readily. For if works of art have messages, we can sometimes only decide what they are by employing a complex equation that includes, among other things, authorial intentions, what is depicted, what is left out, the manner of depiction, how the representation relates to reality, the audience’s prior beliefs about that reality, the conventions of the genre, and the cultural environment in which the work is made and received. A theoretical account of these factors and their relative weighting is needed before the value of the kind of criticisms discussed here can be considered decisive.

Art serves as a mirror. Through its representations it reflects our world, history, culture, politics, and the way these are understood today. Thomas Frank notes the obvious relevance of Lincoln, in which a president has to find a way to pass controversial legislation in the teeth of intransigent opposition, to the political situation in America today. Works of art help us learn about ourselves in another way, too. Since they affect us in certain ways, they provide occasions for reflecting on how we are affected. In doing so they help bring into focus what we might call the moral countenance of the culture of which we are a part. We may not like the countenance we see. But if we don’t, is that the fault of the mirror?

© Emrys Westacott 2014

Emrys Westacott is Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University in Western New York. His most recent book is The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton University Press).

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