There is a widespread attitude today which maintains that art, in all its forms, occupies a privileged position with respect to conventional morality – that it is separate from and superior to that morality, and not subject to its standards. This attitude is completely erroneous.
The philosopher Jacques Maritain provides us with a plain and pointed response to this shallow and impoverished way of looking at things simply by calling attention to the common sense truth that the artist is a man before he is an artist. His point is that the artist is first and foremost a rational agent, a human being, and as such he is subject to exactly the same moral obligations as is the rest of humanity. His status as an artist gives him no special moral privileges, and least of all does it place him entirely outside the realm of conventional morality.
There are two immediate implications of this, the first having to do with the artist’s personal life, the second having to do with his professional life as an artist. The artist does not have leave to become a liar, a depraved person, or a thief, no more than does any other man. And as far as his professional life is concerned, the artist has to meet the same basic obligation as does every other human fabricator – that is, he must make sure that the products of his hands reflect the truths of the moral order. Just as no artist has a license to act immorally in his personal life, so too he has no license to produce immoral works of art.
The responsibility of the artist in this regard is especially grave, for in many cases he is someone who has been gifted by God with unusual talents, and because of this fact he is able to have a particularly powerful in-fluence on other people. And the greater the talents, the greater the influence, for good or ill. And anyone who thinks he is immune to the deleterious effects of immoral art is only kidding himself or herself.
An artist, if he uses his talents as they were intended to be used, can be a formidable force for good in any society, and indeed, if he is a truly outstanding artist, his influence can extend across many societies and down many centuries. One thinks of the positive impact of poets such as Dante and Shakespeare, of musicians such as Haydn and Mozart. On the negative side, if an artist abuses his God-given talents, he can be the cause of deep and enduring evil. What if an artist should choose not to live up to his moral responsibilities as an artist? What if he adopts the attitude described above and claims that art is not bound by the rules of moral law? He decides to use his art as a means of actively undermining the principles of conventional morality. Should the society in which such an artist lives and practices his art consider itself helpless in the face of irresponsibility of this kind, an irresponsibility that often parades itself as ‘artistic integrity’?
Not at all! Every society has not only the right, but the solemn duty, to protect itself against influences which, if left unchecked, could conceivably lead to the very dissolution of that society. And few things can prove to be more harmful to the health and well-being of any society than blatantly immoral art.
‘But, my goodness’, you might ask me, ‘you certainly are not talking about censorship, are you’?
I certainly am. We have been so bamboozled by carelessly liberal ways of thinking that we have to come to believe that censorship is the most heinous thing on the face of the earth. This is nonsense. As has been recognized by all sound thinkers since at least the time of Plato, censorship is a perfectly legitimate, and necessary, way by which any society seeks to protect and preserve the moral well-being of its citizens.
We are able, with much zeal, to unconditionally outlaw smoking in public places (which is a very strong form of the censorship of behavior), and yet see fit to allow, in the name of ‘freedom of speech’, the rampant proliferation of the most pernicious and soul-polluting kind of pornography.
Talk about not having one’s priorities straight!