Edward Armitage’s ‘Retribution’: a Dilemma for Ethicism

June 3, 2015

Following a recent brief conversation with Sam Liao at the Race & Aesthetics conference, I realized we took very different views of the relationship between certain kinds of moral properties and their aesthetic upshot. We were discussing a couple of paintings in the Leeds Art Museum where the conference was taking place, one of which was Edward Armitage’s Retribution. As it happens, Sam has discussed the painting elsewhere in a recent blog post:

Learning about the museum’s collection from a postcolonial perspective actually heightened my aesthetic experience of them, albeit in unexpected ways. For example, a painting that I’ve long casually dismissed as an amateurish allegory actually became more interesting to me when I learned it was part of the British propaganda to justify their horrific actions in India. The painting featured a white angelic figure slaying the Bengal tiger. It is not the subtlest of all symbols, which makes it rather amateurish as an allegory, but perfectly appropriate as propaganda. What was previously an aesthetic flaw somehow ceased to be one, even though the painting is certainly more morally flawed for it.

Edward Armitage - 'Retribution' (1858)

Edward Armitage – Retribution (1858) {image in the public domain}

The “white angelic figure” (“demonic” seems more apt) is Britannia. Retribution was painted to celebrate the (brutal) crushing by the British of the Indian rebellion of 1857-8, in which Indian sepoys working for the East India Company engaged in a mutiny, leading to a number of others and, eventually, the dissolution of the East India Company. Crucially, for the remainder of the discussion, the fact that Retribution celebrates this Imperial bloodbath renders the painting morally flawed (in case that was not obvious).

In conversation, Sam suggested that this kind of example provides a simple way to argue for aesthetic immoralism. Aesthetic immoralism, as it is sometimes used and as I shall use it here, is a broad family of views according to which (among other commitments) ethical flaws in artworks sometimes count as aesthetic merits in a work, and ethical merits sometimes as aesthetic flaws. Aesthetic immoralism stands in opposition to a family of views sometimes called aesthetic moralism. Among the moralist views, the best defended is Berys Gaut’s ethicism. According to ethicism, roughly, ethical flaws always count as pro tanto aesthetic flaws, and ethical merits always as pro tanto aesthetic merits. So, for example, according to the immoralist, cruelty—qua cruelty—in an artwork can, but need not, be an aesthetic merit in a work. According to the ethicist, however, cruelty—qua cruelty—in a work always counts as an aesthetic flaw, in addition to being a moral one.

The argument for aesthetic immoralism that Sam had in mind, I guess, goes like this: some ethically bad works (such as Retribution) are interesting as art in virtue of being ethically flawed. And since being interesting as art is a pro tanto merit in a work, and the fact that these works are more interesting as art is grounded in their being ethically flawed, some ethical flaws count as aesthetic merits in artworks.

I agree with Sam that Retribution, along with many other works, is more interesting as art for being ethically flawed. However, I think this fact supports a different conclusion to the one he draws; namely, being interesting as art need not count as an aesthetic merit in a work. And, I think, this kind of example shows more generally that aesthetic properties thought to be always positively (or negatively) valenced, such as being interesting, thought-provoking on the positive side, and being dull or hackneyed on the negative—i.e. properties that are thought to always count as pro tanto merits, or as pro tanto flaws—can in fact switch their valences. Why? To put the argument as succinctly as possible (since this is a blog post, not a monograph): if being interesting as art does not contribute the same aesthetic valence across artworks, surely nothing does. So while I concede that Retribution is more interesting as art for being ethically flawed, I deny that this counts as an aesthetic merit in the work. I deny this for the same reason that I deny that being interesting as art counts as an aesthetic merit when it arises from the aesthetic flaws in a work or performance. Take the terrible auditions for various TV talent competitions, for instance. These are often so aesthetically terrible that they thereby become interesting as art—as artistic spectacle—a fact the producers of these shows ruthlessly exploit. But it seems bizarre (if not incoherent) to think of such a performance as aesthetically better for being interesting in this way. For, if we thought it was, then following the same reasoning I attributed to Sam, we would have to say that its being interesting as art is grounded in its being aesthetically flawed, and thus that some aesthetic flaws are aesthetic merits. I take it that stated literally this is an untenable position.

But my ultimate interest is not in Sam’s position (or, rather, the one I have attributed to him). Instead, it is with the ethicist’s. So, even if you side with Sam, never fear—the preceding discussion still throws up an interesting consequence. Namely, if our positions (mine and Sam’s) concerning Retribution and works like it are exhaustive (whether of logical space or just its plausible positions), then this by itself provides an argument against ethicism (and thereby one for aesthetic immoralism). Let me explain.

If one of us must be right, then there are two possibilities. The first possibility is that Sam is right. If so, then the argument against ethicism is straightforward; it is simply “his” argument for aesthetic immoralism as spelled out above.

The second possibility is that I am right. If so, then we can mobilize a burden-of-proof argument against the ethicist. For, in order to make her argument, the ethicist relies on the fact that ethical properties in artworks will never flip their aesthetic valences. So, to use the earlier example, being cruel will always count as a pro tanto aesthetic blemish in a work, (and similarly, being beneficent will always count as a pro tanto aesthetic merit). But if a notion as seemingly robustly univalent as interesting—or even interesting as art—can flip its valence as my argument claims, then the ethicist must answer a question: namely, what is so special about ethical properties in artworks that they never flip their valences? The challenge here is simple: if all properties of artworks can flip their aesthetic valences, why not the moral ones?

So, in summary: perhaps Sam is right, in which case we have a straightforward argument for aesthetic immoralism, and thus against ethicism. Alternatively, I am right, in which case we have (at least the beginnings of) a burden-of-proof argument against ethicism. Either way, we have a prima facie case to reject ethicism.