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

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.

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4 Responses to Edward Armitage’s ‘Retribution’: a Dilemma for Ethicism

  1. Filippo Contesi says:

    I don’t see that ethical considerations need to play any role here. That Armitage’s symbology works better in a work of propaganda than in more politically disengaged allegory, and hence that the work is more interesting or more aesthetically valuable, doesn’t call on ethical considerations. Propaganda can be used for good or bad purposes.

    • nilshennes says:

      Hi Filippo. Apologies for the late reply, I’ve been travelling.

      I think that if one understands Sam’s point in one way (i.e. as you have) then you’re absolutely right that ethics needn’t play a role; different genres of work have different demands, and being propaganda might make the use of certain stereotyped allegorical symbols a good-making feature, just as (perhaps) political cartoons do (actually I doubt this, but it seems a defensible position). And the fact that something is therefore better as propaganda need not involve ethical considerations, since propaganda can, as you put it, be used for good or bad purposes. Perhaps we need require that no additional wrong is committed in pursuing purposes propagandistically to fully make this point, but these are subtleties.

      However, understood in a different sense, which I take to be Sam’s intended sense, Sam is endorsing the following claim:

      (C) A work of art’s ethical flaws can make it more interesting (in at least some respect) and thus count as an aesthetic merit. In other words, a work of art can enjoy the aesthetic merit (because it is in at least one respect more interesting) of being ethically flawed.

      C makes no appeal to a work’s genre (though it is consistent with C that such improvements can be genre-specific), but rather takes the Armitage painting as exemplifying a broader point. It is this claim that calls interestingly on ethical considerations. Whether or not it was Sam’s point, whether during our conversation or in the quotation included in the blogpost, is another – probably less interesting – question.

      To digress a little from the discussion above, we might think that what’s really doing the work of constituting an aethetic merit is the property of *being more interesting as art*, and that while being unethical explains this property, it is the interestingness and not the immorality *per se* that counts as the aesthetic merit. I’m thinking here along the lines of a similar criticism Anderson and Dean made of Noël Carroll’s moralist position in their 1998 BJA article ‘Moderate Autonomism’. Their criticism, and its concomitant demand, strikes me as too strong; it seems to me that any non-question-begging example of an ethical property ‘counting as’ an aesthetic merit or flaw will be mediated by some other aesthetic property (in this case, immorality by interestingness), and thus the demand that the ethical property not do that in order to *really* count as an aesthetic merit or flaw is unreasonable. But this is a distinct way that one might challenge the relevance of ethical considerations to the purported aesthetic merits of Armitage’s work and others like it.

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