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Should the Arts be more “moral”?

Should Shakespeare be allowed on Australian television? and Should Parliament be broadcast?  are among the questions asked by Peter Fleming as he reflects on television and manners in Australia …

In recent weeks, a judge, a prime minister and several sensationalist commercial current affairs programmes have raised the question of whether Australia needs to improve the manners of its population, and whether television in particular should provide a better example of manners to its viewers.

The argument seems to go something like this: what is causing so much adversity in society is a lack of politeness, and television’s “reality” shows and dramas should improve the behaviour of the participants to reflect more well-mannered interactions we would like to see in real life around us.

Setting aside for the moment the category of “reality” TV shows, and concentrating on drama, perhaps we should first ask the more fundamental question: are the arts moral, immoral or amoral? Is a work of art always produced with the notion of morality in mind?

Oscar Wilde proclaimed that art should be for the sake of art alone, a banner claim which suggests that artists should not produce work for any other purpose than to express the  artist’s experience of the world. And then, as we know, Oscar Wilde proceeded to produce himself virtually nothing but works of high moral seriousness, even if decorated with a seemingly facetious wit. No one who sees The Importance of Being Earnest can be in any doubt by its farcical end of the utter importance of honesty, even as we smile with awareness at the awfully embarrassing truth of ubiquitous human deceptiveness.  Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance are exquisitely revealing dramatic portraits of our common hypocrisy, and Wilde surreptitiously echoes the thoughts of Jesus: “Ye who are without sin....”

Sondheim and Wheeler’s masterwork, Sweeney Todd, about a man who serially murders his barbershop customers and allows his neighbour to fashion their meat into the contents of meat pies, was initially criticised by some for lacking moral purpose. The musical play, first produced in 1979 and based on a legend, also contained a rape scene, several brutal throat slashings, and, arguably worst of all, the descent by the barber himself into a nearly autistic state of emotional detachment from what he was doing on a regular basis:

And in that darkness when I’m blind

With what I can’t forget,

It’s always morning in my mind...

Was there no moral purpose in Sweeney Todd? It’s depiction of abuse of power by Judge Turpin, Sweeney’s nemesis, provoked more than one theatre-goer to call for more justice from judges, not an altogether immoral request.

Shakespeare, of course, wrote (or rewrote in dramatic form) some of the nastiest, most popular stories in the Western world. The examples of utterly horrible behaviour by his “dramatis personae” are too many to number, but a brief list may give an indication: the cutting off of the hands and the cutting out of the tongue of Lavinia after she is raped in Titus Andronicus; the ripping out of the eyeballs of Gloucester in King Lear; Hamlet’s murdering his bride-to-be’s father, as well as his telling sordid jokes over a skull in a graveyard, and indeed fighting in the actual grave intended for his beloved Ophelia; Macbeth’s multiple political assassinations; incest in Pericles; the suffocating murder of Desdemona, an innocent wife, in Othello. The list, as I say, is practically endless. Should Shakespeare be allowed on Australian television?

Nor are the other arts beyond the question: what should a painter depict? Was Brett Whitely going too far? (Always!) Did Hitler and Stalin not condemn musicians for corrupt chords and cadences? Wasn’t jazz at one time considered the source of society’s evil? C.S. Lewis wrote atheistic war poetry of great despair after his experiences at the front in World War One. Wilfred Owen poeticised some of the most disgusting images ever recorded of that same war, describing one gas victim’s face as like that of

the devil’s sick of sin,...

in his bitterly ironic “Dulce et Decorum Est”, an attack on polite social lies if ever there were one.

Is it not true that every artist produces work for a moral purpose? Indeed, is it possible for an artist to work without moral purpose? What are the prompts to creativity: a sense of injustice, a realisation of society’s hypocrisy, a hatred of the abuse of power, an experience of the need for greater love and an awareness of the evil of revenge? The Montagues and the Capulets played by society’s rules; that was the problem! Romeo and Juliet did not; that was their glory.

Was Jesus polite? He could be, on those rare occasions when politeness was necessary to forward the gospel. (The gospel is radically impolite by its very nature: did any of us invite God into our world? Jesus was an invasion of the most brutal honesty and truth we will ever experience.)

Of course, it may be argued that the prevalence of one kind of drama – the murder mystery – is taking its toll on social mores. How many more variations of Law and Order and CSI can we take? But then, isn’t the point of every crime drama shown on television that murder is despicable and that justice is desirable? As John Weidman wrote in the book of the musical Bounce, in 2003,

Sometimes the worst examples are the best.

Considering the behaviour of recent participants of “reality” TV shows, it could be argued that such programming lowers the moral tone. But would it not be wiser to ask the question: what commercial imperatives are driving producers and networks to con and exploit the participants, and to attempt to fool the public into thinking that these highly unusual living conditions actually resemble anything real? Put people in a zoo – be it a Big Brother house or a Survivor island – and you will get animal behaviour. Some have argued that Federal Parliament is also a profoundly artificial arena – and sure enough, we find political animals there. Should Parliament be broadcast?

As was partly demonstrated by the writers’ strike in America two years ago, the very problem of so called “reality” television is that it excludes artists, and thus it lacks the very spring of moral purpose: artistic outrage.

In fact, some politicians who do not understand artists and are therefore afraid of them and so denigrate them, may be the very same ones who would, if they knew anything, prefer television to be run by artists rather than by sordid commercial concerns. What television may need is more truly shocking material: namely, more honesty and truth, but shaped to a form satisfying to the human spirit by the skill of creative inspiration. After all, God Himself did not make a world of “reality grunge”; look at a lorikeet!

A wise friend of mine, now a Presbyterian minister, once observed that when a person loses his faith, he often becomes fixated on morals. The Pharisees were concerned for the rules. The Scribes were anxious about the law and the Sabbath. Self-righteousness always begins with a belief in one’s own moral superiority; and self-righteousness is the blight of religion and society.

Jesus was downright impolite to overturn the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, but He was not necessarily hurting society by doing it.  In biographical films of His life, it’s a scene audiences look forward to seeing.

Peter Fleming is a teacher, lecturer and writer living in Sydney.

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