Movies, Sex, and Gore, Oh My! Morality and Objectivity in Art
Last time I wrote on this blog, I argued that art should be viewed subjectively and objectively. Art has absolute qualities that must be acknowledged to give it existence, and yet, it still must be experienced to call it art. But what is art in the scope of ethics?
I’ll try not to make this as dry as the last post. But consider an art that has influence on today’s society: film. A little over a month ago, my eyes were transfixed on the silver screen for two hours watching a metal suit skyrocket into the air and save fourteen people from an exploding airplane. If you hadn’t guessed the film, it was Iron Man 3. It had the formula of a fun summer flick and for the most part, it is a harmless film for the appropriate audience. And I certainly don’t believe I’ve committed any moral action (good or evil) in viewing this movie.
And for the most part, the average moviegoer won’t ever ponder his “moral sentiments” in watching a film, because… well… not a lot of films challenge those sentiments.
…But what about the ones that do? What about the ones that make your moral compass go in every which way?
Take for instance a film I saw just a while ago called “Shame”. Directed by Steve McQueen, the movie sets out to tell the story of a man who is a sexual addict. The movie goes into detail about his spiritual downfall, his state of depravity, and the loss of soul. The movie shows sexual acts in graphic detail along with full frontal nudity from both sexes. The movie itself has one of the best messages a film could have: that sex viewed in an unhealthy manner will decay and destroy of one’s soul.
Take also for instance “Django Unchained” from Quentin Tarantino. The film had a story of reconciliation and retribution, alongside a soapbox message seeking to decry how poorly African-Americans were treated at that time. It no doubt had a great story with some great moral sentiments. But through that, there was an insurmountable amount of violence. And the revenge became a more of a guilty pleasure than a justifiable act.
What do we make of such films that tug on the opposite ends of what you believe is right and what you believe is wrong?
To make matters even more difficult, we are left with specific ideals that Christians have in being an active servant of Christ: to do and say everything representing Christ (Col 3:17) and to think about things worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). This is something we are called, not suggested, to do.
So do we say “Sex, violence… they should be put in its proper context.”? Or do we take a hard stance and say, “engaging art that has sex and violence is morally reprehensible.”?
Both, I argue, are the wrong ways to engage with art from an ethical standpoint.
In regards to the first view, when you put moral actions like sex and violence in a contextual framework, you compartmentalize its importance and ignore its pervasiveness in other facets of our life. To put that in leaner terms, the logical progression of one who believes this consistently would be guilty of a double standard. By this stream of thought, nudity and sex in film is not held to the same standards as nudity and sex in real life. Theoretically, one could say the amount of violence portrayed in Django would be permissible if the right context in real life were presented. In practical terms, that is an impossible stretch. Which is why it’s wrong.
But the second part has it all wrong as well! Saying that art with sex/nudity and violence is morally reprehensible is ignoring what art is about, which is to provoke emotions with the content provided. By being consistent with this belief, you pretty much can’t engage with any sort of fiction that involves conflict, and you certainly can’t read the Bible, which has loads of sex and violence in it.
My personal stance is to attribute specific objective moral attitudes to things like sex and violence. It is not a moral putty where we can form it to whatever we want, but attitudes that we as Christians expect to approach the subjects. Sex/nudity is inherently a beautiful thing, a creation of God, and we need to uphold its sanctity. Discussing about it in relation to the arts needs to be respectful to its relation to God. If we come across content that uses it in a way that is not upholding its beauty and goodness, even if it promotes a good message, then many who were involved in its display are guilty of sin.
With violence, it’s more interesting. Our culture has become desensitized to it, and the Bible has plenty of it. And it doesn’t help that the Bible doesn’t clearly indicate a stance on the displaying of violence. However, one thing that is consistent about violence in its use in the Bible is the negative derivatives/results (i.e. adultery punishable by stoning or the beheading of John). If we treat violence in a positive manner, such as it becomes a source of desire and morbid entertainment, then I think we are moving off the course of what God had intended violence to be used for. Does it mean we can’t watch movies with explosions or Rambo? Not necessarily, but if we view its violence and formulate desires from it, then I feel it becomes a problem.
For most of my post, I talked about sex and violence (I fulfilled my quota for the evangelical right). But seriously, what about other grayer areas like ethics in politics or social ethics? I hope this post has stirred some level of controversy to talk about it.
What say you?