Separating the art from the artist

James Harold, professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke, has published a new book that explores whether art can be morally evaluated.

By Christian Feuerstein

Controversies about “separating the art from the artist” have been raging for decades. Today it’s J.K. Rowling, H.P. Lovecraft, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly; in the past, heated discussions have centered on works by Hitler, Salvador Dalí and Richard Wagner. 

James Harold, chair of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College, has a new book that tackles the question head on. In “Dangerous Art: On Moral Criticism of Artworks,” he explores whether art can be morally evaluated and what this means for the value of the artwork itself.

In a blog post for the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press, Harold wrote: “Art, more than ordinary objects, is often associated with the moral character of their creators. For example, Confucius claimed that the music of the great sage-king Shun was superior to the music of lesser kings.” He then writes that such inclinations aren’t rational, though they are widespread.

Harold then explores the work of “affective communities” in evaluating artists and their works. Affective communities, Harold explained, are “communities of people who care about a work of art, and so come to see one another as members of a community. Caring about an artwork brings the audience into a relationship with others who love the same work, and sometimes with the artist her- or himself. Some of these communities are well-known and clearly established: Bloomsday, the Harry Potter ‘Wizarding World,’ Trekkies, and so on.”

These communities, he wrote, “make the moral character of the artist particularly salient to enjoyment of the artwork.”

Read the blog post.