Aesthetics and the”Morality Wars”

Wesley Morris wrote an essay worth considering for The New York Times Magazine in which he diagnoses some cultural activities of the recent years. Morris terms our moment as being caught in “Morality Wars,” which he links to the “Culture Wars” of the 1980s and 90s.

The NYTM website has the header text for this article, “Should Art Be a Battleground for Social Justice?” and so this is an essay about our ethics and implicitly we are asked to think about the distance between our ethical training and our aesthetic training. Well, I am thinking about those things.

While reading this I kept thinking about the importance of asserting and interrogating the philosophical development of aesthetics.

I’m in my third semester professoring in an exciting Art School and every week I note how unfamiliar my students are with the cleaving on/between “art” and aesthetics.

That’s of course not a shortcoming of my students nor of my colleagues; that I am there, teaching and think about aesthetics is precisely why I hold the position I have at the School.

Living in the short horizon of the hot take has its pleasures, among these being the joy of the put down well performed. Sometimes it just feels good to scratch the itch of ressentiment. But it’s reactionary and tends toward puritanical violence.

Since I’m in the position I’m in, how do I best promote the cultivation of the appropriate kinds of judgement and assessment?

Some of that is infrastructure: the assessment tools I use to evaluate my students ought to align with my syllabus and the goals of our course.

And also to my students and the community who support them my obligation is to model the ways of doing the work that I think they can trust is a reliable method for themselves and others.

This impulse to mutual enhancement and cultivation I have absorbed from the years of working through the kinds of philosophy I’ve trained with, especially the Confucian tradition.

To the degree that there is a “me” who can become better, it’s largely predicated on there being a “you” who helps me see how I can improve. If I see something in you that I admire, I emulate that. If I see something in you that misses the mark, I check myself and ensure I do not also exhibit that behavior. This is the advice we receive from Analects, for example 4.17:

“The Master said, ‘When you meet persons of exceptional character think to stand shoulder to shoulder with them; meeting persons of little character, look inward and examine yourself.’”

Or consider 7.22:

“The Master said, ‘In strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.’”

I also see this sensibility at work in the Zhuangzi:

“Zhuangzi was in a burial procession and paid a visit to the tomb of Huizi. Turning around to address his followers, he said to them, ‘There was a man of Ying who, when finding that a bit of mortar as thick as a fly’s wing
had gotten stuck on the tip of his nose, sent for Carpenter Rock-solid to swipe it off with his axe blade. Carpenter Rock-solid spun his axe like the wind, and feeling the moment, swiped the bit of mortar cleanly away without injury to the nose while the man from Ying stood there at ease. When Lord Yuan of Sung heard of Carpenter Rock-solid’s ability he
asked him “Could you demonstrate your ability for me?” But Carpenter Rock-solid replied, “There was a time when I could do my part, but now my partner has been dead for some time.”’
‘Since Hui Shi died,’ said Zhuangzi, ‘I too have had no chopping block, no one to really to talk to!’”