chapter  6
8 Pages

Ethics

The ethics of aesthetics troubles an appreciation of melancholy landscapes, as in Ruskin’s quandary of admitting to enjoying a scene in which others were suffering. Complicit in such a dilemma is the Kantian foundation of aesthetics, and the belief in disinterestedness as fundamental to beauty. Disinterestedness, along with voyeurism, are potentially toxic ingredients for an aesthetics of melancholy. At the extreme, such an unethical aesthetics becomes instead an ‘anaesthetics’, numbing and overcoming the beholder in ways which cause them to abandon their moral compass. ‘Anaesthetic’ comes from the same root as ‘aesthetic’, relating to the sensations, but in this case is a deadening of sensation. The ‘culture of spectatorship’ is a pernicious manifestation of the power of aesthetic desire, and Susan Sontag speaks of a lust where the ‘appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked’ (Sontag, 2003, p.41). Writing of her own trauma of seeing photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau at the age of 12, Sontag questioned the role of images of suffering. ‘Images trans x. Images anesthetize’, she wrote, and that, like pornography, the shock wears off with repeated images and eventually dulls any sense of shock or sorrow (Sontag, 2014, n.p.).