chapter  3
Forbidden knowledge
The challenge of immoralism
ByMatthew Kieran
Pages 18

Since the ancient Greeks there has been a strand of philosophical thought which holds that the moral character of a work is internally related to its value as art. In its most extreme forms moralism imperialistically swamps the recognition of virtually every other artistic value – giving rise to the puritanical evaluation of works wholly on the basis of moral criteria.1 Fortunately the poisonous idea that artistic value is ultimately reducible to moral value has flowered only rarely and briefly. But more sophisticated versions, according to which a work’s moral character is only one of the features that contributes to an overall judgement of artistic value, have been hugely influential. Much critical and artistic thought from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment to the Victorian era embodied this kind of thought. With the rise of aestheticism, formalism and the new criticism this kind of view fell largely out of favour. For aestheticism denies any internal connection on the grounds that aesthetic and thus artistic value properly construed should not be conflated with the cognitive content and value of a work.2 I am unsympathetic to aestheticism and so shall not be concerned with it here.3