Social morality is an ever-changing landscape in the modern arena. Are creations carrying the same message nowadays? Mathilda Heller finds out…
In 1912, Lord Chatham said “nothing is more unfair than to judge the men of the past by the ideas of the present”.
Despite being over a century ago, judging the past by today’s standards is still very much woven into the fabric of our society. We view famous people, events and artworks through a modern moral lens, discounting the historical context in favour of a “woke” evaluation.
The “woke” phenomenon – and its sibling “cancel culture” – has had a particularly potent impact on the world of art. In today’s more-cautious and censored political environment, people are quick to criticise historical art as being offensive or harmful. Novels are “cancelled” for being too racist; films are boycotted for having heterosexual actors in queer roles; paintings are shunned for having political connotations.
Here are some current examples of where “woke” views are being projected onto past art. With regards to racism, the author Sir Michael Morpurgo has recently decided to omit The Merchant of Venice from his new book about Shakespeare’s plays, due to its antisemitic content.
This decision is understandable, as the character of Shylock is written with certain antisemitic tropes, and yet if we move to “cancel” certain Shakespeare plays due to offensive implications, then we may not be able to stop. There will inevitably be an element in every one of his plays that could be seen as offensive; Othello has elements of racism and Taming of the Shrew is seen to be misogynistic.
But they are still considered to be works of genius, and to withdraw them from public consumption would be to prevent a wonderful opportunity for conversation.
The same can be said for other allegedly racist art – for example, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One article produces a list of all Disney films which should apparently be discredited due to racist content; the list includes enduring favourites such as Aristocats, Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Jungle book, Lady and the Tramp and the King and I.
Would censoring these really be a positive move? Or would it deprive children (and their parents) of some beautiful, evocative films?
Another key area of dispute in historical art is that of the portrayal of disability. One paper claims that the ““twisted mind in the twisted body” is a very popular literary device to convey the evil and the sinister. The author achieves this by highlighting the deformity in the character to the extent of caricaturing it, making it a type character. In these stories, physical beauty is equated to goodness of the soul, while disability to evil.”
We see this in many works of fiction; Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Beast from the Beauty and the Beast, and Erik in the Phantom of the Opera are all alienated from, and mistreated by, society because of their disabilities.
A modern audience may see this as hurtful and offensive, as disabled characters have historically been conflated with evil or sin.
But regardless of this, these artworks can still have merit – whether it be the quality of the writing, the richness of description or the power of characterisation. On top of this, they can be valuable historical insights. By devaluing them, we lose part of our culture and heritage.
So, at what point does this culture of extreme “wokeness” become harmful to art? Should we really judge the art of the past by today’s moral standards? This phenomenon has a name: presentism. Presentism is the application of modern values and beliefs to historical events or works; the inability to judge art by its individual context rather than our own. Many feel that any artwork that does not coincide with todays values should be banned, so as not to perpetuate now-unacceptable ideas.
But it is important to remember that times have changed, and that our modern standards and values have arisen from many years of fighting for progression and equality. The artist did not operate within the same moral sphere as we do, so their art should be seen as a product of an old system, rather than an antagonist to our new one.
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By Mathilda Heller: culture Columnist.
“…at what point does this culture of extreme “wokeness” become harmful to art? Should we really judge the art of the past by today’s moral standards?”
If any party should be criticised, it should be the artist and not the art. As an article in the Washington Examiner argues that it should not: “the artist is flawed; the art is not.”
Perhaps a good way of thinking of it is with the following analogy: a baby born in prison, to a convicted criminal mother, is blameless of her crime. It did not ask to be created, so we must accept it for its own right, and love it for its individuality, not its paternity.
Candace Howze sums this up by saying “great art is not synonymous with great morality”, and we can see this in so many art works where the artists had questionable morals, but their art is nevertheless genius (see Wagner, Whistler and Picasso).
Another article suggests that “we must always remember to contextualize history. Recognizing history is not necessarily glorifying it. [We] can acknowledge a history fraught with flawed ideas without allowing it to reinforce outdated standards of morality”.
In other words, we no longer support slavery or racism or homophobia, but that does not mean we can expect the same standard from historical art. We should be able to appreciate the art for its qualities, without feeling complicit to the ideas it portrays.
The article uses the example of a statue which is connected to slavery. It argues that the statue itself is a piece of our history, and that instead of condemning it, we should learn from it and apply this knowledge to the present. We do not change the past by condemning the art, instead we suppress something that should be a part of open conversation.
So how can today’s woke generation appreciate an artwork that is intrinsically related to beliefs they abhor?
It is tricky – but not impossible.
For many campaigners against racism or homophobia, it feels wrong to see merit in art that contradicts these strong moral values. Indeed, it feels hypocritical.
But as The Washington Express article continued: “the distinction between art and artist must be made if we are to reconcile our morality to the words and deeds of the past.”
In other words, we should be able to love and appreciate art without loving and appreciating the artist.
The real problem lies less with historical artwork, and instead with today’s artwork; if we perpetuate these ideas now, this same lenience no longer applies.
It is not acceptable to produce art that still promotes outdated ideas in a society that has progressed.
This is the reason why so many millennials are vehemently against heterosexual actors in queer roles, why they shun the novels of allegedly-transphobic writers and why they call for the cancellation of any art that contains, but does not challenge, ideas that are rooted in stereotype, marginalisation and discrimination.
Yes, cancel culture may seem to restrict creativity, but art should not only cater for those with historical privilege. Art should be something that can challenge without having to marginalise.
But, regardless of modern art, and its need to remain within progressive parameters, we cannot apply this same attitude to historical art, which was not produced in the culture of awareness that we have today.
We should not criticise these past artists for their ignorance, but instead ensure that today’s art facilitates learning and conversation, so that this ignorance does not persist.
MACKAYAN: the art of the past into wokeness.Tweet