The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Art and Morals: Leni Riefenstahl Written by Ed Farrell, July 6, 2002
Leni Riefenstahl is a modern westerner and so are we and we have had a taste of some discussion of whether it was moral of her to serve the Nazis as she did with her art. I wonder if these sorts of concerns and discussions are a feature of our pluralistic western culture (and perhaps other cultures in conflict at any time) and generally absent from the concern of most societies. Franz Boas and others when they attacked the subject of art and ethnography tended to consider art in its formal aspects, and (in Boas' view at least) the common theme among practitioners of art in any culture was an industry dedicated to the production of art, a high value placed on the virtuosity of the artist, and a certain esthetic pleasure in the objects of this industry. And while art is often associated with utilitarian concerns, it is not itself utilitarian, and is characteristically the product of careful thought and laborious execution far beyond any dictates of utility or need. Given this view (which I am entirely comfortable with as a relatively objective foundation for study) it is easy to view art almost wholly in terms of the mastery of its intention and execution and not in terms of the use to which its objects are put. (When I say intention here I am speaking of its formal intention.)

But we also have to assume that in any relatively intact society that practices art there are certain traditions and mores that will tend to limit the acceptable uses to which art is put, even when it has little to say about radical formal innovation. The variations here certainly contain ample room for conflict when differing cultures meet head on. A highly cultured Kwakiutl may have been keenly appreciative of the artistry in the manufacture of an implement known as a "slave killer," while liberal Europeans viewed such art as barbaric given the purpose for which the implement it adorned was ostensibly designed.

We experience such clashes within our own society. Modern western society is arguably the most complex and inconsistent that has existed to date, and has a difficult time defining itself. I think the art and morality dilemma is probably unique to it, though I'd be interested in other examples. Western culture has been father to much of institutionalized Christianity as well as atheism; to democracy as well as fascism and communism. We may call the Nazis barbaric but we also realize that they came out of the same western culture that produced democratic liberalism and pacifism. So in this respect we cannot honestly call Riefenstahl's art "barbaric" as we might the Kwakiutl "slave killer"; we must call it "immoral" and thus acknowledge that she is one of us who misbehaves.


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