Art has been used to spread socially responsible messages for millennia. Mediaeval paintings often reflected religious subject matter and values. Even as early as the mid sixth century BC, stories were being designed to have a positive influence on the behaviour of listeners. A good example of this is Aesop’s fables. This is a set of short stories mostly featuring anthropomorphic animals that are still told to children today, as each has a moral at the end. The debate over whether art should be socially responsible is also ancient. Socrates and Plato criticised the myth-inspired poetry (particularly the works of Homer) common at the time, claiming that tales of patricide and immoral gods could harm the moral character of impressionable people. Other significant figures such as Baudelaire and Wilde instead championed the idea that art should stand apart from moral and social concerns. Should art be socially responsible, or should it be evaluated on the basis of some other criteria? A cursory examination of pop culture discourse is enough to reveal that this question has not yet been answered.
Can it also be said that social responsibility makes art better in some way? Before going any further, we should consider what we mean by social responsibility in this context. In the left-wing context, we’re typically referring to attempts to challenge oppressive social norms. This can be done directly, by criticising or addressing a form of injustice. It can also be done indirectly, by representing marginalised groups respectfully. Proponents of this kind of social responsibility would argue that it does in fact make stories better. For example, some evidence suggests that a lack of representation can have an impact on self-esteem, while poor representation could strengthen stereotypes about minorities. According to this line of thought, socially responsible works of art are better because they prevent this kind of damage from happening.
However, as previously mentioned, conservatives can also believe that stories should be socially responsible. For instance, some Christian conservatives support a boycott of Disney because they’re worried about children being exposed to different cultural values and content they deem inappropriate. Instead, some boycotters believe Disney should remain consistent with Biblical values. Additionally, some arguments are reminiscent of left-wing arguments about making sure media doesn’t cause harm, with some Christian conservatives attempting to prevent harm by protecting their children’s innocence.
At first glance, these arguments seem to be inspired by utilitarianism, a theory which supports maximising well-being, and hence reducing actions that cause unpleasant experiences and increasing those that cause pleasant experiences. However, a closer analysis suggests that the matter is more complicated. If the duty of art was to maximise happiness, we would expect a greater focus on entertainment value. While people who care about social responsibility in art do care about how entertaining it is, they rarely hold up the failure to be interesting as a failure to be socially responsible in itself. This suggests that the moral duty to be socially responsible is distinct from the moral duty to maximise the enjoyment of viewers.
If anything, the former seems to be more closely related to the idea that art should reinforce or work towards a particular social order. However, it can be argued that this isn’t actually its purpose. Historically, some schools of thought have said that art is supposed to express feelings and internal states, while others have argued that it’s meant to accurately reflect reality. This makes determining the true purpose of a piece of art difficult, but far from impossible. When an artist creates a particular piece of art, they usually have specific goals in mind. It’s not unreasonable to say that achieving these goals is the purpose of a particular work (i.e. that these goals are the final cause of the piece in question).
There are dozens of goals creators can pursue, such as evoking emotion, entertaining, educating and even reflecting society. This leads us to the conclusion that different works of art will have different purposes. In some cases, this purpose requires social responsibility. For example, a work may try to bring awareness to an injustice or to teach children important life lessons and morals. Social responsibility may still be a useful tool for achieving other common goals to a lesser extent. Adding messages that most people find reprehensible may make viewing, reading or listening to a piece of art less entertaining. This could also reduce the money its creators make from it. Whatever the case, this view suggests that art should be socially responsible only insofar as this helps the artist achieve the aims for which the piece was created.
Featured image: Pixabay