People love a good story. As Aristotle said, we are story-telling animals. By engaging with stories we can consider different points of view and empathise with others – including fictional characters. Stories let us reflect on how we would feel or act if we were in the shoes of another. They might even help us be more compassionate in real life.

Among the narratives that grab our attention are dramatised versions of true stories. Perhaps it’s because we want to better understand human nature that reality TV has become such a phenomenon. Dramatic portrayals of the lives of famous people and real life events are also popular. But how real are these representations? The idea of reality TV as scripted surely doesn’t surprise many viewers, but what about biopics like The Wolf of Wall Street, Spotlight or The Big Short?

Any overt ethical messages in such movies are made all the more powerful if the audience sees these films as factual.

Any film based on reality will have a tough job conveying a person’s life or a series of events that unfolded over a number of years into a 120-minute linear narrative. There are important decisions to be made such as what to include or exclude, and from which perspective to tell the tale. Then there is the element of ‘moralising’ – sending a ‘take home message’ to the audience.

Any overt ethical messages in such movies are made all the more powerful if the audience sees these films as factual. So does that mean filmmakers are obliged to be truthful in biopics, or are they only bound by what makes a good story?

Aestheticism – art for art’s sake

There is a strong historical precedent for separating the moral from the aesthetic value of artworks. Oscar Wilde’s famous quote from the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray states, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” This sums up a philosophical position known as ‘Aestheticism’, which argues that the only relevant factor when judging the quality of an artwork is its aesthetic value. Wilde explicitly categorises himself as an ‘Aestheticist’, yet he is well-known as a moralist. What’s going on here?

Filmgoers and readers of literature know the reason people watch films or read is primarily for enjoyment – to access the so-called aesthetic experience. This involves enjoying the beauty or creativity of an artwork for its own sake. Aesthetic value is unique to artworks, so Aestheticists claim this should be the sole basis for aesthetic judgement. Any moral message in the work should not, therefore, affect the overall value of the artwork, either positively or negatively.

Aestheticists like Wilde may also want to protect art from censorship. If an artwork is judged only on the basis of its aesthetic qualities, it should not be condemned for its moral message. This concern harks all the way back to Ancient Greece when Plato was worrying in The Republic that the poets might corrupt the youth.

Moralism – the message behind the masterpiece

Artists are often well placed to critically engage with moral themes. Wilde’s novels and plays satirised the social norms of his day, and the best way he could protect his artistic right to free speech was to claim that the only thing one should judge is an artwork’s aesthetic merit.

However, to take this further and say artists are not concerned with moral, economic or political concerns is, I believe, mistaken. Of course artists need to consider real world concerns. Partly because they need to make a living and survive in the world in order to continue making their art!

Society also needs artists to help explore diverse perspectives. Artworks can be informative, influential and possibly even transform social attitudes about certain issues. However, sometimes the moral and aesthetic judgements of an artwork will clash.

Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will is often described as aesthetically beautiful but morally evil.

The infamous 1935 propaganda documentary was commissioned by Adolf Hitler. In it, director Riefenstahl portrays the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Germany as a glorious event and Hitler himself as God-like with a positive vision for his country. Unnervingly, the film is majestic, with beautiful cinematography and an emotive soundtrack underscored by nationalistic Wagner (who else?). It is awe-inspiring in its beauty and chilling in the way it glorifies the fascist Nazis.

In Triumph of the Will, the ‘immoral’ message – that Nazism is good and positive – interrupts our aesthetic appreciation of the work. It is difficult not to devalue Riefenstahl’s work based on its moral content.

Philosophers would generally rather teach people to think for themselves than apply strict censorship rules to artworks.

The moralist would claim that the moral value of an artwork does impact on our overall aesthetic judgement of the work. So does this mean artworks with a good moral message are elevated by their ethical content?

Moralists worry about the influence propaganda films may have in rallying impressionable people to harmful causes – like Nazism. Hitler was likely well aware of this when he commissioned the film. Correspondingly, artists’ concerns about censorship are also valid, if we consider who dictates what should or should not be seen.

Philosophers would generally rather teach people to think for themselves than apply strict censorship rules to artworks. That way, spectators are encouraged to engage critically with the messages they are receiving.

Critical spectatorship

Critical spectatorship is important in the case of biopics like The Big Short. The movie depicts a moral message we may well support, and the mass-market nature of film means it’s a powerful way to quickly take that message to a large number of people. But does it matter if the audience is viewing this narrative as they might a news story? Perhaps we should consider how viewers engage with the news.

Even when watching the broadcast news, viewers should be critical and consider what’s being shown or left out, from whose point of view the story is being told, and with whom or ‘what side’ we’re being positioned to identify. We need to constantly analyse or fact-check what we are told, particularly as we exist in a 24-hour news cycle and receive so much more information than previously.

As social media encourages quick likes and shares, it really is worth pausing to consider the impact such stories may have on others, on society and on our collective cultural myths. This is not to say that we should cease telling all the stories, far from it. But let’s also receive them critically, compassionately and open them up for discussion.

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