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How do art and morality intersect? Today we look at an ethically questionable work of art and discuss R. G. Collingwood’s view that art is best when it helps us live better lives. We’ll go over Aristotle’s concept of catharsis and how it can resolve the problem of tragedy. We are also exploring the paradox of fiction and the debate between autonomism and moralism.

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Hank: At a museum in Denmark in 2000, artist Marco Evaristti debuted a work of art that involved live goldfish swimming around in vessels full of water. Sound pretty boring until I tell you that those vessels were electric blenders.

Evaristti named his display “Helena” and he invited museum patrons to turn on the blenders if they so desired. Eventually, at least one person so desired, fish were blended, and before long police arrived, ordering that the blenders be unplugged. The museum was charged with animal cruelty, although those charges were later dropped.

For his part, Evaristti said that his work was designed to sort people into three categories: If you want to push the button, he said, you’re a sadist; if the exhibit makes you feel upset, you’re a moralist; and if you enjoy watching the reactions of others, you’re a voyeur. But many people argued that Evaristti’s goldfish blenders weren’t art at all.

You probably have your own opinions about that. But no matter what you think, works like Evaristti’s raise a lot of questions – about art and morality, and what standards we should use to evaluate art. And from there, new questions follow: like, what does art tell us about ourselves? What does it do to us, and what purpose does art serve in our lives?

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You know who was super anti-art? Plato. He believed that art plays to our emotions rather than to our reason. And, if you recall Plato’s idea of the tripartite soul, he thought the rational part of the soul should always be in charge. So, art was problematic for him, because it encourages us to think with the spirited, or emotional, part of our souls.

He also had a beef with art because, he said, it depicts the imaginary as if it were real. And for a guy who was as concerned with Truth as he was, you can see why this might have been a problem. Plato was so concerned about the dangers of art that he actually advocated its widespread censorship. And, while you might disagree with him on that, you can probably at least agree with his sentiment that art is powerful.

But... what is it good for? Well, let’s fast forward about 2400 years for that. 20th century British philosopher R. G. Collingwood acknowledged that art is frequently used as an escape from life – a simple amusement, a distraction. But he also said that the best art, the art that really matters, is the stuff that changes the way we interact with the world. So Collingwood drew a distinction between what he called amusement art and magic art.

Amusement art helps the audience escape from reality, he said – diving into a no-stakes fictional world after a stressful day. But magic art is the stuff that helps the audience learn how better to interact with this world’s reality. A great example of this is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Beecher Stowe’s story helped change our national mindset about slavery, by making white readers see African Americans as human beings with whom they had a lot in common, rather than as a nameless Other who should be thought of as property. Collingwood felt we should spend our time on magic art like that – the stuff that helps us live better, rather than simply running away from the world. But some people feel that his distinction breaks down pretty quickly.

A book or a movie that could be little more than an amusing escape for one person could spur another person to change their lives for the better. Think about your favorite fandom. Like, for some people, Harry Potter is pure escapism – a way to disappear into a fantasy where your troubles can be addressed with the flick of a wand. But for others, Harry Potter can help you learn how to live. Lessons on the value of friendship, teamwork, loyalty, and stick-with-it-ness can be found among the horcruxes and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans.

So, art can help you be moral, or maybe encourage immorality, but there are plenty of other ways in which morality can intersect with art. Like in nasty, legal, copyright-y ways. For more on this, let’s head to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy.

In 2011, wildlife photographer David Slater was on a photo shoot in Indonesia, when a monkey named Naruto got a hold of his camera. There are disputes as to how, exactly. But in the process, that monkey took some pretty sweet selfies. Slater later tried to claim copyright of the images, but was denied, because he was not the one who took the pictures – Naruto did.

The photos are currently in the public domain, but the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Naruto, arguing that the monkey owns the rights, and any profits ought to go to him. Slater, on the other hand, says he should own the rights, because he was ultimately responsible for Naruto getting his camera and taking the pictures with it. By that logic, Slater claims, he was the artist, and Naruto was simply part of the medium used to create the art.

Slater’s reasoning might resonate with those of you who, in our last episode, were in the camp that believed art required an intentional artist. In that view, Naruto can’t claim the pics, because he probably didn’t understand himself as deliberately taking self-portraits. But, arguably, Slater’s intention didn’t shape the pictures either.

He didn’t decide how to position the camera or when to click the shutter. But he did decide to go to that particular location, knowing it was full of curious little primates with opposable thumbs that would make working a camera possible. So what do you think? Is there any artist behind these pictures? And if there is, who is it? Maybe it’s a collaboration, and Slater and Naruto should split the profit. I bet one of them would be willing to take his cut in chom choms! Thanks, Thought Bubble!

One of the first people to really consider the philosophical questions of art was Aristotle. Unlike his teacher, Plato, Aristotle was generally pro-art, because he saw it as useful. He believed our bodies need to experience a full range of emotions in order to stay in balance.

He argued that, if we haven’t been sad in a while, or had a good adrenaline rush, we can start to crave those feelings. And when we don’t – or can’t – experience the full range of emotions in our actual lives – art can step in and do the job for us. When we finally do experience these sensations we’ve been yearning for, we feel a pleasurable release that Aristotle called catharsis.

And while John has often insisted that Aristotle was spectacularly wrong about everything, Aristotle’s theory of catharsis does a beautiful job of resolving a little conundrum in aesthetics that’s known as the Problem of Tragedy. This is the weird puzzle of why people voluntarily walk into a theatre, clutching a box of tissues, fully prepared to bawl their eyes out for two hours, having paid for the privilege. I mean, really, why is the tearjerker even a thing? According to Aristotle: catharsis.

A scary movie or a tearjerker can allow us to express strong negative emotions in a safe context, and the emotional purge that comes with the experience feels really, really good. No doubt, when it comes to evoking emotions in us, art can be extremely effective. But how does it manage to do that? Why is art so good at making us feel?

When you think about it, it’s actually pretty weird that we get so emotionally invested in characters that we know to be fictional. Why do we cry real tears over the deaths of our beloved characters? Why do invest time and energy in shipping? These questions fall under another problem that art poses for us, one that aestheticians call the Paradox of Fiction.

Contemporary American philosopher Kendall Walton explains why we can be moved by things that aren’t real, by arguing that the emotional responses we have to fictional events aren’t real either. Instead, he says, we experience what he calls “quasi-emotions,” basically emotion-like responses that can be triggered by fiction, but don’t exist or function on the level of true emotions.

Now, as evidence for this, Walton points out that people don’t respond to scary movies as they would to real-life terror. Like, when we’re watching a scary movie, we don’t run out of the theatre and call 911 like we would if we saw a real person in danger. But other thinkers, like American philosopher Noel Carroll, disagree.

Carroll argues that we can have real emotional responses to fictional characters and situations. Our emotions don’t have to correspond to external reality, in order for the emotions themselves to be real, he says. So we can feel just as strongly for the loves and losses of our favorite characters as we can for the plights of our friends and family.

Now, it’s time to think back to Helena and the goldfish in the blenders. Helena raises questions about the relationship between morality and art. And here, there are two main schools of thought.

Some people, called autonomists, maintain that art and morality are entirely separate. So if something is done in the name of art, it’s basically immune from moral scrutiny. It’s almost like artists live and work in some kind of protective morality-bubble.

So, in the autonomist view, Evaristti did nothing wrong in putting goldfish in a situation where they were likely to be pulverized, because he was doing it in the name of artistic expression. But, there are others, known as aesthetic moralists, who argue that morality and art are interconnected, so any moral stain connected with a work makes a work aesthetically flawed.

In this view, even if Evaristti’s aesthetic concept was superb, the fact that he expressed that concept through immoral means – in this case, the wanton destruction of goldfish life – that counts against the overall aesthetic value of his work. Art is often designed to challenge our beliefs and our values. And most of us agree that this can be a good thing. But, are there limits?

We often give artists credit for amazing works of art that inspire positive change in the world, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But if a work inspires bad actions or bad attitudes, is the artist to blame for that too? As in most areas of philosophy, there’s plenty more about aesthetics that we could explore if we had time. But as we move onto the next segment of our course, I hope you’ve found that aesthetics – one of the less well-known areas of philosophy – is worth your attention, as you continue to interact with art in your lives.

Today we learned about R. G. Collingwood’s view that art is best when it helps us live better lives. We learned how Aristotle’s concept of catharsis can resolve the problem of tragedy, and we studied the paradox of fiction. We also thought about the debate between autonomism and moralism.

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Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of the latest episodes of shows like: Gross Science, PBS Idea Channel, and It's Okay to be Smart. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.