What follows is a guest post by Nils-Hennes Stear. Note: This post is more or less a précis of part of the author’s ‘Meriting a Response: The Paradox of Seductive Artworks’, forthcoming in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
During a recent flight, I watched Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It’s a Robinsonade tale about Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut stranded on Mars and engineering his own survival. The film was watchable enough—well produced, acted, and visually arresting. Yet it suffered an irritating flaw: Watney is too damn buoyant. Stuck, literally millions of miles from home, with too little food, no company, and bleak prospects for safe return, he tackles each new existential challenge with a can-do optimism totally out of keeping with his existential emergency. So, when Watney tells his video diary that…
‘In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.’
‘I’m going to be taking a craft over in [technically] international waters without permission, which by definition… makes me a pirate. Mark Watney: Space Pirate.’
I vomited a little on the inside. And possibly on the outside. This is because, as I see it, the film tries way too hard to make the audience love Watney. Here’s another example:
Were an actual person similarly stranded and yet stoic enough to have Watney’s ‘I can just life-hack my way off Mars’ levity, this would be singularly admirable and hilarious. But having a fictional character exhibit the same cute humor feels cheap, frustrating the work’s ends.
Perhaps you love The Martian and Mark Watney even more and so find my analysis snobbish or unconvincing. That’s fine. The particular example isn’t important. Rather, what matters is the general phenomenon The Martian exhibits (or perhaps fails to). A less controversial example is Birdemic: Shock and Terror, whose attempt to elicit fear misfires so excruciatingly, it might as well be a parody:
Whether it’s an attempt at suspense that is undone by predictable plot twists, terror undone by dreadful production (see video above), or empathy by overwrought writing, we are all familiar with artworks that fail to move us as intended—or artworks that, even when they do move us, don’t deserve to.
This last point is important, since it’s not necessarily that works like The Martian (on my analysis) suffer by failing to move actual audiences; a bad melodrama might still make us cry. It’s that they don’t earn our responses; even when they elicit the sought responses, they don’t merit them.
This kind of failing is common in artworks and is noted regarding tragedy in Aristotle’s Poetics.
A perfect tragedy should . . . imitate actions which excite pity and fear . . . It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; . . . it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls for pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would doubtless satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.
Tragedies, Aristotle claims, strive for a certain effect: pity and fear. Cast the wrong protagonist, and the work will fail to merit these tragic emotions, falling flat as (I claim) The Martian does.
Various contemporary philosophers (Richard Moran, Noël Carroll, Robert Stecker, Andrea Sauchelli, and Berys Gaut) and some historical ones (arguably Hume and Aristotle) endorse a plausible looking general principle, or something very close to it, because of examples like these. Call it the ‘Merit Principle’:
A work that attempts to elicit an unmerited response through artistic means is to that extent aesthetically flawed.
MP looks as solid a general aesthetic principle as any. It’s also at the heart of Berys Gaut’s most influential argument for ‘ethicism’, the best-defended view about how artworks’ ethical properties determine their aesthetic ones. Yet it runs into an interesting counterexample—a kind of artwork I call a ‘seductive work’.
A good example of such a work is the film Man Bites Dog. The film’s charismatic yet malicious protagonist, Ben, breaks into people’s houses, injuring, robbing, and killing the inhabitants, while a film crew records him. The film is a black comedy ‘mockumentary’ whose comic premise lies in applying a style often reserved for documenting ordinary jobs to a (fictional) charismatic psychopath. In time, the fictional crew becomes increasingly involved in Ben’s crimes before finally joining Ben in committing sexual assault—a metaphor for the appreciators’ own complicity.
Seductive works constitutively attempt to elicit a first response before attempting to elicit a second-order response that repudiates the first response. Man Bites Dog, for instance, attempts to elicit amusement at Ben’s violence until the sexual assault kills any fun, after which it attempts to elicit shame from viewers at having been amused.
One interesting thing about seductive works is that, although the most paradigmatic examples like Man Bites Dog are ethically seductive, there are other kinds, too. In Pliny’s Natural History, for instance, we are given an example of an epistemically seductive artwork:
[Parrhasius], it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen. Upon finding his mistake, with a great degree of ingenuous candour he admitted that he had been surpassed, for that whereas he himself had only deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.
Parrhasius’ painting appears to attempt to elicit a false first-order belief about a curtain and a second-order realization that this belief was rash—all in the service of getting Zeuxis to confront his own shortcomings.
There are also aesthetically seductive works. Obvious examples are stunts pulled in contemporary art museums that invite viewers to behold some piece of literal rubbish as though it were an exhibition piece, at least when these stunts are rightly thought of as works. These tend to seduce museum-goers into revering the non-entity as a way of getting them to realize, perhaps later, their susceptibility to treating rubbish as art. Another example is a 1990’s Boddington’s Ale advertisement. The short black and white film exquisitely imitates the ultra-aestheticized style of the era’s Calvin Klein advertisements until a stern-faced Adonis turns in slow motion towards the camera, operatic music swirling, with a fish on his head. The film attempts to elicit first-order awe at the decadent, monochrome ‘beauty’, only to reveal that awe’s absurdity by exposing the style as pretentious and, indeed, comic.
Seductive works pose a problem for the Merit Principle because it is essential to such works that they attempt to elicit an unmerited response. But according to MP, attempting to elicit an unmerited response makes a work aesthetically flawed. So, if the Merit Principle is true, seductive works would be aesthetically flawed necessarily. And there is no way around this. For the second-order response to be merited, the first-order response it repudiates must be unmerited. Think about Man Bites Dog again; for shame to make sense, it must be that there is something to be ashamed of—namely, that laughing at sociopathic violence was unmerited. That is to say, either the shame is merited, in which case the laughter isn’t, or the laughter is merited, in which case the shame isn’t. Either way, a seductive work must attempt to elicit an unmerited response. So, on the Merit Principle, any such work must be aesthetically flawed. But this seems really counter-intuitive; it’s one thing to claim that all seductive works happen to be flawed, another that they must be, especially because the seductive strategy they pursue, when well-executed, represents such a powerful and admirable artistic technique.
Do we just scrap the Merit Principle then? Well, that doesn’t seem attractive either since, except for the theoretically annoying case of seductive works, it looks like it gets at something true and general. The solution to this problem is, I think, to massage the Merit Principle a little to accommodate both the fact that seductive works do something that in most other contexts mars a work aesthetically, but also the fact that they get away with it. But such a revision can’t be an ad hoc tweak that merely disables the counterexample; it must be motivated by an independently plausible claim.
That independently plausible claim, I suggest, is this: all artworks operate under constraints limiting what they can achieve, but these limitations aren’t always flaws. This claim begins from the idea that there is no unity of the aesthetic virtues; some of them are in tension with one another. So, for example, if you want to write a vignette of pure hilarity, you won’t also be able to write one of pure melancholy (not the same one, that is). If you want to achieve simplicity of composition in some respect, you won’t also be able to achieve compositional complexity in the same respect. Every artist creating a work must commit to a set of virtues she wishes to realize in the work and thereby forego others. But it doesn’t ordinarily—let alone necessarily—follow that the work is aesthetically flawed because it fails to achieve the virtues it eschews. There are such cases, of course. A Hollywood blockbuster that is deliberately dumbed down to sell more tickets foregoes the virtues of complexity, intelligence, subtlety, and so forth, and is clearly flawed for doing so. However, we don’t ordinarily criticize a haiku for having a threadbare narrative, or a pinhole photograph for increased motion blur. That is, we can distinguish between aesthetically worthwhile constraints (e.g. sculpting in marble) and aesthetically pointless ones (making a return on investment) and, correspondingly, between constraint-induced limitations that are innocent and those that are flaws.
Returning to seductive works, some constraints are responses to audience shortcomings. Sometimes these are aesthetically pointless constraints, as when the Hollywood blockbuster conforms to the less refined desires of a mass audience. At other times, however, they are aesthetically worthwhile; children’s literature, for instance, is written to be intelligible to psychologically immature readers. This is a limitation but a blameless one; children’s works accommodate shortcomings, while mindless blockbusters pander to them. The source of this distinction is, I propose, what determines whether some limitations constitute flaws, and explains why seductive works avoid blemish despite having a limitation. Seductive works, like children’s literature and Hollywood blockbusters, also accommodate sub-ideal appreciators: people like us who are disposed to have unmerited responses such as laughing at psychopathic violence. But given the way such works (at least the best ones) reveal these shortcomings to us, and perhaps even remedy them, it is implausible to think that they pander to our failure as appreciators.
Whether limitations mar a work aesthetically, I suggest, depends on whether (a) the constraints imposing the limitations are (aesthetically) worthwhile, and (b) whether any limitations are only as large as such constraints require. Combining these two conditions gives us:
New Merit Principle
A work that attempts to elicit an unmerited response through artistic means is aesthetically flawed, unless the response is unmerited entirely because of aesthetically worthwhile constraints under which the work operates.
Regarding seductive works, if pursuing seduction is worthwhile, attempting to elicit unmerited responses blemishes seductive works aesthetically only to the extent that their lack of meritedness exceeds whatever seduction requires. So, while it’s true that seductive works do not exhibit the constraint-independent virtue of meriting every response they attempt to elicit, and are therefore in some sense less than ideal, successful seductive works attempt to elicit responses that are as merited as possible, conditional on being seductive. This diminished meritedness is no more a flaw than a cubist painting’s diminished gracefulness, or a bronze sculpture’s lack of color veridicality is.
Is the seductive constraint worthwhile? I think the answer is obviously yes; with great skill, seductive works make one reflect on one’s responses through a unique, rich, and edifying experience of one’s own deficiency. What more could one ask of an artwork?