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Updated: Aug 22



Andrew Doyle (Chair) - writer and comedian; co-author, Jonathan Pie: off the record

Jon Brittain - staff writer, Netflix’s The Crown; playwright, Rotterdam; comedy writer; director, Sight Gags for Perverts, Shtick and Don’t Bother, They’re Here

James Dreyfus - award winning television, film and theatre actor

Mo Lovett - writer and researcher specialising in arts and culture policy; co-chair, The Great Debate

Kimberley McIntosh - policy officer, The Runnymede Trust and Race on the Agenda; writer, Guardian and gal-dem

Samir Raheem - managing editor, Prospect Magazine; judge, Costa Poetry Book Prize

Rudyard Kipling - frequently referred to in this debate

Most of us love reading books, watching TV, film and visiting galleries. Does it matter if the art we enjoy carries a moral message? Do artists themselves have a responsibility to be moral? I will start with quoting one audience member, who I presumed to be an academic, who said: "the problem with good people is that they don’t tend to create good art."

He had a point: Ernest Hemingway, Lord Byron, Emily Bronte and Rudyard Kipling – all great writers whose biographies might contain controversial behaviour. Perhaps the creative spirit goes hand in hand with a darker side to one's personality. Still, who gets to decide what questionable morality is anyway, especially in art? In the words of Oscar Wilde: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

Jon Brittain was cautious. We have to balance artistic freedom with responsibility, he suggested. Minorities are under-represented in art and writing (presumably that’s why they are known as minorities) and writers have an obligation to achieve balance. In agreement was Kimberley McIntosh who pointed out that stereotypes of black people can have negative impacts on real minority groups; if the group is poorly represented there is the danger of poor representations. Rudyard Kipling, a name which appeared several times, should be read and studied, but not venerated. When Boris Johnson hummed a Kipling poem at the Myanmer Temple, he was being insensitive and this is a good example of where art has limits.

Mo Lovett did not concur. Firstly, what about freedom of expression? Artists, in a free country, should produce what they choose – no one is obliged to engage with it. To assume that a piece of art is amoral or immoral presumes that you have a monopoly on morality. Also, even if people are exposed to immoral art this does not mean that they will act on it; censorship treats people as too stupid or weak to think for themselves about what is right or wrong. Mo Lovett suggested that art should be created without restraints or censorship.

Samir Raheem reacted to the Wilde quotation by pointing out that Wilde himself is making a judgement about the quality of writing. He is therefore not able to take a dispassionate view himself. In this sense even Wilde is bound by a sense of morality. This was quickly taken up by an audience member who argued that the quotation has a context – Wilde’s rejection of Victorian values. At the same time Wilde still distances himself from imposing morality on the artist. Actor James Dreyfus entertained the audience with his candid reflections: actors don’t have a moral responsibility; they either accept work or they do not (normally they do as work is so hard to come by).

The problem with imposing moral expectations on an artist is that someone has to define the moral expectations. Whose morality? And can art work that way? It is difficult to call something art when it is not created wholly by the artist, but instead reflects what people want artists to create. Surely art should push boundaries, not obey them.

Discussion questions

  • Should artist only write novels, poems, plays and films which carry ‘good’ messages?

  • If there is such a thing as a moral code in art, are you able to put it into words?

  • Do violent video games make the players violent?

  • A number of student unions at well known universities banned the pop song ‘Blurred Lines’ because they said that the lyrics were offensive: should a pop song ever be banned?

  • Is ‘a dark side’ to personality important or not important in creating good art?

  • Can you make a distinction between good art and bad art? What examples would you use?

  • Do you support diversity quotas in the arts? This means making sure that gender, ethnicity, class and creed are represented in a balanced way.

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