Greg Downs on the Moral Responsibility of Artists

I’m very pleased to introduce today Mr. Greg Downs, writer and smoothie drinker. To be honest, I don’t really know Greg, but it’s relatively safe to assume that he lives on Earth and is, therefore, a carbon-based life form. This should give him some firm common ground with most people in general, as well as the majority of people who read this blog.

In defense of myself (I’m really not that cruel), I offered Greg a choice of topics to write on. He chose one of the hardest and most controversial ones: do artists have any sort of moral responsibility to their audience? It’s an issue I’ve puzzled over for years, and I’m still puzzling over it. Bringing up this issue (as I’ve done before) in writing circles these days immediately raises hackles. Anyway, kudos to Greg for tackling a grizzly bear. I haven’t read Greg’s books myself, but you can check the out via his Amazon author page. You may also investigate him further at his blog.

–Greg Downs on Moral Responsibility–

Do authors (and other artist-types) have a moral responsibility in the works they create? I’m going to tackle this from an authors-only angle first, because I have focus issues and because it should then be easier to apply to other artists: painters, musicians, filmmakers and the like. This is a question that weighs heavily in my mind, unique among the thousands of other questions I have. The reason is simple: if morality doesn’t have significance in art, what does? And if it is significant, then the moral responsibility an author has is crucial.

Well, originally I had planned to write something different here (same conclusion, different path). The intro paragraph was written before the shooting in Colorado that happened during a Dark Knight Rises midnight showing. I hope Christopher won’t mind me diverging slightly from topic… or at least, putting a different spin on it.

The Batman shooting, as we’ll call it, calls to the forefront of my mind a suspicion that has been lurking in the shadows for quite some time. I once wondered about the possibility, but now know it is truth.

Entertainment feeds culture, and culture feeds entertainment. Dark for dark, light for light. It’s a cycle that can mean life or death for a culture or nation.

Is it any wonder that the more conflicted our culture gets, the more conflicted our heroes become? Take the Dark Knight films. Don’t get me wrong, I like superheroes as much as anybody, but the hero here is a man who lives a double life and pretends to be a villain in both of them. What about the villains themselves? Monsters who kill simply for the sake of killing. What happened to power-hungry dark lords and naïve farm boys?

Over and over again, especially in my home genre of fantasy, I see this fairytale/ boy VS dark lord concept being skewered for “unoriginality” and “blandness.” But has it ever occurred to anyone that perhaps the reason the good/evil, boy/dark lord, Frodo/Sauron plot is used so often for the exact opposite reason?

Maybe we were meant to write stories about farm boys, not because it’s boring… but because it’s real. It mirrors reality.

That probably seems far-off to you. It kind of does for me, too. But look at what we read nowadays. Look at who we hold up as heroes.

A Game of Thrones. Fifty Shades of Grey.

“Real” now only means grittier, darker, and animalistic. Is it any wonder that the more “realistic” our heroes and villains get, the darker we ourselves become?

If you haven’t yet guessed, I certainly do believe that authors have a moral responsibility to their readers. Ignore both the religious implications and the implications for the relativist viewpoint, if you will. Fine. But to me the evidence is clear. What we put forth as entertainment will have a direct effect on society.

Not ‘can.’ Will.

Culture effects us, too. It’s not a one-way transaction. As authors, I believe we have two main duties, as it were: Firstly, to resist the ‘cultural pull’ and instead direct our energies toward influencing culture for Good. Secondly, to craft amazing stories that will not just improve the morality of entertainment, but improve its quality, too.

You can’t go wrong with the first, but let us never lose sight of it in our pursuit of the second.

~Gregory J. Downs, 7.23.12

14 thoughts on “Greg Downs on the Moral Responsibility of Artists”

  1. I’d like to hear any additional/opposing thoughts as well. I like waxing eloquent on such things, and like to tackle at least one grizzly bear every day.

    1. Moral responsibility is a rough topic. Particularly in a society that shies away from personal responsibility and, instead, tries to shift blame onto others.

  2. “Entertainment feeds culture, and culture feeds entertainment.” The Roman Circus? Scary thought.

    However, ““Real” now only means grittier, darker, and animalistic.” I’m not sure there’s anything new in that. To wit, “The Raft of the Medusa” (painting by Géricault which depicted an incident in which survivors of a shipwreck started cannibalising each other, prime example cited in art history classes of the 19th century era of “Realism”), or “Heart of Darkness” (1902 piece of classic literature by Joseph Conrad, commonly inflicted on first-year students in English Lit and Comp, which talks about one man’s sadistic treatment of Africans). I’m not sure that the tune of “Woe is Us! Culture is Going Down the Tubes in These Modern Times!” serves much of a purpose.

    Not that I think you’re indulging in the singing of that particular tune, really. This says otherwise: “to craft amazing stories that will not just improve the morality of entertainment, but improve its quality, too.” Here’s a subversive thought: for a writer/artist/crafter of any kind, might it not be an almost immoral act to present “moral” tales/images/sounds in a poorly crafted way? Good morals presented in poor taste might be so off-putting as to be exactly counterproductive.

    1. Good point about the older version of Real. That’s important to consider. I wonder, though, if Conrad et al were as ingrained in their society as our own Realists are (from Batman on down to Fifty Shades of Codswallop)? If anything, the technology of communication (internet, digital data, etc) allows the darkness of our modern Realists to darken everything. Conversely, though, that’s a double-edged sword, so the light can still shine in the darkness.

      Hopefully, Greg will jump in here and elucidate. I like his point about crafting amazing stories, but I think I like your point even more. It’s rather more revolutionary and much more restrictive in its potential effect on all of us aspiring creators, but I think you might have something there. You’ve touched on a sort of Bezalelian perspective on art. Though, I guess Bezalel was focused solely on ecclesiastical art, so perhaps that was the different ingredient that required absolutely superb craftsmanship?

    2. ‘Nothing new to that.’ Good point. Actually, a very good point. Perhaps it would be better to say that because entertainers have always tended towards portraying ‘realism’ as dark and base (though I’m not quite sure that’s the word I’m looking for), the culture wheel has become more and more burdened. Put simply, ‘stories just get darker.’

      Though of course, it doesn’t make me lose hope. It just makes me want to write better stories.

      Very, very interesting point. It’s one I’ve wondered about a lot, actually… because it seems to me that many ‘good morals’ stories just aren’t up to snuff. I wouldn’t go so far as to say a badly told, well-intended story is immoral. I propose that such a story is still helpful, but that its positive effects on the morality and quality of entertainment are hugely reduced.

      So perhaps we could say this: At best, a moral story will entertain, delight, and enlighten readers, improving the quality of its art as a whole. At worst, a moral story will not contribute at all. Dead weight. Not necessarily harmful, but not at all helpful.

      From that we could infer that the opposite is true of stories lacking a moral: At best, they are not helpful. At worst, they cause nearly irreversible harm. Notice, though, I say ‘stories lacking a moral.’ not ‘immoral stories.’ Nothing but harm could come from a story immoral at its core. I don’t buy into the theory that doing something wrong is okay, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.

      Man, once I get going, I really get going. >.<

      1. because it seems to me that many ‘good morals’ stories just aren’t up to snuff.

        This is something I wonder a lot about. Of course, it has to be taken in the context that a great many stories not in this category are equally badly done. But, at the end of the day, I don’t think that has much bearing. I’ve always thought that if someone claims an adherence to God, or some other external, absolute power, then their creativity should benefit. More than not, the evidence doesn’t bear that out (i.e., the story is poorly told, the painting is the equivalent of a Hallmark card, etc). This has always been a puzzler for me, particularly in light of the fact that the majority of the Greats in literature fall squarely in the moral camp: Les Miserables, all of Dickens, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, The Divine Comedy, etc.

        1. I think, regardless, that there’s a certain temptation that comes with improved writing skills- as there is with any sort of skill/talent/gift. I feel it sometimes, too (not that I’m any great sage myself). The temptation is to use that power of subcreation (as Tolkine called it, I think) to fashion tales and worlds more in one’s own image… selfishly. I’ve seen glimpses of some writers whose skill improves (as you say it should) as they strive for cutting-edge, moral stories.
          Then something curious happens. They get really, really good… and begin to abandon the search for truth in the search for a new kind of satisfaction: this ‘perfect story’ they all strive for, and hold as their own kind of truth.
          Then, inevitably, their writing begins to suffer.
          Almost a literary “power corrupts” kind of thing. Though that seems too melodramatic, even for me. Anyway, your comment got me thinking.
          Also, the fact that the Greats lived in a day when education (NOT ‘school’) was widespread, and we live in a day where life has been supplanted by movies/games/instant gratification of practically everything… that perhaps is part of the problem.

          The very very tentative thesis: Great moral writers – true education – the desire to keep writing morally = excellent immoral writers and poor moral writers.

  3. i think culture feeds on entertainment & consequently vice versa because so many have abdicated the responsibility of teaching morality. we go to church at the theatre/theater, we are schooled by reality tv and the like magazines, we have legislated right and wrong, etc. power and money are still the gods of this world. is there any wonder the moral fabric of our society is in tatters, “unraveled like rotten thread…” to quote from The Wicked Day.

    1. Aha! Here we touch one strand of the web that holds all together. Entertainment and culture feed each other, and other things are in the cycle as well. When no one else says “this is right, this is wrong,” how can the entertainers be any different? It’s definitely true.

      Why do we see darkness now, when we look inward… to what is ‘real’?
      I say that money and power aren’t necessarily the idols here.

      We are.

  4. I’m all for morals being demonstrated in writing, as much as any other medium that crosses our optic nerves. As writers, we have to know where to draw the line in the mental theater, but not on exclusivity among our topics. Our lines needs to remind readers the difference between non-fiction and fiction. The difference between entertainment and reality. Who’s fault is it that a young boy jumps off the top of his house while wearing a red cape, thinking he can fly like superman? Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster? The boy’s parents? Or the boy himself?

    The fault here lies within human nature – a beast that’s as dark as any villain we can conjure, as it’s we who writes them as such. We are each personally responsible for our own actions, but not in relation to what we read, watch or listen from others. Our own judgment can be lacking when defining the fiction from the non-fiction. Age has little to do with crazy. Sociopaths are born, not made that way through our society. In the same light, I’ve known many people born of parents so abusive as to be criminal in nature, but these children who became adults are some of the nicest people you would ever meet. That’s coming from a background in working as a mental health professional, in a career that’s now far, far away in the past. I also have a formal education in Criminal Psychology. What’s taught and what’s witnessed in the field contradicts themselves quite often, and not in any surprise to the professionals. Why? Again, human nature can be a brutal beast with or without help.

    Humans will do what they do best. Considering the world we live in, how many people exist and even more so, how many are still trying to kill one another, morality in any work is always a bonus. Our responsibility? It would be nice to claim it. But we can’t, shouldn’t claim it as such. The moment we do, then we claim the blame that goes along with the failures. Not the failures of writing that lack morals, but the failures where human nature guides a person to crazy/stupid/criminal behavior no matter what the subject is, just because they can’t distinguish reality from fiction.

    Well, that’s my two cents on it. ^_^

    1. Morality is definitely a bonus. I’m with you there. Daniel, from your perspective, how do you view advertisements, commercials and the such? Do those have effects?

      1. It all boils down to the individual. An advertisement/commercial is designed to promote a product. I myself am a non-drinker, non-smoking individual. Those ads can’t make me into one. If I see an advertisement for Aspirin, I have to choose if such a thing is good for me or not. Weighing in on an individual basis is our sole responsibility. Getting to choose for ourselves is probably the only expression of freedom we really have. As such, most commercials/ads are in the realm of non-fiction.

        Today, you will see an advertisement for condoms on daytime television well after school is out. In the old days, people would have freaked out. Today, it is merely ignored. To a child, he/she gets to ask…”What is that all about?” The explanation can be delayed, but never avoided in later years. To a normal guy, it’s something for him to think about if he doesn’t want kids. To a rapist who is planning for his latest victim, it’s a way to keep DNA evidence of his horrific crime from being easily found. None of these three very plausible situations is the fault of the presenter, the product or the society. The problem is the individual whom it reaches. Say the condom commercial never happened. The child will still eventually ask about the birds and the bees. The normal guy will still contemplate if he wants children or not when sleeping with his girlfriend, and the rapist will still commit his crimes.

        The difficulty isn’t in morality itself. We know right from wrong. Or if it’s presented or not. Choices such as those are difficult for the individual, as the consequences are never what they expect them to be. With or without a morals in advertisement.

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