John Gardener begins his essay, “On Moral Fiction”, with the metaphor of Thor and his weapon (hammer, axe, or whatever it might be) Mjollnir, warding off the forces of chaos and entropy. Gardner compares art and criticism to Thor’s hammer. Thor is the artist and art is the force that the artist wields to affirm life, to establish virtue, and to discover, generation by generation, what it means to be human. The rest of the essay is Gardner’s ruminations on this subject, on the purpose behind art.
On page 18, he defines moral art, saying, “television—or any other more or less artistic medium—is good (as opposed to pernicious or vacuous) only when it has a clear positive moral effect, presenting valid models for imitation, eternal verities worth keeping in mind, and a benevolent vision of the possible which can inspire and incite human beings toward virtue, toward life affirmation as opposed to destruction or indifference” (pg. 18). This notion, as indicated by the title of his work, consistently appears throughout his book. While such a view could easily lead to the purpose of art being to teach, Gardener makes a firm distinction between didacticism and true art. True art doesn’t “teach” morality. It is by its nature moral. It doesn’t force upon the reader, but instead explores, with much concern, such morality, acting as a mode of thought. By creating a fictional imitation we better understand that which we imitate (116). By creating situations in which characters choose between acting morally and immorally, we are forced to consider such choices and are encouraged to make them ourselves.
Gardener goes on to comment on Plato and Aristotle’s treatment of the poet (the creator of fiction), saying, “To Plato it seemed that if a poet showed a good man performing a bad act, the poet’s effect was corruption of the audience’s morals. Aristotle agreed with Plato’s notion that some things are moral and others not; agreed, too, that art should be moral; and went on to correct Plato’s error. It’s the total effect of an action that’s moral or immoral, Aristotle pointed out. In other words, it’s the energeia—the actualization of the potential which exists in character and situation—that gives us the poet’s fix on good and evil; that is, dramatically demonstrates the moral laws, and the possibility of tragic waste, in the universe” (pg. 23). Rather than asserting, as Plato does, that a fictionalized account of wrong action leads to imitation, Gardener agrees with Aristotle in thinking that the poet’s actualization of character imparts to the audience his moral stance. This in turn leads to our moral education—we are forced to consider whether his characters are models for imitation or not.
However, he speaks about this idealist view of art as unfashionable in contemporary intellectual culture. Words like “Truth”, “Beauty”, and “Goodness” are no longer spoken of. They are seen as embarrassing. He bemoans the fact that ideas like “morality” have gone out of fashion in favor of “The Other” of philosophers like Sartre, the ubermensche of Nieztsche, or the Stranger of Camus. Such philosophers would deny that the verities that Gardener speaks of exist, especially in the immutable fashion that Gardener believes. Gardener discusses Sartre in more detail, exploring the French philosopher’s rejection of a number of sources of morality (values as implications of our conscious nature, values as implications of God, and values as implications of rationality), instead opting for nausea and angst.
He quotes Tolstoy in asserting that ideals expressed in art can affect the way people act, at least some of the times, in some people. Once again, Gardener makes a distinction between the morality rising from religious ideals and morality from a different source. He explains Tolstoy’s conception of art as given by a divine source. Morality, as prescribed by God, is enacted by the “hero”, Jesus. The artists (the recorders of Biblical events) record the events of the hero, which leads to a changing of the way people act. Similarly, Gardener uses the example of Achilles in the Illiad to demonstrate the progression of morality. Achilles, the demigod, demonstrates to normal humans what values the gods see as admirable and worthy.
However, Gardener critiques the current state of art, which he claims has increasingly replaced the affirmation of life with destruction. Instead of art being the force working against chaos, immoral art affirms Ragnarok, encouraging the exchange of humanity for the inhumane, encouraging the exchanging of death for life. It is this disconnecting from “the real”, from there being a concrete signified behind the signifier that is today’s prevailing intellectual fashion. Without such a “real” the artist is forced to ponder endlessly the questions of relativism into a sort of paralysis (51).
From here, Gardner moves to the critics. Once again, he bemoans the critics who have bought into the cultural fad of distinguishing between the modern and the postmodern, the structuralist and the post-structuralist, the conventional and the innovative. Instead of creating such categories, Gardener prescribes judging art for its morality. In true art, devotion to exploring morality is the standard by which critics should judge.
One of the most convincing examples Gardener uses to illustrate this immoral art is the music of John Cage. A number of musicians, each given a card with a number of musical motifs, play their parts at the tempo or dynamic level of their choosing, whenever they want. Or maybe the conductor signals to a section to play at a certain time. To Gardener, this is immoral art despite the fact that it supposedly “expresses the relativity and chance of a post-Newtonian understanding of the universe” or something like that. The musicians hate playing such pieces and audiences hate listening to them. Such music is immoral because chance has nothing to do with right action. If a person started randomly throwing pieces of bread out an airplane, would you credit him for feeding the hungry when a homeless person happens to find bread lying on the ground? It is the exchange of texture for “the real” that Gardener rejects in fiction, music, television, and all forms of art.
For Gardener, “True art, by specific technical means now commonly forgotten, clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets towards the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns” (100). Rather than ranting or giggling at the absurdity of our predicament, true art prays or creates weapons for us to use. It is the lightning strike, illuminating our surrounds for a split second, giving us a moment of clarity in the darkness (100). Art explores what it means to be human, which is inextricably tied with being moral.
In discussing this moral art, Gardener covers a number of the authors we have during the semester. He cites Plato and Aristotle as establishing the purpose and usefulness of art. Like Kant, he espouses a disinterested view of art. However, it seems that he decides art has the definite purpose of affirming life. This seems to contradict the Kantian view of purposiveness without purpose. Like Kant, it seems Gardener sees art has having the power to give the feeling necessary to act morally despite the urgings of our instinct. Like Thor’s hammer, true art is directed towards the destruction of that which is immoral. It condemns Norman Mailer, who speaks of Charles Manson as “intellectually courageous” (77), instead depicting him as evil and destructive. It is constantly fighting for the good, passing down the wisdom of our predecessors to a new audience. It re-examines and makes relevant the archetypal stories, repackaging them for future generations.