My answer: Yes. But . . .
. . . the critic must exercise extreme caution, or risk robbing art of its purpose and its ability to capture and affect the world without the fetters imposed by ethical or political debate.
Yes, art can be criticized on ethical grounds based on the artist’s intention. The practitioners of socialist realism can be criticized for serving the narrow and evil political ends of a dictatorship. Hitler’s propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, cannot get a pass just because she made groundbreaking films. To cheer unabashedly at D. W. Griffiths’ innovations in Birth of a Nation deprives the artist of his humanity—by absolving him of the ethical responsibility not to use his talents to promote the Ku Klux Klan.
Intention becomes even more relevant, and worthy of ethical critique, when the artist sacrifices his or her art not to an ideal (however evil in our view), but rather to a naked act of self-promotion. To me, Piss Christ (by Andres Serrano) aims to shock not because of a need to shock the public out of its religious or sexual hypocrisy. Piss Christ deliberately inflicts pain on some people purely for the purpose of making a name for Serrano.
That said, criticizing art on ethical grounds is a potent, potentially destructive practice to be used sparingly, with great care. Once an ethical criticism is made, it should never prevent us from examining, celebrating, and borrowing from the innovations of a Griffiths or a Riefenstahl. Even socialist realism becomes an interesting, historically significant art form to view and build on, the way that architectural or engineering disasters become historically significant symbols.
“Yes, but . . . ” Ultimately, the “but” matters most as a warning. I hear that warning when I visit my favorite work of art in New Haven, a huge oil painting by George Stubbs’ hanging in the Yale Center for British Art. It shows a lion attacking a stag, in all its raw, climactic, overpowering brutality. From Stubbs’ other works in the hall, it is clear he was fascinated by hunting, from the preparations of hunting parties to the subsequent slitting of a captured doe’s throat. What was Stubbs’ intention? What message did he send on what has become an ethical question, the killing of animals? The visceral reality Stubbs captures renders irrelevant any question of ethics.
— Paul Bass, Editor-in-Chief of the online news source, the New Haven Independent (www.newhavenindependent.org). The Independent welcomes discussion about art through the online forum “Citizen Critic.”