Mediated Violence, Ethics & Aesthetics

The resources on this page are for educational purposes for SAE Creative Media Institute students. The audio file is a collection of summaries from various resources, including but not limited to Chapters 8 and  11 from Ethics for Dummies by Panza & Potthast (2010) and Chapters 10 and 12 from Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction by Gensler, H. J. (2017). Check the script and the reference list for more details on the resources.

<script>Mediated Violence, Ethics & Aesthetics

Why do some of us enjoy watching, listening to, and/or playing violent creative works? 

After thinking deeply about this question, you might come up with answers like the following:

  1. Maybe we enjoy things that coincide with violence, not the violent act itself. Violence creates tension and suspense. Sometimes, we feel relieved. If you enjoy playing games, maybe you have heard of or played Mortal Kombat. There is joy and relief in playing this game. Imagine after a long day of classes at the uni and your part-time job where the manager, customers, and/or the people you work with have given you a hard time, you get home and curl into the sofa, turn on the play station and start playing Mortal K. How relieving is it? You may even imagine your component in the game as one of those people who gave you a hard time. This feeling, this relief of stress, is usually addressed as ‘catharsis.’  The credit for this idea goes to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Catharsis in Greek means purgation, cleansing, and purification. Aristotle believed that drama and tragedy can often be useful for us. Violence in drama could be a way for people to get rid of their negative emotions. 
  2. Maybe we watch violent films like “the parasite” or listen to music like “This is the new shit” by Marilyn Manson because it subconsciously makes us reflect on the human condition. Maybe we see it as an experience to be valued. Take, for example, the art exhibition of the Serbian artist Marina Abramovic at the Studio Morra in Naples in 1974, titled Rhythm 0. In this exhibition, Abramovic put seventy-two objects on a long table covered with a white tablecloth. I should give a warning about what will come next; it will be a graphic description of the performance that might make you a bit uncomfortable. You can skip the recording for one minute and get to the next part. Now, going back to the Rhythm 0 exhibition, some of the items were not harmful, like a feather boa, some olive oil, roses, blue paint, a comb, and a bell, but some were quite dangerous, objects such as a gun, bullets, whip, and a pocket knife. She then invited the audience to use them on her in any way they saw fit. After a few hours, some people began trying silly things on her, like writing on her body with pens and crayons; some even tried to strip her out of her clothes while some in the audience wiped away their tears. after three hours, someone picked up the knife and tried cutting her neck. Then, even one person aimed a gun at her while some people tried to intervene. She recalls a moment from the exhibition when she marched up to the audience: “I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away to escape an actual confrontation” (Aimee Ferrier, 2023). So, the participants were involved in creating the work. In this exhibition, Abramovic wanted to see how far the public would go without worrying about their actions’ consequences. The whole experience was mainly to make the audience reflect on the conditions of people globally in the 1970s. 

  1. Sometimes watching violent films, listening to violent music, or playing violent games arouses us; I do not mean sexually! It makes us feel that we are having a bite of the forbidden fruit! Because, as a common belief, violence is off limits. And this being off-limits makes the idea so appealing to us.
  2. And sometimes, consuming violent media artifacts creates a sense of justified punishment. And this is satisfying for some of us. 

Now, do you think the type of violence that happens in games like Doom or GTA or live exhibitions like Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 is justifiable based on one or all of the reasons we mentioned earlier? 

If we enjoy engaging with these artifacts, does that make us bad people? 

Does the value or worth of violent media artifacts rely on their moral content? Or, in general, do we judge a work of media or art as valuable or worthwhile when its content is morally questionable? What about the morality of the artist? Is the work of an artist who is cruel, morally offensive, or evil of no aesthetic value because of this? Can we or should we separate the art from the artist?

I like to explore the ideas around ethics or morality and aesthetics in art, media, and everyday life in this audio file. 

Before we go any further, let’s explain morality and ethics. 

So these terms are usually used interchangeably; generally speaking, they could mean the same. But there is a subtle difference between morality and ethics. 

Morality refers to the individual. Ethics, on the other hand, refers to the relationship between individuals.

The basis of morality is to have self-discipline. This is why lack of self-discipline is usually associated with a moral stain or stigma, for example, being a smoker, a stoner, or even losing one’s virginity before marriage among more conservative societies or individuals. In this sense, these people have not disciplined themselves. These views stigmatize that person. Those people don’t harm society per se but are judged as bad characters by society. 

This is while ethics is more relevant when someone’s rights, freedom, and agency have been violated. Like killing another human being or dishonesty, and a matter of ethics can be sexual harassment. 

But in the context of today’s recording, I would use ethics and morality exchangeably because the main question for us here is, how do we judge the value of a work? What is the basis of our judgment of the worth and aesthetic value of a media artifact or artwork? 

As we said, when we talk about ethics or morality, we ask questions about the worth or value of something. We determine whether something or someone is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Many artists, creators, and philosophers have considered these questions in different places and times. Let’s go through some of their ideas:

***The following is a summary of chapters 10 and 12 from Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction. Plus, some more resources. For details, see the reference list**** 

  1. Virtue ethics: some would evaluate the aesthetic worth of a work based on its virtues—” habits like self-control, justice, and courage. In life, having virtue is committing to be a good person” (Gensler, 211, pp.40-41). So, this view on ethics is concerned with character more than actions. In this sense, a good form of art or media should encourage virtuous acts or good behavior. For people who believe in this view on ethics, what makes an artwork or media work beautiful or worthy is how it encourages people to be better persons, and it ultimately helps and develops the condition of human well-being. In the case of journalism or documentary filmmaking, for instance, “reaching for truth, avoiding bias and harm, serving the public, maintaining trust, escaping manipulation, and inviting criticism and being accountable are principles of ethics” (Wyatt, 2008, p.9) that make those works worthy or in a sense, aesthetically valuable. For those who evaluate artistic worth based on this idea, the film “Saw” or the book Lolita by Nabokov are evil art/creative works. The film ‘Saw’ with extreme violence that some describe as “torture porn” (Graham, 2009) makes the experience of violence pure entertainment. In the case of “Lolita,” Nobakov has been criticized for his pedophile main character, Humbert Humbert. Some believed that the book glorifies sexual deviance (Felski, 2009). Even if the themes in these works could lead to social awareness, promoting virtuous acts is not the main focus. 
  2. Utilitarian ethics is also known as consequential ethics. Some others would see the profit or result as the basis of their aesthetic and ethical judgment. The main idea here is that “we should always do whatever brings about the greatest balance of pleasure over pain for everyone affected by our actions” (Gensler, 2011,p.112). For someone with this view on ethics and morality in life, things like lying to someone, being dishonest, stealing, or even killing are not actions with inherent and universal badness or evil. The circumstances should define whether these are bad or good. “Actions that bring about good results are morally permitted. Actions that bring about bad results are morally prohibited”. The actor’s intention is less important than the impact the action will likely have on others” (Panza& Potthast, 2010, pp.95-97). Following utilitarian ethics could end in extreme violence. An example of such a violent decision is dropping bombs on civilians in Japanese cities to end World War II. “At the time, U.S. and Allied military leaders argued that dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities was justified because it ended a war that had been going on for six years, with many deaths and destruction” (Gensler, 2011, p.157). Ending World War II did benefit more people than it hurt. On the other hand, utilitarian ethics can end in a highly compassionate act. An example of this would be Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s investigative journalism project, which eventually revealed the sexual harassment done by Harvey Weinstein, affecting many women in the film industry; this brought about disturbance, discomfort, and trauma for those who chose to speak, but the greater good it brought to an end, such harassment was more important.

***Chapters 8 and  11 from Ethics for Dummies. Please see the details in the reference list. ***

  1. Deontologist ethics. But here, I use the term Kantian ethics instead. For some, ethical decisions should follow rational thinking. And this rational decision-making should be indifferent and disinterested in an individual’s feelings and satisfaction. For example, “helping others is a good thing, but following this viewpoint, it is unethical to help others to make yourself feel better. Rather, you should help others because it’s a human duty” (Panza& Potthast, 2010, pp. 147-148). This idea is traced back to the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He explained this idea through the concept of categorical imperative. That suggests, “We must always seek to advance the interests of others and work on behalf of their happiness” (Plaisance, 2013, p. 83). Until this time, any judgment of what is beautiful, worthy, right, or wrong was based on its relationship with God or a deity. To their understanding, a work of art was beautiful if it magnified the greatness of God or if it was worthy because God had put good morals and virtues in the mind of the creator. In this context, Kant suggested that judging the value and worth of a work and suggesting what is right and wrong should be based on rational thinking. He suggested that even judging taste should follow certain rational principles. Based on this, only a trained person can judge a creative work’s aesthetic value or taste. Based on this idea, judging the value of any art or media work requires experience in the field, knowing the rules and standards of the field, understanding the skepticism and downsides of the work while being cleared of personal prejudice, and being able to compare similar works based on their qualities. Based on the idea of aesthetic judgment proposed by Immanuel Kant, to judge the value of an artwork, a film, or a book, one should concern oneself with universal qualities that bring pleasure and pain in any given time or society. Putting worth or value, in this sense, should be disinterested and indifferent to the content or the subject matter of a creative work. 

Let’s unpack this using an example. The photo titled The Starving Child and Vulture by photojournalist Kevin Carter was featured in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential photographs of all time. This image gave rise to many ethical and moral questions around photojournalism, all centered around this question: What is the right thing to do as a photojournalist?  Photojournalism seeks to capture moments in history without making any changes to the situation, no matter what. The main idea here is to document the realities as an observer, realities that would otherwise not be seen at all.  The Starving Child and the Vulture portrays a child on the ground affected by famine with a vulture flying about him in South Sudan in 1993. 

The dilemma is here: Following Kant’s views on aesthetics, this photograph should be seen on its own regardless of the subject matter. Therefore, a trained or untrained eye would find the photo of the starving child and the vulture valuable and aesthetically worthy because of the use of the universal qualities of the photograph, things like the perfect lines, colors, texture, great eye-catching composition, and so on. But, based on the deontologist or Kantian ethics, this work is ethically or morally questionable. So, in this situation, should you be doing your duty as a photojournalist and shaking the world by documenting the reality of the famine? Or should you commit to your duty as a human being and try to make the situation better for the other person? Following Kant’s ideas around ethics and aesthetics would leave us with an endless dilemma as to whether or not aesthetics is separate from morality.  

  1. Care ethics – a postmodern take on ethics and aesthetics. In the past few decades, many critical thinkers have noticed that all these traditions are heteronormative male-dominated, whether it is the Greeks talking about ethics, Chinese artists, or Muslim philosophers. Where is then the place of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity in all these judgments of what is good or bad? We might say that we are talking about ethics; we assume that it is a matter of fairness and equality (Panza& Potthast, 2010, p.208). But, like other philosophy sites, ethics and morality have been documented, circulated, and reproduced through heteronormative male-centric thinking. In care ethics, we are invited to break away from the known tradition of ethics and aesthetics and see the positionality of the creators and the audience to decide what is worthy, valuable, good or bad, right and wrong. This ethics perspective is concerned with “context, emotion, compassion and care” (Millner & Coombs, 2022, p.3). It rejects the formulas, generalizations, and abstractions around ethics we saw in the previous perspectives. In this way, an artwork or media artifact is worthy if it encourages empathy and shows compassion for the audience. An example of care ethics in practice is “the Favour Economy project. Favour Economy was developed in 2015 as a participatory online audio gift economy, where women working in the arts could share self-authored audio recordings to benefit other women” (Chen & Field,2022, pp.197-198) in the creative industries and arts. “Each contributor has shaped the content and value of their recording in relation to their own experience. The listener receives the recording according to their current situation and needs” (pp.197-198). The aesthetic value of such works lies in the inclusive spaces they create for minoritized identities, the self-reliance of artists, and the compassionate interaction between the artists and their audience (Haynes, 2022, pp.119-121). 

These perspectives on ethics and aesthetics have been criticized in one way or another, but looking into the criticisms is out of the scope of the present recording. 

For creative writers, artists, and creative media practitioners, such ethical/moral considerations are crucial. One reason would be that we – myself included as a creative writer -do not make things just for us in a void or isolation. We are making things to be heard, read, and felt by others. Although it could be seen as less genuine if we tailor our work towards an audience as if we are engineering a consumable product, we still like to see how people receive our work. So, thinking of ethical considerations comes naturally with creative work. 

Plus, apart from our creative life and career, we are also people living among others. On a daily basis, we make judgments of worth constantly. And please remember, when I use the term ‘judgment’, it has nothing to do with the theological perception of judgment like in the judgment day. We do make aesthetic judgments, aesthetic evaluations around the character and personality of people; that’s how we find our own crowd or stop being friends with someone. We make ethical, moral, and aesthetic judgments in any given life situation. So, it is worthwhile to consider what kinds of principles each of us set for ourselves. Like what is the limit that someone can’t cross the line with us so that we no longer see them as friends? How far would we go in exploring a sensitive topic? How far do we go in telling others about a topic that is sensitive to us or someone we care about? 

Reference List