Joker: Should Movies Teach Morality?

Joker: Should Movies Teach Morality?

January 14, 2020 100 By Stanley Isaacs


“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” So I thought the new Joker movie was just okay, not spectacular, not terrible, just fine. But what I found more interesting than the film itself was the conversation around the film. To get you up to speed, Joker tells the story of a mentally ill loner named Arthur Fleck who decides to murder everyone that he’s angry with. Which inadvertently causes a violent uprising against the rich. The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival more than a month before its wide release. That meant that there was an entire month where the only people who had seen the movie were film critics and their early reactions sparked an online controversy. The gist of it is this: some critics said the movie had bad ideas, other critics said the movie had bad ideas and that it would inspire real acts of violence. The logic here being you know at a time when guys like Arthur are committing real acts of violence like this is it irresponsible to make a film that glorifies a killer or at least one that might be interpreted as doing so by some audiences. I can already hear you leaping towards your keyboard to tell me what’s wrong with this argument, but hold on, that’s what the video is about. Now, both kinds of critiques were met with the same wave of comments you can expect whenever you discuss the politics or ideas of a piece of popular media online. Comments that boil down to: “Be quiet! Stop quote politicizing art! Right! What underlies all of these conflicts though is that the two sides have a fundamental disagreement over this question: does art have a social responsibility? So welcome to the History of Arguments, a mini-series on this channel where I look at how people across the ages have tried to answer questions about art. And to properly answer this one we’ve got to go all the way back to Plato Let’s begin with the Athenian philosopher Plato and his book The Republic. The book is a dialogue where Plato’s teacher Socrates tries to imagine what the perfect republic would look like. He’s got a place for every kind of worker: the fishermen go here, the philosophers go there, rulers should do this and that, but then he gets to the poets and his message to them is GTFO, we don’t want you here. In a perfect society, writers would be exiled according to Plato. His argument is, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Plato argues that telling a story is basically lying and that lying is bad and if people, especially young people, listen to lies then they’ll be led astray and it’ll ruin society! In his words “The point is that a young person can’t tell when something is allegorical and when it isn’t, and any idea admitted by a person of that age tends to become almost ineradicable and permanent.” “Oh, won’t somebody please think of the children!” That’s Plato’s first hardball offer to the artists of the world. But then he spends a lot of time saying alright fine, you can be part of society but only if you write stuff that I agree with. He then establishes a list of virtues that he thinks art should foster: make people courageous, self-discipline, etc. Show good people being rewarded and evil people punished. So to Plato art has a social responsibility, it is educational, it needs to instill the right set of values in the population. Anything that doesn’t fit into that narrow goal shouldn’t be allowed to exist. Now I’m sure you can see that this is a very extreme position and there’s debate around whether or not Plato himself meant it literally or as a thought experiment. Nevertheless, it is a popular position historically speaking. The Catholic Church, for instance, policed artists for centuries and persecuted anyone whose art didn’t promote their idea of virtue. If we want a critique of Plato though we’re going to have to fast forward a few centuries. Under the patronage of Emperor Augustus, the latin lyricist Horace wrote The Art of Poetry. It’s both a poem itself and a manual for how poetry should be written. You’re probably familiar with some of its ideas without knowing it. For instance, the phrase “En medias res” originates here. But the reason we’re talking about it is a line that came to be known as the Horation Platitude and that is the idea that the purpose of poetry is to instruct and delight. So we’re taking one step away from Plato here. Art shouldn’t just be morally instructive, it should be fun. Horace’s motivations are interesting though. He’s not a philosopher concerned with protecting civilization like Plato is. Instead, his approach is much more pragmatic from an artist’s perspective. He writes, “The ranks of elder citizens chase things off the stage if there’s no good meat in them, and the high-spirited youngsters won’t vote for dry poetry.” Or in other words, you’ll have a bigger audience if you give people what they want and the young want it to be fun and the old want it to teach something. So just do that and stop asking questions. Horace’s ideas are echoed 1500 years later by the English poet Philip Sidney in The Defense of Posey which is a much more fleshed-out version of the argument. The defense is explicitly a rebuttal of Plato. Where Plato said that poets were liars, Sidney counters that by saying that the poet doesn’t claim to tell the truth and therefore he isn’t lying. It’s kind of a squirmy little argument, but it basically amounts to people know fiction isn’t real, so chill! Where Plato worried that stories would promote the wrong set of values and that people would be led astray by them, Sidney reverses that by arguing that stories can actually lead people to truths they might not otherwise appreciate. He says that stories are more accessible than dry philosophy so they can actually be a more useful educational tool. So with Horace and Sidney, we do have an alternative to Plato, but it’s still a position that isn’t just about saying what art is, it’s about saying what artists should or should not do. It’s not until the 19th century that The idea that art needs to teach anything is altogether abandoned. Art for art’s sake that’s the key idea of the aesthetics movement which gained popularity in Britain and France in the 19th century. As the phrase implies, the movement is basically about just liking beautiful pieces of art simply for being pleasing and not for their moral content or for anything else. We’re not sure who expressed the famous phrase first. It’s often credited to Théophile Gautier in 1835, it also appeared in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Poe argued that art made solely for its own sake is the best kind of art that there is and it’s what artists should aspire to do rather than making something that’s meant as teaching material. So the slogan is about how creators should create but it’s also about how critics should critique. See the phrase didn’t just pop into existence. It was basically a way to shut up the Marxists. No, really stay with me here! See, while Marx’s ideas were becoming more popular they inevitably started being applied to art and this started to rankle some people who were fatigued by the overabundance of politicized readings. I’m sure that sounds a little familiar. One such person was Oscar Wilde who wrote that “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.” Which is about the most elegant way to say shut up I’ve ever read! So there we have it. Three of the major positions on the question of art’s social responsibility. Plato told us that art should only exist if it cultivates good morals, Horace and Sydney told us that it should both teach and delight, and the Aesthetics Movement told us that it should exist for its own sake. Judging from the tenor of the conversation around Joker, I’m inclined to believe that many of the people watching this will see number three as the most sensible position. So let’s go through some of its shortcomings. The major critique is that even if you try to create a piece of art solely for its own sake, you can’t really control how it’s going to be read once you’ve completed it and that’s sort of what art for art’s sake as a philosophy is trying to do. The good part of art for art’s sake is that it doesn’t try to police artists like the other two theories are. The bad part about it though is that it can often be an attempt to police or minimize criticism. But just as the artists should have free rein to push the envelope, critics should have free rein to say what they see. Art definitely has an effect on us. It is enormously influential at forming our beliefs about the world, but it’s not a simple one-to-one thing where a one movie leads to one person doing something they otherwise wouldn’t. There are always other factors at play. There are elements of the response to Joker that are similar to the moral panics around violence and video games or death metal and a response to this ought to be the same. So, yes, okay good, but just because if that is true doesn’t mean we should just throw our hands up say art for art’s sake and ignore the effect that art really done have on us. Art may not have a social responsibility but criticism does. Criticism is about asking what does this do? What ideas does it convey? And the purpose of doing that isn’t to censor art in the way that Plato would in The Republic, it’s to become more aware of the ways media does affect you. You are what you eat so to speak, so it’s good to know what’s really in your media diet. So I wanted this video to come out a little closer to Joker’s release but I had to delay it because I wasn’t being as productive as I wanted to be. But maybe I wouldn’t have had to delay it if I had watched Thomas Frank’s Productivity Masterclass sooner on Skillshare, the sponsor of this video. Thomas is a fellow Youtuber, an excellent teacher, an expert at helping people get organized and just a really nice guy! So, if you want to work more efficiently, I highly recommend checking out the course. There are thousands of other courses on Skillshare about writing, filmmaking and more! So if you want to give it a try, you can get two months of Skillshare for free by going to this link: which will give you access to all of their classes. After that Skillshare is less than $10 a month with an annual subscription. So sign up now and learn a new skill! Thanks for watching everyone and a big thank you to my patrons for supporting this channel! If you like what I do and want to help the channel out, you can go to patreon.com/justwrite and pitch in as little as $1 a video to help keep me going! Keep writing everyone!