There is no doubt that as a historical matter art is criticized on ethical grounds; the question is whether it ought to be. One answer, associated with the phrase “art for art’s sake,” is that art ought to be evaluated only in terms of artistic or aesthetic value, leaving it immune to judgments from the standpoint of morality (as well as other perspectives such as utility). Oscar Wilde’s often-quoted thesis of artistic autonomy was: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” The problem with this approach is that it presumes that we know what it is for a work to be successful in purely artistic terms. For in trying to explain what we mean by a purely artistic evaluation we may have to reintroduce those moral forms of evaluation that we tried to exclude in the thesis of “art for art’s sake.”
Of course, with a very narrow conception of artistic value as, say, cashed out in terms of beauty, one can indemnify art against moral evaluation. But that would be to implausibly deny that art is valuable for a range of reasons, and it would exclude much (most?) art that isn’t concerned with purely aesthetic effects. What nineteenth-century proponents of “art for art’s sake” rejected was not the moral evaluation of art, but moralism, the thesis that art’s value is reducible to its moral value—a view as limiting as the view that all artistic value is aesthetic value.
Of course, sometimes art’s autonomy is proposed not as a genuine theoretical claim but as strategic one, where the suggestion is that only by claiming that art is indemnified by its very nature against moral criticism can we prevent the forms of censorship that art is regularly subject to. But this strategic appeal to autonomy may purchase art’s freedom only at the cost of denying art’s power. In other words, in saying that art can have no moral consequences in the real world (“poetry makes nothing happen” in Auden’s lament on the death of Yeats) one runs the risk of suggesting that art is somehow without consequence per se, raising the question of why it is so crucial to defend art against censorship in the first place.
— Jonathan Gilmore, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, Yale University, and author of The Life of a Style: Beginnings and Endings in the Narrative History of Art (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2000). He also writes art criticism for such publications as Art in America, Modern Painters, and Artforum.