Joseph Kendra on Morality & Art

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This Nutshell features Joseph Kendra, Adult Events Programmer at the National Gallery.  A major focus for Joseph is the Gallery’s autumn show ‘the Credit Suisse Exhibition: Gauguin Portraits’ which runs from 7 October 2019 to 26 January 2020. With experience from galleries around London, Joseph is behind many of the events that are running at the National Gallery including ‘Gauguin: The question of art and morality today’ in collaboration with PhilosophyArts.

Joseph Kendra | King’s Cultural Institute | CPA

Art & Morality

An enduring worry for many of us is, should we frown on work that is either made by an immoral person, made using immoral means or contains immoral messages or meaning. Put bluntly, when is right to look with admiration and when should we look away or prevent the others appreciating a work? Famously, Wilde told us there was no such thing as immoral art, just good or bad art. Admirers of Mapplethorpe were furious and frustrated at the decision in the US to ban his work on the grounds that it was immoral. But, those same admirers may feel that certain Nazi propaganda films or productions in which actors were abused, should be banned.  So, what (if any) are the general principles we should abide by when dealing with the issue of Art & Morality?

Some philosophers follow Wilde and consider Art Objects (paintings, musical compositions, films etc) as entirely autonomous of the morality issue. Oil and Water.  However, the enthusiasm for the #metoo movement shows that many people are incensed by the thought that art arrives ready for us to innocently ingest by some morally deviant route. It’s as if Art and Morality track so closely that the former just reduces to the latter. But, if we embraced this wholeheartedly, we might find that many of our museums, galleries and public spaces became eerily empty rather quickly.  Two more temperate positions that have been argued for are moderate moralism which accepts that the moral value can tinge, or infuse the art and affect our enjoyment of it, and ethicism which considers it an artistic bonus to articulate some real world truth in an engaging, sophisticated way.

National Gallery (London)

This can seem a bit neat for those of us who are deeply troubled by our love of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or even Dexter. In these cases, and perhaps in the Gauguin case – the badness of the antagonist or anti-hero is asymmetrically related to the artist virtue of the work. We like these works because of the flawed character, content or message, not in spite of it.

Paul Gauguin, ‘Portrait of Madame Roulin’, 1888. Saint Louis Art Museum, Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum

Today, I’m talking to Joseph Kendra about the moral quandary that might confront us as appreciators of Gauguin’s luminous, powerful and moving masterpieces. Should we look or look away from his Tahiti series? What about his paintings at Arles? Are these evidence of a dark, even brutal man?

Transcript excerpts from Interview

  • VB: Vanessa Brassey (Philosophy, King’s College, London)
  • JK: Joseph Kendra (Adult Events Programmer)

VB: Hi Joseph, it’s a rare treat that I get to talk about philosophical matters at the National Gallery. Thank you for making the time today to talk about your role as Adult Events Programmer.

JK: Hello – my pleasure, especially as these new events are intended to bring a new sort of discussion into the Gallery. We still plan to appeal to a general audience but we want to introduce an opportunity to think about wider topics of debate around art.

VB: Yes, I wanted to ask you today to tell us a bit more about the upcoming panel event discussing some ethical or moral worries that might come up when appreciating Gauguin’s portraits.

JK:  Good I’d like to do that. It has been interesting to bring in disciplines such as philosophy and philosophical debate into discussions around how we should approach art, artists, and the subjects they depict. Previously there has been the tendency to steer towards only an art historical viewpoint.

VB: How do you mean?

JK: Well, one reason for joining up with Philosophy Arts is that it brings together a panel of experts who are able to explore more general aspects around art and bring in different audiences to explore a variety of points of view.  In the case of Gauguin, this sort of collaboration is particularly relevant as a way of picking up on contemporary ideas and how these might affect how we or whether we should, in fact, make moral judgements about art and artists.

VB: Ethical or moral issues impact on art in a number of ways, but recently the concern has been well articulated and much more vocal. When and why did you first become aware of this kind of tension in appreciation of works?

JK: I grew up in the North West of England and as a child was often taken to Morecambe on a weekend (not as a punishment!). We would have lunch in the Midland Hotel, a beautiful Art Deco building by the architect Oliver Hill, with sculpture and decoration designs by artists Eric Ravilious and Eric Gill. I was particularly fascinated by Gill’s giant seahorse sculptures on the outside of the building and spent a great deal of my childhood very proudly announcing that Gill was my favourite artist. Unknown to me was the biography of Eric Gill by Fiona McCarthy, published in 1989 (only a short time before I would have been making these claims), which revealed that he had sexually abused his teenage daughters, among other controversies. I don’t remember a particular conversation but know that I was very much encouraged to choose another artist as a favourite!

VB: How did this experience shape what you did next?

JK: I guess I have always been morbidly fascinated with art and morality because of this experience.  What was very much a case of right or wrong as a child (to me he became a ‘bad person’ devoid of any specific detail) is much more of a nuanced spectrum of subjectivity as an adult. Is it essential that one knows about these biographical details when choosing to use his typeface ‘Gill Sans’? Should a pop-up appear when you select it on a word processing software? I’m not sure. There’s an interesting article by Rachel Cooke about The Ditchling Museum of Arts & Crafts’ decision to address Gill’s biography in their summer exhibition of 2017, as well as a report by Index on Censorship on why, perhaps, this was not so successful.

 [JK, professional as ever as brought printed copies of the articles which are indeed fascinating.]

VB: Have you found, in your own career, that philosophy has helped you clarify the programmes that you want to bring now and in the future to the National Gallery?

JK: Well, this event for Gauguin Portraits was largely inspired by another, part of this year’s Birkbeck Arts Week organised by Katherine Angel titled ‘Reading bad men’, which asked whether we should read or teach the works of so-called ‘bad people’. In the event copy it spoke of Rebecca Solnit having written that we should be reluctant to read Norman Mailer and William Burroughs, because ‘there are so many writers we can read who didn’t stab or shoot their wives.’ This was an intentionally provocative quote and led to an emotional and at times awkward conversation between speakers and the audience. I was interested to ask a similar question about Paul Gauguin. Should we be reluctant to exhibit or view his work because of his morally questionable biography or does his ability as an artist give us grounds to overlook it? If this applies to Gauguin, then shouldn’t we do the same for Caravaggio? Why or why not? Initial reviews of the Gauguin exhibition suggest these questions are never far from the minds of critics and the public today and rightly so given the actions of some public figures in arts and entertainment. This public programme allows us and our audience to take part in an open and constructive conversation on the subject, examined through the lens of moral philosophy.


Would you like to have your say?  To join us for the discussion evening, click here. To visit the show, click here.

Further Reading

Carroll, N., ‘Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research’, Ethics, Vol. 110, 2000), pp.350-387.*

Tolstoy, Excerpts from What is Art in Neill and Ridley (ed.), The Philosophy of Art (McGraw 1995).

Art & Ethics

Aesthetics and Ethics research Group