Does the AJIL publish work
representations of evil, tragedy,
or private acts?
Private acts may be represented or contemplated, but not depicted.
Tragedy may be represented or depicted, within a framework guiding the reader to respond well. Tragedy may not be contemplated, though a character's response to it may.
Wickedness may not be contemplated, and the reader should be made a virtual witness of it only with extreme caution and delicacy. It may be represented for the sake of the plot.
To better understand these restrictions, please see the essay below.
The Representation, Depiction, and Contemplation
of Tragedy, Wickedness, and Private Acts
in Art, Literary or Otherwise
- by Alana K. Asby
Our attitude toward this question involves a threefold distinction: is the element in question representation, depiction, or contemplation?
In representation, the audience is merely given to understand that bad behavior, private acts, or tragic events have occurred. How that understanding is conveyed may vary. It should be conveyed artistically, of course.
A good example would be the practice in films informed by the classical theatrical tradition, in which acts of copulation are portrayed with the actors fully clothed and without evidence of actual passion.
The way this translates into written art is simply that the reader is not given a mental image of the act. Often, this is preferable.
We do not consider the mere representation of such things to be obscene or objectionable. However, where does the mind come to rest, at the end of the story or poem? Is the reader left dwelling in a region of despair, vileness, or voyeurism?
In the case of depiction, the effect is more intense. The reader, viewer, or audience is effectively made a witness of some wickedness, tragedy, or private act.
This is far more concerning. It may debauch the reader. It may also compromise the aesthetic power of the piece. Such things have a way of diminishing artistic distance.
Intention matters. In real life, the experience of tragedy, wickedness, or private acts often presents a challenge to faith, to purity of heart. To casually make your reader a witness of such things may have the same effect. It is ethical, therefore, to contain your fictional depiction of sensitive events. They ought to be contained within an inventive framework that helps the reader respond to them properly; otherwise they ought not to be depicted at all.
Purity of heart is held by many to be a moralistic, rather than an artistic, concern. Of course if 'moralistic' means 'the regard of Law as the source of goodness' then that is a problem. Yet not all that is moral is moralistic.
What about Goodness? Is it moral? Surely yes.
And is Beauty good? Yes.
Then how is Beauty not moral? Surely, Beauty has a moral dimension.
Acad Lit does not exist to reach the debauched. We aim to give the most delight possible to the best people, both around us now, and through all time.
Depicting characters responding to wickedness, tragedy, or private acts can be aesthetic, ethical, and powerful. Such depictions can arouse pity and other noble feelings. This is much preferable.
Art, in this view, is a sort of gymnasium for the affections. In a world where evil is a genuine problem, there are many noble feelings which, in real life, are aroused only by the contact of good people with difficulty - provided that they respond as a good person should, and not by compromising their integrity.
Such feelings can be cathartically aroused in good art without any challenge to the reader's purity of heart or integrity of mind. In fact, they may strengthen the reader for his own life's challenges. It is not necessary that the character should respond perfectly. It is only necessary that the literature should have a viewpoint which makes clear what a good response would be.
In genuine art, the overall effect is aesthetic and imaginative, not argumentative and propositional. As long as that holds true, the effect may also be morally radiant without diminishing the artistry. In fact, we hold that moral radiance will establish and elevate the artistry.
Finally, there is art which induces the contemplation of sensitive elements.
Genuine art always induces contemplation - that is the authentic human response to it. Whatever you emphasize in your art, the audience will be invited to contemplate.
Contemplation is a particular kind of attention. It is deep attention. It generates a unity between your heart and whatever you are contemplating.
Contemplation creates an inner wholeness, or a movement toward wholeness. The heart approaches union with whatever the mind is contemplating.
So it is only right to ask ourselves, "What will the reader contemplate after reading my story or poem?"
Structure, or form, shows the reader what to contemplate. For instance, a good ending or a bad ending can bring about a completely different response to the same story. A certain flow of events, or time spent on a theme, can also do this.
What does your work emphasize?
Many protest that art is amoral. However, if a work of art provokes you to contemplate evil, is its effect really amoral?
To put it in a syllogistic form,
If contemplation of evil is itself evil,
And if a work of art produces contemplation of evil,
Then that work has produced evil.
If evil is a moral quality,
and if a work of art produces evil,
Then that work of art has produced a moral quality.
If only morally active works produce moral qualities
And if a work of art has produced a moral quality,
Then that work of art is a morally active work.
If what is morally active cannot be amoral;
And if art which produces the contemplation of evil is morally active;
Then: art which produces the contemplation of evil is not amoral.
There may be works of art which are amoral, or at any rate un-moral - but if so, none of them has ever provoked the contemplation of evil.
Art As Activism
Art whose purpose is to draw attention to social injustice or political causes almost always provokes the contemplation of evil. Such work arises from a condition of resentment within the artist. However powerful a tool it may seem, such a result is ethically forbidden.
Many people may wonder what our definition of good and evil may be, and how one can avoid depicting or contemplating it.
It is true that evil has been largely redefined - or undefined - and that many people now believe that both moral and aesthetic judgments are purely subjective.
Naturally we think that is bunk.
While certain acts are taboo in some cultures and not others, there are many basic moral principles which one consistently finds active in most cultures, and at most times. They are known to be true because they generate human happiness, prosperity, and integrity. At times they require a sacrifice of the immediate individual desires, but we know what all adults know - that desires can lead one astray.
It is also a good idea to avoid the morality of the wealthy. Using their riches, they can get away with more. Thus, they tend to get the impression that the world is amoral by nature.
For more on common human morality, please read C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. It's quite engaging, and not at all long.
We are not interested in unusually harsh, strict, venomous, or punitive treatments of moral issues or immoral people. Punitive self-righteousness is also an evil.
The Representation, Depiction, and Contemplation of Goodness
From what has been said above, it clearly follows that goodness which takes the form of a private act (such as marital relations) should be represented, when important to the story or poem, rather than depicted (in most cases and in large part.) However, such matters may well be contemplated. Privacy demands, not that one pay no attention but that one refrain from witnessing. The Eastern Orthodox icon of the Conception of the Mother of God is an excellent example: do go look it up!
Goodness of all other sorts is so neglected that we are practically salivating to see it represented, depicted, and contemplated in art. Generally, it seems that the more attentive and intense the level of attention, the better - when it comes to goodness.
The quality of art, like the quality of an ordinary sentence, may be judged by two matters. First, what is conveyed, and secondly, the skill with which it is done.
The moderns had a vain dream of art that was all conveyance, with nothing conveyed. The postmoderns, once that short, sheer cliff had been sufficiently jumped off, responded by returning to substance, but refusing all kind of judgment about the quality of that substance.
We don't need either of these paralyzations. We want good substance, and we want it portrayed well.
Finally, we have one subtle judgment to offer on art which attempts to represent the insignificant or meaningless.
We don't mind at all a story or poem about someone or something which is insignificant, provided one condition. The attention must be placed firmly on the thing which has being, and not on the insignificance of the thing.
So for instance, a story about the most ordinary 7-year-old in the world will be vomitous if we are left contemplating nothing but his ordinariness. That would be the aesthetic equivalent of someone shouting "Look, look!" and pointing to nothing in particular. "Hah! Gotcha!" is the unspoken snicker behind such stunts.
In such cases however, the person himself, being inherently good, is worth contemplation - no matter how insignificant in some relations. The trick is to find some relation in which a person who is ordinarily insignificant is found to be significant, after all. This can illustrate, and lead to the contemplation of, the deeper ways in which everything is secretly significant.
And we would reject a story or poem if the point were the work's own meaninglessness. Mere negation is not worth the contemplative attention which art provokes. It certainly is not worth the anyone's time or resources.
Art, just by existing, suggests significance. And, as someone rather important once said, "Thou shalt not bear false witness."
Therefore, no "meta", please.