Can An Artwork Be Immoral?


After four years of holding the interesting philosophical problems of propaganda films in mind, I finally found an opportunity to write at greater length about how to think about those problems. On this paper I was given really free range over what topics in aesthetics I could write about, and I returned to Triumph of the Will (1935) which was fresh in my mind from some discussions I'd gotten myself into on Reddit. So this paper is almost a look at self plagiarizing, but also a significant revisal in depth and analysis on a topic.

I used a number of different resources for this paper but for the most part returned to the piece by Susan Sontag that I'd used before, "Fascinating Fascism" which is kind of the seminal piece on Riefenstahl's work.

This was really where I pushed my understanding of propaganda as art, a proposition I could stand to refine a little now, into the area of making finer distinctions between ethics and aesthetics. This is a distinction which I think points to some problems in the practice of analytic philosophy, but that's a story for another time. For now I'm more concerned with if artwork can be immoral and if so how?

One of the interesting things I'm seeing today is that my novel approach to understanding the ethical value of art is something that could be controversial now. Artists today are really tasked with making their work strongly ethical in some way, just look at the past few years of Academy Awards. What might be seen as stronger ethics in art making practice is seen as a strongly good-making feature of artworks at the moment. But this is getting into murky territory, in my mind there is still some kind of category error happening in the way the artword, it may be said, construes ethics with aesthetics. Which wouldn't be new, but it is outside the purview of this reflection.

I think that there is a case to be made that the view I put forward here is one that is a little reifying of the status quo which is something that is sort of in the process of being upended. But the nice thing about intellectual history and philosophy in particular is that it can really stand the test of time and be updated consistently which is what I would do here.

Can An Artwork Be Immoral?

In the case of some controversial artworks, particularly propaganda films for example, there develops a tension between the purity and the historical context of the work which leads to problematic evaluations of an artwork’s status as the result of some great art having some morally tainted properties against its purer aesthetic properties. It becomes easy to dismiss such art. People are inclined to be moralists and purists about art. When there is a historical context which challenges the balance between art as pure unto itself and art as a means of conveying a particular, unsavory message, there is a tendency to find some way of dismissing the art. It is nothing new that there would be a tension between the content of the art and the context of its production which leads to difficult evaluations, but it would be highly useful and philosophically intriguing to look into how we can evaluate the “good” artworks from the “bad” artworks without speaking too dismissively about artworks merely because of their historical context or because they are somehow incendiary to a discerning, contemporary public. What framework distinguishes moral and immoral arts.

This is somewhat the case with Susan Sontag’s discussion of Triumph of the Will (1935), a renowned Nazi propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl. Sontag appropriately captures a shift in the evaluation of Riefenstahl’s in the 1970s; “a stronger reason for the change in attitude toward Riefenstahl lies in a shift in taste which simply makes it impossible to reject art if it is beautiful” (Sontag, 37). This is a description of the atmosphere surrounding Riefenstahl’s work at the time Sontag is responding to it. It is not particularly radicle either, Sontag is willing to admit that Riefenstahl’s work is impressive, the result of practically unlimited funding and artistic freedom that came with holding the party line. Yet Sontag finds something amiss and worthy of dismissing Riefenstahl’s films completely. It is too easy to reach this bind of the film’s conditions of production and the facts of its beauty. There is no particular disagreement among critics on the fact that Riefenstahl’s propaganda films are beautiful and innovative films for their time.

However, Sontag goes on to trivialize Riefenstahl’s work as simplistic and largely not influential art historically. Sontag writes that “to an unsophisticated public in Germany, the appeal of Nazi art may have been that it was simple, figurative, emotional; not intellectual; a relief from the demanding complexities of modernist art” (Sontag, 41). She does not seem particularly fair to the Germans here, nor to Riefenstahl. If Sontag is willing to grant some of the excellence of Riefenstahl’s films, as we shall see she does later, I think that she should also be willing to accept that a public is more artistically discerning than Sontag seems to think, fascist uprising or not. Certainly in these works of artful propaganda the filmmaker herself did not take her audience for granted and had to make a functioning case for Nazism on screen, far more affecting filmmaking than Sontag grants Riefenstahl.

But Sontag wants to go so far as to say that Riefenstahl’s films have not really earned their position in film history either. Sontag’s historical point is roughly that “Triumph of the Will and Olympiad are undoubtedly superb films (they may be the two greatest documentaries ever made), but they are not really important in this history of cinema as an art form. Nobody making films today alludes to Riefenstahl, while many film makers… regard early Soviet director Dziga Vertov as a inexhaustible provocation and source of ideas about film language” (Sontag, 42). I disagree with Sontag about the historical position of Riefenstahl’s works. And I think it is enough to show how wrong Sontag is about Riefenstahl merely to say that we are still talking about these movies. What is most problematic though is that in the effort to find purity and morality in an artwork, Sontag is dismissing these propaganda films because she believes they are simplistic, that is not purist, and problematic historically, that is to say morally questionable. And yet Sontag wants, also, to admit that these are great works. There must be a more consistent way of understanding streaks of morality in artworks.

From works like Susan Sontag’s essay, certain artworks, perhaps propaganda films in particular, can seem as though they should be discredited if the context of their creation raises questions about whether or not the expression is purely artistic or somehow morally dubious and therefore depreciative of the aesthetic value. This is the case with Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film which nonetheless is highly praised by some for its pure artistic value. What bearing the ethics of art has on our evaluation of artworks is unclear, looking at a variety of films from Triumph of the Will to A Clockwork Orange (1971) to Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) may suggest an answer.

I do not believe that a work of art needs to be ethical to be aesthetically good. First and foremost we must separate our ethical questions from our aesthetic questions in axiology. It is a fallacy to say that aesthetics reduces to ethics for example. To do so would be to say the greatest work is the most moral i.e. here is a maxim of morality, here is a representation of that paradigm. We should not inquire by moving from some ethical maxim and functionally producing a list of the great works.  Nevertheless it may not be too much too say that if the work is aesthetic, then there is no ethical nature to it as such. The painting itself has no ethical value. Perhaps when the painting is used as a weapon in a murder it has some moral content, although not because of what is on the canvas. Triumph of the Will so blurs the line because it appears as some accessory to the murderers by validating their parts in the actions. Yet the film itself is pictures on a screen, and we can judge that for a variety of beauties--visual, narrative, and so forth. Some value Triumph of the Will very highly on its artistic merits. No art is immoral, and aesthetic judgements should be limited to those of beauty, however those judgements are made. This view does effectively address Sontag, it may be roughly the view she ascribes to some apologists for Riefenstahl, but it seems somehow incomplete.

Instead of merely separating ethics from aesthetics it is more important to answer the question "can an artwork be immoral?" I would like to give two affirmative answers. One is the classic answer which will implicate Triumph of the Will as an immoral film, one which may well be dismissed though perhaps not on the grounds Sontag takes alone. The second answer to the big question is a more nuanced and more compelling and is perhaps more forgiving to Sontag and Riefenstahl both.

First consider that an artwork can be immoral when its existence is germane to the execution of immoral acts. There is a causal relationship between the art and the act. This is a view that is most easily applied to Triumph of the Will because it was such a vital part in the Nazi propaganda machine. By saying this I do not mean to implicate, as I think Sontag does implicate, that it is because it is such blatant propaganda that Triumph of the Will is an uninteresting or overly demonstrative work, only that it is an accessory in some larger crime. This notion says e.g. there is a Triumph of the Will ergo there is a Holocaust or a World War II or some other terrible thing. I do not think this sentiment is so far fetched. We know the Holocaust is a terrible act, and we can consider a set of necessary and sufficient conditions leading to its execution. And we might say these conditions are proxy immoral, they are accessory to the crime. Triumph of the Will might fit under that banner. Again this does not dismiss the film on its artistic merits because of its aesthetics,  which is the conflation Sontag makes. Triumph of the Will used innovative techniques like aerial photography, it developed framing and editing which make a strong emotional impacts on a viewer, the scope of its subject and the care that went into its construction are overwhelming (see Appendix). Nevertheless, Sontag’s position still seems harsh and might produce problems with labeling works as moral and immoral.

I would like to point out that this first option might very well exclude films which are grotesque from the category of immoral films. Movies which were considered indecent when they came out may very well have been ethically produced and have no unconscionable consequences as a result of their release. It is for this reason that a film like A Clockwork Orange may well fall into the category of causally immoral films on the causal view; it was in fact implicated in some crimes (The Times, 1973). If there is a causal chain present between some extra-artistic act which is immoral and the manipulation of the audience by the movie, then we can apprehend some of the moral consequences of the film. If the work fails to produce such radicle actions then it may be merely manipulative and not wholly immoral. I think this will be hard to prove but it does point to a rather different option.

As a second option, I do believe a movie can be so offensive that it renders itself immoral. This would be an artwork which is not immoral because it gives rise to immorality, or depicts immorality, or even necessarily because it has anything to do with ethical quandaries or context of creation. On a different view an artwork may be seen as immoral because it offends the sensibilities so much that its aesthetic is an injustice. Plan 9 From Outer Space might be an example, it is widely considered among the worst films ever made. Here is a movie which so offends its audience, it is an injustice to watch it. It is torture to endure these artworks and it is not something to be inflicted on an unwitting audience lightly. Conversely it is a pleasure to look on other artworks, Casablanca (1942) is something we might desire to experience. Some artworks are moral artworks, others are not; these moral and immoral categories are going to align with the typically good and typically bad artworks as well.

This model where the immoral artworks are determined along with the worst artworks has interesting consequence along the lines of distinguishing tastes and artistic profanities; this theory tells critics the difference between works one does not like and those which must not be seen at any cost. Personally, I do not particularly care for The Shawshank Redemption (1994), although many people do hold it with great reverence, but I do not consider it immoral in this way (IMDb). It does not profane the senses aesthetically, it is merely lacking in much the way Sontag is most justified in viewing Riefenstahl’s work. When we separate our ethics and our aesthetics, and we judge a work on a variety of beauties. As I said above, it is conceivable that we would come out with a work which we cannot positively value, and this would be an immoral work. Plan 9 From Outer Space is a movie I do not believe I deserved to suffer. Watching it, for me, feels like an injustice for a variety of aesthetic reasons; poor design and a sort of assumption that the audience is ignorant of what good film is characterize Plan 9 From Outer Space. Such would have to be the kind of claims leveled upon a truly immoral work of art.

The real attraction of this theory of morality in art is that it seems to square with what is important to most critics and defend the aesthetic good and bad from being muddled with the ethical good and bad. Essentially this view subsumes the ethical evaluation under the aesthetic evaluation after a prior distinction between works of art and questions of ethics. On this view we do not dismiss Triumph of the Will and Sontag’s points, wrong or right, can more easily fall under merely points about her taste in movies. And I think this is what Sontag sets out to do even though she invites ethical judgement of Riefenstahl in her essay.

The incendiary works which do not jibe with the widespread tastes of the time may be accurately categorized on this view as well; gratuitously violent films, for instance, could justifiably be categorized as bad artworks. And yet it seems unlikely that Triumph of the Will or A Clockwork Orange would ever fit into the aesthetic category of outright bad. Triumph of the Will almost certainly cannot be said to be immoral in this way. I favor the view that a movie can be immoral because it is aesthetically deplorable--an injustice to those who look on it--because it lets us be consistent about and say (albeit without perfect certainty) that an artwork has moral value because of its aesthetic traits and because it cashes out probable answers for the movies considered here as artworks in themselves.


Riefenstahl uses spectators to capture the beliefs others appear to have; peer pressuring the viewer by suggesting emotion rather than demanding or reenacting a belief. While the most memorable scenes from Triumph of the Will may be the ones that make use of the cast of thousands, the more interesting ones are those of individuals. One person placed to the side and somewhat obscured in shadow captures the viewers own face-in-the-crowd and creates instant empathy. The technique--closeups of reactions in succession juxtaposed with some apparently greater force--is effective at producing a variety of reactions especially when it is difficult for a viewer to grasp the enormity of the situation. This frame is a most subdued version of the closeup response. While Leni Riefenstahl is far from the first director to use an extreme closeup to convey emotion, she may use this kind of shot more effectively than many other directors.In this shot the girl is the subject, her smile something that the viewer is supposed to reciprocate but her proximity to the swastika is likewise vital; the girl is anonymous but she can still be this close to the symbol of the party.


"Top 250." IMDb., n.d. Web. 07 May 2014.

Susan Sontag, "Fascinating Fascism," Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).

" 'Clockwork Orange' link with boy's crime", The Times, 4 July 1973.

A Clockwork Orange. dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1971.

Triumph of the Will, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, Universum Film AG, 1935.