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Friday, March 31, 2017


I should like to raise a question utterly unrelated to Trump, politics, or the current world situation, a question about which I have strong but mixed feelings.  I would be interested in what folks think.

This afternoon Susie and I went to the movies [we cannot stay up late enough for evening shows].  We saw a new movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife.  Based on real people and events, it tells the story of a gentile husband and wife who ran the city zoo in Warsaw before World War II.  When the Germans come, the Jews are walled up in the ghetto [and eventually sent off to death camps.]  The zookeeper and his wife, at great risk to themselves, use the zoo grounds to hide several hundred Jewish men, women, and children, all but two of whom actually survived the Holocaust.  Some plot interest is provided by a Nazi with an interest in zoology and animal husbandry and the hots for the wife.  The husband is wounded in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but after the war he is reunited with his wife and two children.  There are lots of affecting scenes of cute animals and all, heartrending scenes of the Jews, and a happy ending [which, as I say, is actually true.]  It is not a great movie, but it is well done and well acted.

I hated it.

Why did I hate it?  Because I am deeply offended by works of art that use a horrific reality as the setting for a work of art that invites us to substitute aesthetic for moral categories of evaluation.

Am I making myself clear?  Am I philosophically confused?


I. M. Flaud said...

Without seeing the film (haven't been to the moving pictures in ages), it's hard to say. What aesthetic category was substituted for a moral one? Did the film have its share of obvious and obtuse metaphors with which to beat the viewer over the head (e.g., the viewer can hardly miss the point human's aren't supposed to be living in a zoo, even if they aren't living like animals). That's irritating.

There are cases where an artist doesn't have a choice, for example, under conditions of state censorship. But this wasn't one of them, I gather.

Michael said...

I could use further elaboration, in part because it happens to be a subject that interests me. Without knowing much about the movie, beyond the trailer and one critical review. I'm not sure how the film substitutes aesthetic for moral categories of evaluation, and, more difficulty, what you think the distinction between those categories are. (This is not to say you're wrong to think there are, but I could use more explanation.)

For instance, It seems intuitively clear that what we mean when we say an act is good morally is different that what we mean when we say a movie is good (putting aside non-formal qualities like ethical messages, for now). This is perhaps clearer in painting and non-narrative art than in movies and novels, (you wouldn't describe the Mona Lisa as having an ethics, for example, but you might for the Sistine Chapel) but that might be besides the point. So I would ask if you are talking about the use of the Holocaust here, say as a way of adding drama to a story that cheapens the historical reality, or something else?

And I'm a little rusty on my Critique of Pure Judgement, but might not the Sublime be helpful here (or is the movie too banal for that consideration)?

I. M. Flaud said...
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I. M. Flaud said...

I'm reminded of some remarks by Bernard Gert at the conclusion of “Morality: Its Nature and Justification”--they may be relevant:

Philosophical understanding … is not enough. People must come to care for all other persons. Yet it is extremely hard to come to care for all other persons if it is clear that they do not care for you. For the deprived citizens of a country it seems clear that other persons do not care for them. To show them that other persons do care, individuals and governments must actively seek to eliminate deprivation. It is also necessary for the natural compassion of humankind to be broadened and deepened. people must learn to care for those who are suffering, regardless of their country, race or religious beliefs. This is a task for art, literature and religion. They, and not philosophy, have the power to increase a person’s compassion and to widen its scope.

howie b said...

The further a catastrophe recedes into the deep past, the more it becomes a plaything of the imagination, saccharine or not.
Without watching the movie, Life is Beautiful, though possibly less offensive, was romantic comedy on the holocaust. The movie you saw, was probably somebody trying to say something moving about the so called human spirit, ( is that aesthetic or ethical?)
The context that mattered for that film was the context of a commercial audience, not of history.
Growing up in the eighties as a Jewish teen, the Holocaust was a scorched forest of sorts, and the wound was still raw and teens in my Jewish sleepaway camp invoked the memory of the holocaust as a weapon against the authority of the counselors and the jocks.
Was that ethical or aesthetic? Israel invokes the Holocaust gravely but perhaps is merely grave robbing. These are big questions but just as everybody had their own version of the Nazis (the British different from the Jewish and so on) so everybody has their own version of the Holocaust- and it is very easy to play games with truth, and history, with events so long gone where there is nothing visceral at stake-
It does seem obscene, and having fun with severe anguish and pain- so I'd probably agree with you

howie b said...

There's a Yale sociological theorist who's published an essay on the semiotics of the appropriation of the Holocaust- Jeffrey Alexander is his name.
He's the authority on the question you raised

Kate said...

This discussion is reminiscent of the discussion about the piece at the Whitney Biennial that just opened in New York, the one that features an image of Emmett Till. The controversy was described in the Times:

And there's a more detailed analysis here:


I. M. Flaud said...

Since the subject of cultural appropriation has been broached, in general, I believe in the right of the artist to determine the purview of their own work. Art may be critical of beliefs that an individual may hold about the world or about how others should behave. An exception: art intended to threaten the sense of well-being and worth of some targeted individual or group. I am against punching down artists.

s. wallerstein said...

Do you mean that you reject the substitution of aesthetic categories for moral categories even when the former are as "serious" as the latter or that you dislike movies which cheapen tragic experiences, in this case, the Holocaust?

For example, there are certain writers, for example, Jean Genet, who see the world in aesthetic terms rather than ethical terms: person X is beautiful even though they are a dangerous criminal. He's not talking just about physical beauty by the way. You'll find that in Nietzsche too: that he uses aesthetic categories rather than ethical ones at times to "take stock" of the world. That doesn't bother me at all.

However, movies or other media which cheapen or disney-fy reality turn me off completely.

Human Dynamics said...
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Human Dynamics said...

Professor this is done quite a lot the last two or three years. I have watched many American movies doing this... I don't really know, it's probably the most digestive way to feed people morality or make them lightly talk about moral issues.
I personally find it highly pretentious....and then again this is massive education...

Jason said...

I'm inclined to follow up on the Nietzsche reference. He says in The Birth of Tragedy that the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon - that is, because the experience of reality is all that we actually have, the only thing that can sensibly be valued is the quality of that experience. From this point of view, it seems that aesthetics and morality ought to collapse into each other. They're different ways of talking about the same thing.

Practically speaking, there are of course a variety of situations that we consider to be aesthetically laudable but morally harmful. Triumph of the Will, to take the obvious example, is a well-made film in the service of evil. But as Susan Sontag details in her essay on Leni Riefenstahl (, this isn't a mere coincidence. It isn't just that a talented director happened to film a Nazi rally, it's that Riefenstahl's entire artistic sensibility - that is, her aesthetics - is the same as that of the Nazis. This means, then, that fascism can be argued against substantively on aesthetic grounds, and that this is necessarily the case. Fascism can't be advanced through genuinely good aesthetics, because fascist morality entails fascist aesthetics.

While I hate to bring this back to Trump, I think you're too quick to claim that this discussion has nothing to do with him. Trump's most obvious faults are aesthetic: he's a boor, a bully, an ignoramus, a narcissist, and a coward. And criticizing him on these grounds is a perfectly good angle to take, because, not only are those things actually bad, but they are the source of his overtly immoral policies.

Also, aesthetic arguments seem to get through to people more than moral ones do. You'd think it would be the other way around - that morality would have the force of objectivity while aesthetics were just, like, your opinion, man - but when you convince someone of a moral proposition, they tend to accept it and then keep doing what they were doing anyway. But aesthetics actually change people's minds. When someone starts watching better movies, they find that the shallower films they used to enjoy don't do anything for them anymore.

So, to address your question, I don't feel that there's anything wrong in principle with addressing moral issues through aesthetics, it's just that you actually have to do a good job of it. The move you've described sounds to me, at an uninformed first approximation, like kitsch, which is bad aesthetics, which would mean that the argument it's making against fascism is a simplistic and ineffective one. Given the importance of the topic, this would certainly be offensive, like trying to seriously criticize Hitler on the grounds of his silly mustache. But there remains a real aesthetic argument to be made on the subject. The problem, of course, is that we're not so far away from fascist aesthetics ourselves. As Sontag says, we share such ideals as "the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders)." So as long as people actively value these things, and our art continues to reflect and promote them, I'm doubtful that purely moral arguments will be able to shoulder enough weight.

Jerry Fresia said...
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Jerry Fresia said...

Some thoughts:

1. I am a bit confused as to why you think aesthetic measures in this film have displaced and exploited moral categories of evaluation. The zookeeper and his wife are hiding Jews at "great risks to themselves." Are not these actions parallel to, say, those in Schindler's List? Perhaps the aesthetics in question were just plain schmaltzy in relation to the horrific backdrop and that is the problem.

2. Or this: it is just too personal for you given the tension between aesthetics, in this case, and the horrific setting. If, for example, the setting were the Vietnam war, the Nazi were, instead, an American invader, and the zoo keepers South Vietnamese hiding members of the Viet Cong, would you have had the same reaction?

3. It has been said that following the Holocaust and the Bomb that art ought to be angst-ridden. But then we would have to eliminate the major key; and there always seems to be horrific settings punctuating history. Where does Ode to Joy fit in?

Finally, two thoughts from Marcuse which may be related - but I'm not sure:

"In a situation where the miserable reality can be changed only through radical political praxis, the concern with aesthetics demands justification....However, this purely ideological conception of art is being questioned with increasing intensity. It seems that art as art expresses a truth, an experience, a necessity which, although not in the domain of radical praxis, are nevertheless essential components of revolution."


"The political potential of art lies only in its own aesthetic dimension. Its relation to praxis is inexorably indirect, mediated, and frustrating. The immediately political the work of art, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical, transcendent goals of change. In this sense, there may be more subversive potential in the poetry of Baudelaire and Rembaud than in the didactic plays of Brecht."

("Estrangement," here, is an interesting concept; but I'm not confident I know exactly how Marcuse is using it.)

s. wallerstein said...

Maybe the point is that the Holocaust or Hiroshima or the bombing of Viet Nam "shouldn't" be entertainment, not even sentimental or heart-warming or uplifting entertainment.

The Ode to Joy would be Nietzsche's life affirming art, thus not entertainment.

There's a difference between art and entertainment, but I can't specify it. Maybe we need Adorno (who I don't always understand) to help us.

Tom Cathcart said...

I haven't seen the movie, but Stephen Holden in the Times called it a Disney version of the Holocaust. I'm not sure that's related to your point, Bob, as he seems to be offended by substituting a *particular* set of aesthetic values.

formerly a wage slave said...

Of course, what you are saying makes sense. And a deeper level of analysis than you have provided is available. I find that the reviews at the Trotskyite site, WSWS, are the best thing they have at that site. I have had, for many years, tremendous pain when considering the sorts of thing which Hollywood doles out, and I have never reached the level of articulation which the subject would require. My education cannot keep up with the crap dished out to us via technology and technology-using arts.....Despite the doctrinaire nature of WSWS in general, often the arts reviews get beyond leftist crap. A recent essay that I found enlightening:
Offhand I think you may be confusing technical skills with art. Collingwood argued that this is a deep and pervasive confusion. I hear the confusion when friends try to tell me that advertisements are art. I say "No, the people making the stuff have genuine skills and some insights, but that alone doesn't make something art...."

Nick Pappas said...

I'm gripped by this example exactly because it's not one of those old examples about ethics and aesthetics like "Triumph of the Will." In that case the question is made to be: What do you do with something that has aesthetic value but is ethically repugnant? We're supposed to find morally reprehensible art a compelling philosophical problem. But that begs too many questions.

Your question is: What do you do with something that has (or purports to have, or would like to have) aesthetic value, and is ethically commendable, but fails for that reason -- fails precisely because it tries to add aesthetic value to a commendable act where the aesthetic value doesn't belong?

At least, I think that's your question. The other reason I am gripped by what you say is that you're starting with a strong reaction and not claiming to know what it's a reaction to.

If the problem is indeed the attempt to make the story aesthetically valuable, you may be responding to the mediocrity of the aesthetic value. Don't demean a crisis with nursery-rhyme aesthetics. (Do we not mind "Ring around the rosy" these days because bubonic plague is no longer a great threat to life?)

One objection people will make to your way of posing the question is that aesthetics can work in service to ethics. Plato was saying that in Book 3 of the Republic. You get young people to find virtue beautiful and vice ugly. He's not obviously wrong. Most adults have low tolerance for moralizing stories, but I don't see a problem with wholesome tales for children.

But maybe this gets us closer to what you hated about the film, not that it pursued aesthetic value alone, but that it offered an uplifting story about individual action against the backdrop of a catastrophe. Then what you might be saying is: "Don't offer me an inspiring tale of personal courage set during the Holocaust. If you want personal courage, tell the story during a small group's climb up a mountain." Is this the misuse of the Holocaust that seizes you?

Either way, I wonder whether you saw "Inglourious Basterds" (2009). That was a fantasy revenge movie about killing Nazis. Does it offend you in the same way? If not, is it because it's not based on a true story?

David Auerbach said...

Since I don't have a theory (well, an inkling of one perhaps) but I do have a typology, let's start there:
Zoo movie -- yuck
Life is beautiful--yuck
To Be or Not to Be-- great movie (Lubitsch version)
Schindler's List-- ?
Denial-- good
Son of Saul--?
and then there's a long list here:

LFC said...

A bit off the main topic here, but in the opening pages of his book Fire and Blood, Enzo Traverso remarks on what might seem, from a certain perspective, the oddity that Oskar Schindler is now much better remembered than, for instance, Misak Manouchian, a leftist French worker (of Armenian descent, I think) who a led a Resistance group and was executed, with some of his colleagues, by the Nazis. Part of Traverso's point, as I recall (without having the book in front of me), is how certain cultural mechanisms have preserved and popularized the stories of rescuers while downplaying the stories of those who engaged in armed resistance. (Which he links to a broader point that I won't try to paraphrase from memory.)

One exception to this, at least as far as movies go, is the film 'Anthropoid', which I happened to see last year, about the Czechs who assassinated Reynhard Heydrich and then, holed up in a church in Prague, fought to the death against the Nazis. The movie's merits in some respects might be debated (it includes a gruesome scene of torture that I couldn't watch), but it's not a Hollywood product and not a typical treatment of the period.

LFC said...

P.s. I find I remember 'Anthropoid' quite well, which suggests that it had a powerful impact (at least on this viewer).