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Ian Stoner (Saint Paul College), "Dealbreakers and the Work of Immoral Artists"
Journal of the American Philosophical Association, FirstView
How I came to write “Dealbreakers and the Work of Immoral Artists,” or, Two Strands Twisted Into a Thread
By Ian Stoner
Strand: of aesthetic access to horror’s pleasures
For a few years around the turn of the millennium my social circle turned geeky about horror films. I was happy to go along for the ride. I’d always casually enjoyed horror, and the pressure to turn that affection into a deep dive won me glimpses of the dying days of the indie video store, taught me lessons in competently viewing films produced by and for cultures other than my own, and introduced me to a then-thriving internet ecosystem of horror blogs, message boards, and review archives.
Back then, it was a point of etiquette on the horror boards that writers flagged films that include depictions of rape, or the deaths of animals, or the deaths of children. I appreciated these proto trigger warnings because one of the members of my slasher circle couldn’t handle rape scenes, and I could not then (and still cannot) handle animal killing scenes.
The experience of stumbling on a scene that depicts the killing of a pet feels different than the experience of stumbling on features that I dislike in a more familiar sense. I’m disposed, for example, to dislike ghost stories and if a movie veers unexpectedly in that direction I am usually disappointed. I can still appreciate the merits of a good ghost flick—they can be beautifully photographed, cleverly plotted, well acted, etc—but wouldn’t it be scarier to watch a movie about a threat better grounded in reality? A murder doll, perhaps, or a prehistoric piranha.
The experience of stumbling on a pet-death scene is different. Pet-death scenes force me out of the aesthetic experience entirely. They leave me unable to access the film in the way the filmmaker intended because they force my attention into the grim cul-de-sac of recalling or imagining the deaths of my own pets. Instead of experiencing a movie, I find myself feeling bad in a noisy, flickering room.
This is what it is like to have a dealbreaker for a work of art. A dealbreaking aversion to an aspect of a work preempts aesthetic engagement with the work as a whole. A dealbreaker doesn’t attenuate access to an aesthetic experience; a dealbreaker slams closed the door.
I find dealbreakers fascinating for a few reasons. First, they are something close to a universal experience. Nearly everyone seems to have at least one dealbreaker, some of them intriguingly idiosyncratic. I have met people with dealbreaking aversions to depictions of broken bones, to depictions of pregnancy, to the utterance of a specific ableist slur, and to the rapid-fire hi-hat triplets popularized by trap music. These are all things that preempt, for some people, the possibility of aesthetic embrace. That’s interesting.
Second, some dealbreakers are appropriate targets of moral evaluation. Think, for example, of the agonized cries that erupted from alt-right twitter in response to the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” Some of those tweets were political posturing or vice-signaling, but some sad young men seemed sincere in their use of the language of dealbreakers; they lamented that Disney had denied them access to the film, because the very notion of a Black Ariel forced them out of the film experience. That dealbreaker, born of bigotry, is a dealbreaker they should not have. And the fact that there exist dealbreakers people should not have makes dealbreakers an exceptionally clear case of a psychological response to an artwork that can be morally wrong. That’s definitely interesting.
And perhaps most interesting of all: at the intersection of ethics and aesthetics, dealbreakers loiter in nearly every shadow…
Strand: of two celebrities I have never met
Junior high is a barbaric time for most and it was a barbaric time for me. In the summer of 1989 my family moved to a new state, and I began 7th grade as a stranger in a strange school; cliquish tweens knew me not, and to know not is to care not for. During that year of near-total social isolation, pop music was a lifeline. Without Depeche Mode, The Cure, and The Smiths, I’m not sure how I’d have survived.
The Smiths’ frontman is Steven Patrick Morrissey, a handsome devil, a gifted lyricist, and—so we now know—a xenophobe. I regret that last bit. These days I cringe when I see Morrissey’s name in my news feed, because odds are it’s news of some fresh right-wing gesture or racist statement. But regrets aside, I still listen to the Smiths and their music brings me much of the same joy it brought me 30 years ago.
Enter another celebrity I have never met: Wil Wheaton, the writer, tabletop gamer, and member of the bridge crew of the USS Enterprise-D. I’ve followed Wheaton’s blog for many years, and I felt it in my bones when he wrote this:
I don't listen to The Smiths anymore. After Morrissey turned into… what would we even call him, now? He’s such a dick. I can’t stand to hear his voice any more. [...] It's a giant bummer. And The Smiths was SUCH a signiﬁcant and meaningful part of my life, I can’t just look past him and separate the art from the artist. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Wheaton is pretty clearly describing a dealbreaking aversion to Morrissey’s voice. His knowledge of Morrissey’s xenophobia has, for Wheaton, slammed closed the door to the aesthetically positive features that used to draw him to the Smiths.
I worry: should I have a dealbreaker for the Smiths? Is this one of those cases where a dealbreaker is an appropriate target of moral evaluation, and I am failing that evaluation? Is Wil Wheaton a better person than I am?
“Dealbreakers and the Work of Immoral Artists” (pre-print) twists these two strands into a paper. In it, I characterize dealbreakers in some detail and argue that there is no general moral obligation to cultivate or eliminate a dealbreaking aversion to the work of immoral artists. I hope you’ll read it for two reasons.
First, once introduced to the concept of a dealbreaker, I’m willing to bet you’ll find them relevant to many questions at the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. Like new vocabulary words, you’ll see them everywhere you look.
Second, I’m willing to bet that you know of someone with a dealbreaker for the work of an immoral artist whose work you still enjoy. You have your own Wil Wheaton. My paper supplies you with an argument that your Wil Wheaton is, in this narrow respect, merely different from you and not your moral better.
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