Finding Morality Through Art


Two artistic expressions of melancholy, both alike in sincerity, if not stature or quality, will be the subject of this blog. One you will recognize from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the other one you will not recognize at all because I created it and it has been shown to very few people. The two are paired together because they are expressions of young men and their efforts to address the pains of existence within their personal circumstance. This is a continuation of the discussion of the last two posts regarding art.

Hamlet is probably twenty years old although some say he is thirty, but that makes no sense, he is written with behaviors of a student questioning life, not a full grown adult. Let’s not delve too deeply into the details of his anxiety; he is a Prince who’s father, the King was murdered while some hanky-panky was going on in the castle between his Mom and the king’s brother, his Uncle who conveniently became the new King. A ghost, his dead father, comes back and suggests avenging his death. This stress adds to Hamlet’s basic not-yet-an-adult angst. He is already a pensive lad and depressed when he gives the following monologue to his two friends:

I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

The second piece is a watercolor painting that’s been modified in Photoshop. I painted this the night in 1978 when I struck up enough courage to walk into my first gay bar. I got my self all dressed up and ready for action and walked straight through the door and sat down at the bar. The place was empty. It was only eight PM. Nobody was likely to show up until at least eleven. The bartender took pity on me and explained how things work in the gay bar scene. I went home, cried, got stoned and painted this self-portrait.BMA cover art

The original painting was less colorful. I jazzed it up on the computer so it can be used on the cover of my book. Years of stress, anxiety, frustration and soul-searching culminated in that brazen trip to the bar only to end in embarrassment and disappointment. This moment was the apex of my struggle. At least I got a painting out of it, such as it is. The title is “I Was Angry” in case you wouldn’t get that from the red eyes. The brows aren’t furrowed the way they would be if looking at some other person angrily. This is an internal, reflective anger focused on no one else. All the energy, conflict and determination through years of effort is churning inside. There is still a peaceful resoluteness in the face that shows a firm determination to succeed. The staunch pursed lips say, “I’ll win this battle”. Coming out of the closet will happen despite this set-back. Period.

So, in my last two posts “art” is assigned a moral and edifying quality. Can we see it in these two examples? Well, the most obvious lesson is that they both exult humanity. Perseverance, the human quality of getting up and doing it again after facing adversity is a major element in storytelling. When do people need that lesson? When they are depressed from having faced adversity themselves. The picture illuminates both anger and peace. The monologue illuminates both the strengths of mankind (is it sarcastic?) along with the harshness of foul and pestilent vapors, summing it as “a quintessence of dust.”  The terms of the discussion have been defined. The monologue could be taken out of context of the play and used to describe any person’s circumstance and so could the painting, making them universal expressions of mankind’s existential struggles.

The moral insight comes from observing humanity exalted through art. There may be no specific moral point of view stated in the piece, so we, the observers, are going to assign a moral value to make our encounter meaningful. Will it be the intended opinion of the artist? Who knows and who cares? The ways in which we interact with art are personal. It is designed to provoke questions and thereby provide an observer the opportunity to draw conclusions. The artist has certain questions in mind while creating the work but the audience always forms new questions and seeks to answer them all. That is a good thing.

Moral solutions are derived through the process of deliberation, which is a crucial element of having integrity. If one can say they honestly examined a choice from all sides, that it results in an opinion/conclusion, and are willing to back up that choice publicly with reasons, then they have integrity. Moral decisions require contemplation and time. Hamlet is deliberating his own moral dilemma when he speaks this monologue. He puts forward universal thoughts in an effort to solve his specific problem. By watching him experience this process we can discover something useful to help us with our problem.

A young adult or anyone for that matter may see something of value in the portrait or not. It may be found in the monologue, or not. A song on the radio, a book, a movie, a TV show, an opera, any and all modes of art have the potential to provide the insight required.

Suppose you choose to seek guidance from a priest or another dogma-based source, you are still culpable for your own actions. Following advice from a bible or religion doesn’t absolve you from your own actions. If you choose to do so, you should truly understand the reasoning behind the instruction from that authority. When you reason out a decision for yourself, you know why you have made the choice you have made. Following predetermined dogma because you ‘believe in it’ doesn’t give you the same insight or understanding. Following another person’s rule does not convey moral integrity.

Art is not a straight line toward understanding. It is a strange and wavering path that exposes vulnerability and encourages confusion. It asks you to think, deliberate and debate so you can form your own considered conclusions. Art is a catalyst which assists its audience with the option of making personal choices. If all art directed people toward forming the same conclusion, then it would be propaganda. Art does not do that, it has no dogma. Art removes the crudeness of reality and the inanity of dogma and frees your mind to explore all options.

So, what's on your mind?