Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama
Michael Salcman writes in his recent blog post...The Hudson River School painters were among the last artists to believe that art should be good for you; according to Robert Hughes, they suffered from the fallacy of "moral uplift".
I read this article recently and being a lover of the Hudson River School and a painter of poetic, spiritual landscapes meant to uplift viewers I took exception to this idea. Hughes makes quite a sweeping statement when he declares that the idea that art is morally uplifting is a fallacy. I'm not sure how you could even prove that statement, particularly in the face of 5,000 years of art making, with the bulk of that art, secular,Christian and from various other religions, traditions and philosophies having the expressed purpose and intent of uplifting people and indeed people across the ages and continents confirming, in their own words, that they have been uplifted, morally and otherwise, by art. I'm not arguing that all art is intended to "morally uplifting" or that all art does have a "morally uplifting" effect but simply that a great deal of art does in fact intend to uplift and has in fact uplifted people and that scenario didn't stop with the Hudson River School painters.
Personally, I think Hughes is suffering from a case of post-modern elitism and is casting a condescending glance down upon, in his view, the unsophisticated (including artists) who ignorantly cling to the antiquated idea of 1.) morality itself and 2.) the desire to be encouraged, inspired and uplifted in a moral sense. Poor Mr. Hughes, I suspect he doesn't get out very much from his ivory, post -modern, high rise tower. Authentic living, abundant life and the joy of humanity is found in the hearts and souls of those whose moral compass is functioning and who humbly and hungrily accept "moral uplift" whether it's found in art, nature, or religion.
I would also argue that there are a great many painters alive and working today who consider it a great privilege and their life's work to communicate a message through their art, either subtle or direct, that is morally uplifting. We may quibble a bit over what exactly morality means but even if we stick to the very broad and basic definition, such as concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong we can find many artists who desire to stir in their viewers a sense of what is good and right and give them an experience that will uplift and enrich them. A respect and concern for the environment and wildlife, a sense of gratitude, a sense of our common humanity, an appreciation of beauty, are all common themes that have "moral uplift" and the list goes on and on.
Emerson, in his 1841 essay, THOUGHTS ON ART, wrote that painting should become a vehicle through which the universal mind could reach the mind of mankind, the Hudson River painters believed art to be an agent of moral and spiritual transformation. I heartily agree, and I reject Hughes' notion that no artists since the Hudson River School painters have believed that or made it their goal.
Food for Thought
I've handled colour as a man should behave. You may conclude that I consider ethics and aesthetics as one. ~Josef Albers
For thousands of years art was seen as a source of responsible moral and ethical leadership. ~Jack Beal
In a world that has ceased to believe in sin, the artist is responsible for the preaching. ~Albert Camus
Everything in creation has its appointed painter or poet and remains in bondage like the princess in the fairy tale 'til its appropriate liberator comes to set it free. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson