Is Art above Ethics?

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There I was, privy to one of the great struggles of the modern age. The arena was my TV set, and in it were not Reagan and Gorbachev, nor Chrysler and the UAW, but two unlikely combatants: Susan Baker, wife of the treasury secretary, wearing a choker of pearls, a dark dress, and her hair swept into a bun; and her opposition, rock star Dee Snider, attired in leather, with kinky brown, black, and blond hair cascading down his back.

Before packed congressional committee hearings, Baker spoke for a group of Washington mothers alarmed about rock lyrics that promote obscenity, violence, drugs, and the occult.

Snider testified as a performer alarmed about censorship; he was followed by others invoking that hallowed American privilege, the First Amendment. “It’s really an issue of rights,” one rock star sniffed. “As an artist, I have a right to self-expression.”

It may be unpopular to say this nowadays, but the First Amendment is not a blank check. As Justice Holmes wrote, the right of free speech does not extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Nor, I submit, does it extend to unrestricted license for the rock industry to pump sewage into the minds of young people.

But artists’ rights and consumer censorship are merely surface issues. This controversy raises deeper questions.

For instance, what is art, anyway? And what does its role in our society tell us about how we value human dignity and the worth of the individual?

Historically, art has been man’s creative effort to explore, ennoble, and transcend his human experience. Classically, it was created within a context that assumed the objective nature of beauty. Certain absolutes were accepted not only for man, morality, and the universe, but also for the art that mirrored them. ...

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