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‘Triumph of the Will’ and incompatible values

August 22, 2008, 12:01 am

Leni Riefenstahl was born on August 22nd, 1902.

Her artistic career began in dance, but, after a knee injury, she turned to film, starring in a number of silent pictures before her directorial debut, Das Blaue Licht. Her real artistic breakthrough, of course, was Triumph of the Will, a documentary about the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremburg. (Though “documentary” is perhaps inapt–the rally itself was planned with the film in mind, so the two seemed to have a symbiotic relationship.)

But, hey, you can read the wiki page yourself.

What interests me about “Triumph of the Will”– a film I’ve never seen– is that, at least on the surface, it looks like a case of a work of art that has aesthetic value while being morally bad. So it comes up a lot in conversations about the relationship between those sorts of values.

You might endorse that evaluation: you might say it’s aesthetically but not morally valuable. If so, there are incompatible values here. Presumably being a morally ideal person will involve reacting with horror and revulsion at a celebration of the Nazi party.* Being an ideal aesthetic judge means being a less-than-ideal moral judge, because fully appreciating the aesthetic value means not reacting with horror.

(Balthus is another artist who comes up in these debates. Here‘s something you don’t want to be caught looking at– Guitar Lesson.)

The same issue comes up with questions about offensive-but-funny jokes. Want to generate examples? Think of a kind of value, then imagine a case where it might be morally wrong to enjoy it.

Aristotle has this cute argument early in the NE where he says, more or less, that the virtuous person would judge things a certain way, therefore that’s the truth of the matter, because the ideally virtuous agents are the best judges. I like this because of two interrelated thoughts. First, the ambiguity of “best” in this context– do the virtuous agents have the morally best responses, the comedically best responses, or…? (Aristotle of course thinks there’s no conflict, but we should be skeptical of this claim.) Second, the argument draws our attention to the danger of conflating different sorts of reasons. There might be moral reasons to feel horror, aesthetic reasons to feel awe, in response to “Triumph.” (An analogy I’m tired of making: this is like pragmatic vs. epistemic reasons to believe in Pascal’s Wager, or pragmatic vs. something-like-epistemic reasons to intend in the toxin puzzle.)

Anyway, I have no ax to grind in the area, but I think it’s a neat issue. Two good things to read: Susan Sontag’s essay “Fascinating Fascism” and Dan Jacobson’s long but rewarding paper on immoral art. (PDF.)

Leni Riefenstahl, one of the few things not younger than John McCain, passed away on September 8, 2003.

*Don’t be dumb, be a smartie.

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