When good art is bad: Educating the critical viewer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is a debate within philosophy of literature as to whether narrative artworks should be judged morally, for their ethical value, meaning and impact. On one side you have the aesthetes, defenders of aestheticism, who deny the ethical value of an artwork can be taken into consideration when judging the work’s overall aesthetic value. Richard Posner backs artists such as Oscar Wilde who famously wrote, ‘there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all’. On the other side of the debate are proponents of ethical criticism such as Martha Nussbaum, Wayne Booth, Noël Carroll and Mary Devereaux. This article examines the educational implications of each position and ultimately defends the importance of moral education alongside aesthetic education. Given artworks are powerful vehicles for moral sentiments and meaning, it is important that viewers are taught to engage critically with art’s ethical features as well as aesthetic features. In this way, educational concerns pose a challenge to the position of aestheticism.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-150
Number of pages14
JournalTheory and Research in Education
Issue number2
Early online date11 Aug 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 Aug 2020


  • Aestheticism, arts education, critical engagement, ethics, moral education

ASJC Scopus subject areas