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Lileks, the Sopranos, and Ethics in Art

Lileks today is, as always, worth reading. However, my opinion is that his lack of sleep has shown through for the first time for the few weeks that I've been reading his column. (Of course, as another writer father of a young girl, I can empathize.) He stayed up late watching the Sopranos:

About which I will continue to say nothing; I'm so far behind the curve that nothing I say about the show itself would be of use to anyone. But there was a letter in the WSJ the other day admonishing people for watching the show, because it lacks an ethical construct, and hence means we have been reduced to judging works solely on their aesthetic qualities.

This sort of bluenosed fatuity makes me weary, because it often comes from people who have never troubled to study just what it is they condemn. Never mind that the attraction of the show does come from the collision of different ethical systems - let's just say it lacks a moral compass altogether, because it uses the tools of art to explore a closed world of thugs, blood, family, power, and sex.

Myself, I haven't watched the show. I don't have any interest, so it really isn't worth the extra cost for cable. I could make the standard "Why do I need a show to offer me the softer side of the mafia" claims and all that, but I've got no experience with the content on which to base such statements. Suffice to say that mafia shows have ceased to interest me. Disregard of life. Religious hypocrisy. Perverted moral or honor codes (proving to not be moral or honor codes at all). Of course, growing up in northern New Jersey, I exaggerated how closely I'd come into contact with the mob (a few customers of a highway record store in which I worked and a few "associates" of fellow employees were about the closest of which I'm aware), but after a while, the movies served to de-romanticize the lifestyle, and frankly, it mildly disturbs me that many people find them to do the opposite. (Go out and make your own life interesting... in a good way, I say.)

But back to Lileks. The only reason I point out these paragraphs is that, based solely on what information he provides, I don't see that he contradicts the letter with which he disagrees. Isn't it possible, even likely, that the letter writer finds "lacks an ethical construct" to be the same as "lacking a moral compass"? Ethics are inherent in life, so it could be said of anything that ethical systems are "colliding" or something similar — heck, even evil content has ethics, albeit bad ethics. Lileks' point seems to me to restate the letter (as he's presented it) and then just disagree. If the "tools of art" are used to explore something unattractive with no moral compass, then truly we are judging based only on aesthetics.

I personally wouldn't take an accusatory tone against those who enjoy the show (I think I'd lose some friends if I did), but I think it's valid to ask what it is that's compelling. If it's the aesthetics, why not look for similar aesthetics with better content? If it's the content, perhaps one could ask, without being a fatuous bluenose, whether it's beneficial (even healthy) to revel in such material. This last point leads into the issue of a moral compass: if the show does indeed seek to humanize evil — or even just declines to suggest a lesson to the viewer — then what is the purpose of the "exploration"?

And if somebody who watches the show isn't interested in answering these questions, then it's just mindless diversion, which is fine if it truly does not have any other effect (another debate), but which has absolutely nothing to do with "artistic exploration."

Upon rereading, it looks as if our mutual fatherly fatigues may have intersected into misunderstanding. There may be some sarcasm that I didn't catch when "people who have never" quickly transitioned to "let's just say." I think the bulk of my point remains, however, and still don't think that the collision of ethical systems necessarily yields a moral compass (or perhaps it yields one that only points down). More importantly, if it is true that the bluenoses are wrong in their quick, uninformed dismissal of the show's morality, then it is also true that others are drastically misinterpreting it.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 12:10 PM EST