On Alfie, Art and Morality
I recently watched the 1966 film Alfie with Michael Caine and Shelley Winters. Don’t bother with 2004 remake of this film—it’s a disaster that fails on every level. I love this film because I think it is one of those iconic works of cinema that beautifully captures the unsatisfied male aesthete in a modern capitalist world—it is a critique of the ultimately hollow existence of people who see life and other persons (and here you may also substitute whatever gender applies) as no more than a challenge to be subdued and conquered.
The point, and the only point is seduction. Seduction for the sake of seduction—or if you like power over others. Think of the kind of person held in high esteem in the financial world of Wall Street where taking advantage of war, disease, weapons of mass destruction and human suffering can be profitable: the more ruthless and amoral the trader, the better! As unpleasant as it may seem to a contemporary audience, Alfie underscores a certain truth about the predatory consumerist world, where desires are never satiated and goal is about using others merely as a means for advancing your own ends. In other words, what the film discloses is that Alfie in his callousness, emotional insecurity and immaturity becomes the ideal type of male in a capitalist world—a world where there is no call to be an ‘adult’ because it is quite fine to be a selfish, self-indulgent, narcissistic predator seeking nothing but the pleasures of seduction. The neoliberal deregulated capitalism of Milton Friedman wants us to all be like the insatiable Alfie.
Alfie has a certain affinity with the film version of Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (with a young Albert Finney playing the callous machinist Arthur Seaton). However, the latter is a rather more sympathetic character—in part because of his struggle to maintain a certain individual autonomy while caught up in a tedious, soul-destroying, repetitive job. His world is wholly defined through a rigid class-structure which is still very much in existence today. This is a class structure that demands conformity and uniformity, rule-followers and opportunists who take advantage of others in order to get ahead--but never far enough ahead to take the reins from those at the top. Anyone who has ever worked in a factory (or for Amazon or MacDonalds) will immediately grasp Arthur’s one commandment: “Don't let the bastards grind you down”!
I suppose it is tempting and perhaps even inevitable that we view art through the lens of contemporary moral standards and/or political correctness. The danger of doing so is that it often leads to a crass form censorship--one that ends up dismissing great works of art because they don’t fit with the prejudices (or forms of political correctness) of the present time. Think of the efforts to ban certain books—Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Lolita, 1984. Or again of banned films such as The Great Dictator, The Salt of the Earth, Pretty Baby, A Clockwork Orange , The Tin Drum, or Life of Brian.
Great films and texts, like all great art are not only creative and emotionally engaging, but often disquieting and even disturbing. There are, of course, many unapologetically didactic films and books (Thomas Hardy and the later works of Tolstoy being the most obvious). And many would say that the best art is not formed around present morals and should not be judged based upon them. Think here of Oscar Wilde's aestheticism when he writes the following in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey:
"The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things. The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can't be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely."
And yet sometimes admiring the beauty of a work of art is at the same time admiring just how prescient, subtle and thought-provoking its message is—even and perhaps especially when the message captures a political or social reality which we have yet to face up to. That is perhaps the moment at which a work of art moves beyond beauty to something like edification.
I am not a fan of banning books—at the same time, I do think it is possible to both appreciate and critically engage works of art for what they say, and what they refuse to say or even countenance.