Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Ethics of Artistic Hoaxes: Part II, the Sequel

"Anonymous" has posted an interesting comment on my post about "The Ethics of Artistic Hoaxes," and I thought I should put it, with my response, here. My response got too long to be a "comment," plus I ended up revising my position! Here is what Anonymous said:
Some thoughts on your very interesting post on "Bride Wigout."

I tend to think of hoaxes as generally suspect because they're unannounced deceptions and therefore liable to be taken the wrong way or to get out of hand. Think, for example, of Orson Wells' War of the Worlds.

The difference between hoaxes and art is that art is known to be art before we decide to avail ourselves of it. We pick up a novel or go to a play fully prepared to allow our imaginations to be led by the artist's controlled illusions. We want his fabrications to take us "away" and we freely and eagerly give ourselves up to them. A hoax, by contrast, is sprung on us unawares. We have no idea that it's coming, and its whole point is literally to assault us with something that seems entirely real. A hoax isn't revealed as a hoax until the "game" is played out, often scaring, insulting, or injuring its victim(s) in the process. An "artful" hoax, though often terribly convincing, isn't art in the same way that a novel or play is precisely because we are ignorant of the "art" until it is too late and we find ourselves the butt of a joke. Or worse.

If there were an ethically valid criticism of "Bride Wigout" (I say if there were) it might be, simply, that it was a hoax, morally suspect for that reason alone. Of course, anyone who accesses the internet, and especially Youtube, unprepared to be fooled is obviously ignorant of the medium. Besides being an echo chamber of rumors and misinformation, the internet is a screening room for every amateur in the world to try his hand at putting something over on a credulous public. The very first question almost anyone viewing this clip would ask himself is: "Is this real or fake?" The context tends to rob the would-be hoax of its deceptive force. For this reason alone, it seems to me, "Bride Wigout" is not a real hoax and is in no sense blameworthy. A true hoax slams its victim with the sensation that this is real and no mistake.

Can there be morally justified hoaxes; for example, to teach a malicious hoaxster a good lesson? Or is it always wrong to teach with a lie? And what about harmless hoaxes such as the old Alan Funt Candid Camera programs? I would suggest that the motive of the perpetrator has a lot to do with the moral status of the hoax, whether its malicious, thoughtless, or just for laughs. Also, the nature of the hoax itself, what we might call the seriousness of its matter, has an important bearing on its moral quality. Faking murder or suicide is always extremely bad. Finally, morally acceptable hoaxes tend to be carefully thought out and highly controlled, with a very high probability that the "victim(s)" will be as entertained as the perpetrator(s) once the hoax is revealed.

I'm not sure how much any of this disagrees with what you've said. Thanks again for your always-engaging blog.
Anonymous: Thanks for your thoughtful comment, whoever you are.

The one thing you say that comes closest to clashing directly with the position I've taken here is the suggestion that hoaxes are "morally suspect" as such. By "artistic hoax" (a term that unfortunately I failed to define explicitly) I meant an artistic work, depicting imaginary events, which work is presented in such a way as to implicitly claim that the fictional events are real. It's a novel presented as an autobiography, a fiction film presented as a documentary or home video, etc. What I was thinking was that since the deception is only about the fictional world, and not about the real world of the viewer, it can't possibly have the features that make a standard-case lie immoral. As I watched "Bride," I was decieved about everything that Jodi was doing, but since I had no possible contact with her, the deception had no more effect on my own control of my life than if I had not been deceived at all.

Unfortunately for me, your example, "War of the Worlds" broadcast of 1939, really is a counterexample to this view. As a matter of historical fact, I think the broadcast was not actually a hoax. Despite coy hints dropped by Welles in later life, the deception was accidental and unforseen. But if it had been deliberate, it would have been immoral by my standards: it would have been an attempt to feed people false information which they would forseeably use in managing their lives. Even if no one was physically injured in the ensuing panic, thousands were embarassed or humiliated by their hysterical behavior -- certainly a bad thing to subject thousands of innocent strangers to!

Of course it was also what I'm calling "an artistic hoax." The reason it can be both -- an artistic hoax and immoral -- is that in this case the fictional world of the artwork overlapped with the real world of the viewer. In the fictional world of the broadcast, vicious Martians invade planet Earth. Well, the audience happens to live on planet Earth. Thus the relation between the audience and the Martians in the show was completely different from my relation to Jodi as I watched "Bride". This is a situation I had not thought of when I was formulating the position I took in the earlier post.

So I guess what I should do is to carve out some suitably-defined exception to my claim that artistic hoaxes are per se not morally wrong: it doesn't apply to cases where the imaginary world in the artwork overlaps in this way with the real world of the audience. "Artistic immunity," as you might call it, is not defeated by just any overlap whatsoever. The fictional world of the artwork must overlap with the audience's world of things that are of practical concern to them (their world of what Ortega y Gasett called pragmata). As I watched "Bride," I thought that Jody had a real hair meltdown somewhere on Earth, the same planet I live on. However, although I was emotionally engaged with her, and thought that she lives somewhere on my planet, there was no way Jodi could be of any practical concern for me. Immunity is defeated in such cases because the overlap results in false information that make a forseeable difference to the audience's future choices.

I think this is ordinarily not what artistic hoaxes are like, which is why I think of this as a revision of my position, and not an ignominious retreat from it.

Anyway, way to go, Anonymous! (Love all those folksongs you wrote, too!)


Anonymous said...

I guess I do think that hoaxes are a subclass of lies and therefore morally suspect in exactly the same way that lies are. Just as a lie is always wrong unless justified by an excuse or explanation, so a hoax is always wrong in the absence of a justifying motive or context. Isn't this why we're now differentiating between types of hoaxes and hashing out the conditions under which a hoax might be deemed harmless? Acceptable behaviors by definition don't require excuses and qualifications; only suspect behaviors do. That's why I find something morally problematic about hoaxes as such. Of course, on this view, just as there are harmless lies, there are also harmless hoaxes; and just as a lie is still a lie despite its harmlessness, the same is true of a hoax.

Your distinction between immoral artistic hoaxes (which overlap with the real world) and innocent artistic hoaxes (which presumably don't) leaves me unconvinced. It seems to me that the hoaxes you find acceptable do in fact overlap with the real world in essentially the same way as the hoaxes you find unacceptable. To be sure, the content of the Jodi scenario has far fewer serious implications for our lives than the content of the Welles scenario. In her case, we witness a stranger who is suffering a nervous breakdown while at the same time being laughed at by her "friends." Our lives are not drastically altered by our witnessing this suffering and betrayal, and anyway we're helpless to do anything about it. In the Welles case, on the other hand, we experience nothing less than the imminent end of the world. We feel electrified by the impending threat and immediately impelled to descend to our cellars or run for the hills. Nevertheless, both scenarios -- to the successfully duped -- are real events in the real world. They differ only in the degree to which they impact our lives.

You wish to argue that the crucial difference between the two cases is one of kind rather than degree. In your words, "there is no way Jodi can be of any practical concern to me." But this, as you imply, is not the same as saying that she causes you no concern at all. In fact, you found the scenario to be deeply disturbing (at the same time -- shame on you? -- that you found it to be hilarious). But how is this apparently real event different from our encountering on the street an insane man in the act of frantically tearing out his hair? Perhaps we're not morally obligated to do anything for this unfortunate soul (we'll leave that argument for another time), but even if we are, we probably don't know practically what is required of us. We're not psychiatric nurses, after all, and we have no idea how dangerous the man might become if approached by solicitous strangers. The chances are, then, that we will hurry from the scene as fast as we can, and thus, following Nietzsche's advice, prevent our helpless compassion from increasing the overall amount of suffering in the world. In other words, we will classify the event as one of those distressing "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" experiences which we normally prefer to keep safely confined to works of fiction.

How, then, is the Jodi case any different? Given the assumption of a successful hoax, she's a real person in the act of disfiguring herself on her wedding day. Why isn't this as emotionally disturbing to us as the insane man tearing out his hair? Don't we wish to flee the scene of suffering so as to avoid being infected by it? Don't we wish to sigh "Ah humanity!" in her case too and restore our peace of mind? Finally, to return to the main question, is it quite right for anonymous third persons to toy with our real-world emotions in this way? (I'm assuming here for the sake of argument that the Youtube venue is not inherently ambiguous with regard to real and unreal, and therefore that it is not a kind of safe-house for emotions and attitudes that we normally wouldn't think of indulging in real life.)

Thank you for this very stimulating discussion, Lester. It was kind of you to "feature" my previous response.

P.S. I'm an old friend who's discovered a certain freedom in not being himself.

Anonymous said...

I need to correct a remark in my response to your second post on artistic hoaxes. In my second paragraph, first sentence I claimed that, on your view, morally immune hoaxes do not overlap with the real world. In fact, however, you clearly state that they do overlap, and you go on to specify how Jodi's case affected your real-life emotions. Excuse my carelessness on that point. For you, a hoax is morally blameworthy not because the audience experiences it as occurring in the real world (if it's a successful hoax, it can occur nowhere else), but because it "make[s] a foreseeable difference to the audience's future choices."

My criticism of your position is that it sets too narrow a standard for moral blameworthiness. By contrast, I would want to consider the difference a hoax makes to the quality of the audience's experience overall, regardless of whether it incites them to overt action. A clear case of an unacceptable hoax that doesn't obviously call for action would be a fake snuff video. Such a video makes no foreseeable difference to the normal conduct of my life (I don't have to take measures to prevent my own snuffing, for example), but it definitely represents an assault on my present spiritual condition. In general, to confront people with sham evil for no other purpose than to instill loathing and dismay is highly dubious behavior. I think you would agree.

I hardly need to remark that the Jodi clip is many degrees of moral turpitude below a staged snuffing. And a few degrees below her, we enter the morally indifferent realm of antics and entertainment. I hope this is clearer.

Permit me one thought on your idea of artistic hoaxes as such, i.e., of one genre masquerading as another. I'm having trouble imagining what would be gained artistically or in any other way by presenting, for example, a fictional autobiography as a true one. Personally, I would be shocked and disappointed to discover that Apsley Cherry-Garrard's "The Worst Journey in the World" was actually just a work of fiction and not a gripping memoir. I would lose all sense for Cherry's amazing bravery and endurance, as well as for his moral sensitivity and loyalty to his fellows. My world would grow poorer by the disappearance of one hero, and poorer still by the addition of one crank. If you get the time and have any further interest in this topic, can you give an example of an artistic hoax that would actually be an improvement over its honest artistic equivalent? I mean other than "Wigout".

Excuse me if I seem to keep coming after you like a Martian tripod that won't die. However, I have plenty of time on my hands and could certainly be doing worse than engaging your provocative questions. Thanks again.

Kali Fontecchio said...

You once taught at Otis!!!!???? Whoa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! In downtown la or near the airport? Otis moved in 1998, I think...

Lester Hunt said...


You raise a lot of interesting questions. Is a fake snuff video an example of a morally wrong hoax, where the immorality does not depend on feeding the audience false information that will then be used by them in a futile attempt to control their own lives?

Yes, but I don't think the fact that it is a hoax is part of what is morally wrong with it. Clearly, it would be worse if it were a real snuff film!

I guess the idea that the deceptiveness of the fake snuff film is part of the wrongness of it might involve something like the idea that entrapment in criminal investigations is wrong. That is, the idea would be that it is wrong to deceptively entice people to have thoughts and feelings that are evil. But is it the deceptiveness that makes it wrong, or just the enticing-to-evil by itself? Right now, I'd say the latter.

Can I think of other examples of art-works, besides "Bride," where some of the aesthetic value of it depends on its being a hoax? Well, they say that a lot of the home videos on Youtube are "fakes" ("hoax" is apparently not in the average American's vocabulary) but that would just be more examples of the same kind.

Given that people respond differently to a narrative they think is true than they do to one they think is fictional, this would surely be a resource that clever artists might draw upon.

Here is one near-example: The movie “Fargo” begins with these words appearing on screen: “The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.” This is apparently almost completely false. The best the Coen brothers have done to come up with a prototype real event was a man who killed his wife and tried to dispose of her in a wood chipper. But Joel Coen said in an interview (quoted on the DVD pamphlet) that if an audience thinks a story is true, they will allow you to do things that the would not otherwise tolerate.

Lester Hunt said...


Otis was downtown then. I remember it as a lovely art deco building fronting on a park. Too bad they had to move! This was ages ago. I was subbing for a philosophy teacher named Grahame Weinbren (who later became an installation artist).

Anonymous said...

A problem with what we've been discussing, it now occurs to me, is our unconscious tendency to switch back and forth between the two realities of the hoax as experienced by its victims. The first reality is the hoax in its undiscovered state, our dread and panic as the tripods march toward our town. The second reality is the hoax in its discovered state, our being relieved on the one hand while being pissed on the other (so to speak!).

I have tended to focus on the hoax in its undiscovered state, on what it does to us when we're under its influence and on the way it colors, or I should say discolors, our overall experience even after it's revealed. You have tended to focus on the hoax in its discovered state, when the whole thing is exposed as a kind of game, however innocent or mean, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief or laughs or writes to their congressman. It seems to me that when we're considering the ethical import of the hoax's first reality, we must be sure to enter into the victims' point of view and hold ourselves to it; we can't allow ourselves the luxury of also standing apart from it, ironically "in the know" about the unreality of what the victims are experiencing so literally and vividly.

You're right of course to point out that the snuff video would be much worse if the events it depicts are actual crimes. But the point which I keep returning to is that the deception, for as long as it's in force, does depict actual crimes as far as the audience is concerned. What we're witnessing are real events, and the impact of that assault remains real to our memories even if we're subsequently enlightened about the deception (it's conceivable that we won't be). Indeed, added to the impact of the hoax's images themselves is the further distress of realizing that some people actually delight in falsely communicating to their fellows the raw data of human evil, failure, and hopelessness. As I see it, both realities, once the hoax is exposed, sink down to that dark mass of demoralizing matter which accumulates at the bottom of our souls and imperceptibly makes us worse human beings.

Well, I think I must be repeating myself, and I've definitely got my heals dug in. I'll have to contemplate your very interesting "Fargo" example. How can I love that movie (as I do!), and talk like Immanuel Kant when it comes to a hoax as relatively tame as "Bride"? Can the difference in my response be explained by art alone? Why should a cinematic wood-chipping of a human body be any less demoralizing than the real thing? All interesting questions, to be sure.

Thanks so much for indulging me. I very much appreciate your insights and look forward to many equally challenging posts. Your blog is one of my favorite places to visit on the web; it actually gets me to think. But don't worry, I won't make a habit of hogging your time and space as I have done in this case.