Laura D’Olimpio

Senior Lecturer School of Philosophy and Theology @ University of Notre Dame Australia

When Good Art is Bad: Examining the Moral Value of Narrative Artworks


“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), preface.

Wilde is known for arguing that there is no such thing as a good or bad book, rather, books are well or badly written. Yet Wilde’s books contain moral messages that are almost impossible for the reader to ignore and, despite his explicit comments, it is absolutely false that Wilde was an aestheticist. He took the line of the aesthete in order to publish moral sentiments and avoid censorship or rebuke. It can be argued that Wilde is an ethicist as his works are concerned with the ethical in such a way that makes it impossible to suppose that the values of art and morality can be divorced. It is the moral message of Dorian Gray that largely contributed to making it a great work; and Wilde knew this to be the case. I claim that if it is an intrinsic part of the work, the moral message of the artwork necessarily counts towards its overall value. This may work in its favour or against it, the latter being exemplified by Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi Propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, which is widely acknowledged to be an aesthetic triumph while being morally repugnant. Inspired by the approach of contemporary Aristotelian Virtue Ethicist Martha Nussbaum, I argue that narrative art must be interpreted contextually within society as the creative products of social, political, and moral humans. While there are many different stories being told in contemporary culture, the focus on the critical thinker, the interpreter of the narrative, is vital.


Dr Laura D’Olimpio is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at The University of Notre Dame Australia. Laura completed her PhD ‘The Moral Possibilities of Mass Art’ at The University of Western Australia. Her Thesis examines the moral impact of mass artworks, particularly film, in society. Laura has published in the areas of philosophical pedagogy, aesthetics and ethics and is a regular contributor to The Conversation and Radio National’s Philosopher’s Zone. Laura is Chairperson of the Association for Philosophy in Schools (APIS, Inc., W.A.) and co-editor of the open access Journal of Philosophy in Schools.