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Should we want Art to be Transgressing Moral Norms?


Rogier P.C. van Bemmel

About Rogier P.C.
Mphil-candidate at the VU University Amsterdam.
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This paper offers a discussion about several aspects of the question whether transgressional art can be good or not. According to conservatives like Roger Scruton, many forms of contemporary art are bad, because they transgress moral values. According to L. Hutcheon, Postmodernism – the most recent transgressional movement – denies the existence of static values, and takes as a new authority the human consciousness that is to be triggered by ironic art. Postmodernism therewith creates room for a debate about the changeability of these norms. To know whether artistic transgression can be good, we must therefore investigate whether moral norms change with historical epochs or not. Habermas – referring to a steadily developing reason – thinks they do not and argues that transgressions can primarily be useful to break open irrational processes, but should not be exaggerated. Man, according to him, is fundamentally rational and will steadily develop insight in matters of right and wrong over time. Making use of Fichte\'s thought, P. Koslowski argues against Habermas that man cannot access the absolute quite enough to be able to judge the value of transgressions. The only thing man can do is to open himself to the absolute in order to make room for the working of the absolute, which is itself not rational, but appears through rationality and possibly differently throughout multiple epochs. The essay is concluded by two hopeful observations. In the first place, moral norms can never be wiped out by transgressions altogether, because transgressions depend upon these norms themselves. According to Hutcheon, norms are produced by man, and therefore they can only be completely lost if man loses the energy to shape his moral landscape. Secondly, a lot is to be expected from the investigation of the reason why reason cannot access the absolute. Such an investigation would open a new level of discussion that is more fundamental than that of Habermas and Koslowski, and possibly will produce criteria to judge transgressive art – criteria that are not found in the discussion this essay focused on.
How to Cite: van Bemmel, R.P.C., 2009. Should we want Art to be Transgressing Moral Norms?. Amsterdam Law Forum, 2(1), pp.169–184. DOI:
Published on 14 Dec 2009.
Peer Reviewed


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