I find it very difficult to think of a coherent way to ascribe morals to an inanimate object or concept or action. There are certain pieces of art that we say are immoral, but is that what we actually mean, or is it just shorthand for a different idea?
This is a great post. I don't have much of anything to add directly to it, but I just wanted to appreciate it.
I think another wrinkle we can add into this question is what happens when some people think a piece of art is morally objectionable while others don't share that particular belief?
One extreme example might be CleanFlix, the Christian video rental company that edits Hollywood movies to take out the sex and swearing and stuff. Clearly they find that content morally objectionable. But I don't, and I'd guess nobody here does either. So what happens? Does anything change, should anything change? Are we a bunch of sinners for enjoying the unedited movies?
Because I'm a bad boy and I don't follow rules, I'm gonna talk about mother!. My professor studies horror movies and wrote this really great review of mother!.
She hated it. She thought that there was no criticism in the film of the way that the Mother character is treated or responds to her situation. She did not see any meaningful ideas about the necessitity of that sacrifice and she saw the cyclical nature of the film as a declaration of that necessity. I get it. Based on what she responded to in the movie, it's a pretty misogynist hunk of garbage.
I saw the movie shortly after she wrote that. I loved it and wrote a pretty long review where I talked about why I specifically thought that there was a critical component to what was being portrayed in the film. I believe that the criticism lies in the Christian allegory that the whole movie is wrapped around. Scholars have written endlessly about how misogynist (and racist and...) certain stories in the Bible are. We know that the story of Adam and Eve has been a large part of the basis for (some, many?) Christians' beliefs about a women's place in the world and in marriage. We get an Adam and Eve here, and we get Mother being criticized for not playing her role of wife/potential mother correctly by both. But audiences know that they're wrong, basically, and so we know that their demands upon Mother are wrong, and so we start to call into question all the things that happen to her.
So for me, Mother is a movie about how a patriarchal religion can CINECAST! up pretty much everything in the world. People don't listen to Mother (the sink!), people take over her space, people take her newborn baby and CINECAST!ing eat it. Bardem's Him isn't blameless in this. Indeed, everything bad comes from him.
So. I see it as a feminist criticism of the influence of patriarchal religions and she sees it as a misogynist piece of trash. I read her review and could see her points, she read my review and said the same to me. Who's right? Is she obligated to like it because of what I say it does? Am I obligated to hate it because of what she says it does? Or do we both continue to have our opinions, perhaps even bolstered by our conversation and grappling with opposing viewpoints. Do we hate each other? No. In fact, I respect her even more now because I see just how strongly she felt about a movie she thought was pretty messed up. I also appreciate that she (seemingly) hasn't declared me a misogynist for liking the movie. She can see where I'm coming from, she understands that art means different things to different people.
So whenever a piece of art is getting morally based criticism I take it very seriously. I try my best to see what the person objecting to it is seeing and criticizing. If I find their arguments compelling, I will very likely change my point of view on it. This happened with Mindhunter because of OAD's complaints about how offputtingly male it was--how it treated the women in the show and how unquestioning it was of the sexual criminals it was portraying. I reconsidered my take on it (Zodiac-lite, basically) and began to agree more with her. I think there's more to the women than she saw (she basically didn't get to the major female role that comes in about halfway through), but I get the point about the other stuff, and the women are still not great characters either way.
Sometimes, though, I won't change my mind. mother! is one such example and I'm still not sure where I fall on 3 Billboards. Some people think mother! is about how crappy women have to be treated for men to create art, some people think 3 Billboards is about how even violent racists can be forgiven pretty easily. All we can do as individuals is express what we think a movie is doing or saying and the rest is up to everybody else to figure out. If I think a piece of art is morally objectionable, I'll say so (It Comes at Night is disturbingly xenophobic, I think, and it feels like The Fate of the Furious features a female villain just so she can use sex as a weapon and to give the good woman character an excuse to call her a "bitch"). But I don't think I'm the final arbiter on things like that. I think my role is to express how I understand the world and the art made within it. I don't pretend to be perfect, but I do hope that I'm true to myself and my experiences so that they can help others understand themselves and their experiences better.