Ethics and the Interpretation of Art

Mar. 8, 2014
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Recently I found myself at the bus stop situated at the intersection of Humboldt and Locust. I was waiting for the 22 bus to UWM – or, more specifically, to Union Theatre – for a screening of Elaine May’s 1976 film “Mikey and Nicky.”

The film is a veritable vérité masterpiece, albeit one whose place in film history has suffered from a reception that, in turn, suffered from underpromotion. No doubt the distributor was embittered by the fact that the footage had to be litigiously pried from May’s perfectionist fingers. This was a year after its scheduled release and several million dollars over budget.

In May’s defense, the verity of cinéma vérité is not easy to capture. Patience and persistence are paramount, and measureless miles of film must be sacrificed to the celluloid gods in order to win the effortless naturalism of reality.

To do so, May elected for the marathon approach to filming. In lieu of the sprinter’s ethos – i.e. Action! Acting. Cut! – May’s camera rolled for sometimes hours at a time, giving Peter Falk and John Cassavetes (Mikey and Nicky, respectively) the space to linger and improvise instead of merely delivering lines. Two spectacular performances ensure, documenting a night in the lives of two mob-connected, childhood friends. Nicky has a contract out on his life. Mikey, under the guise of helping Nicky, is trying to assist the hitman by slowing Nicky’s fleeing town.

As I paced about the bus stop, teeth a-chatter, cursing the bus that sped by at least seven minutes before its scheduled stop, I noticed a lone a piece of graffito. The calligraphic lines resisted immediate comprehension, but soon revealed their message: Ethics.

Divorced from any interpretive context, the meaning of the work is unclear. The simplest explanation suggests that Ethics is simply the artist’s tag (her nom de plume or nom de guerre, depending on your sympathies). But this explanation really explains nothing. The question remains no less insistent: why Ethics?

The word is not cast as an imperative. That is, the artist is not explicitly requesting that we be more ethical. And even if she were, that hardly clears matters up. Supposing the graffito read, “Be ethical.” Then what? How? Should we try to maximize the total happiness of the world, as utilitarianism would have it? Or, read in a deontological register, are we then compelled to act in such a way that we can logically will that our maxim should become a universal law?

Point being: we have on our hands an unusually mysterious piece of visual art, which confounds our attempts to explain its existence.

But perhaps its existence is enough. Whatever its ‘message,’ in our encounter with Ethics we are unavoidably reminded of existence of ethics, of the fact that we are always making (more or less) rationally grounded claims concerning how we ought to act. Yet in spite of these claims, we find ourselves free to choose how we act and free to choose how we justify the way we have acted.

Given the serendipity of my experience, I couldn’t help but conclude that this reminder of the concrete reality of ethics may be understood as the ‘message’ of “Mikey and Nicky,” as well as why the vérité style is so appropriate. As with all great art, ambiguity is an essential ingredient. The artist doesn’t tell you what think, but by setting your interpretive faculties in motion, the artist subtly leads you to realize that your interpretation of the work is equally an interpretation of your way of viewing the world.

With the atmosphere of actuality, “Mikey and Nicky” abstains from all moralizing, opting instead to simply present a moral conundrum unfold into a fait accompli. As to what fait becomes accompli, well, you’ll just have to watch the film for yourself.


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