A real artist could never paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Only somebody dangerously naive or ignorant in the area of aesthetics could do such a thing. But no artist could, his or her sensitivity is too fine. The connection to the area of aesthetics is too deep and too personal for an artist to ever deface a masterpiece. To do that would be tantamount to self-violation. For this reason, too, artists are very much personally saddened whenever a beautiful work of art is defaced. For an artist, simply because he or she is an artist, there are certain taboos.

It is important to understand this, not just so that we are more sensitive to the value of art, but also because this principle has important parallels in other areas. Just as there are artists in the realm of aesthetics, so too there are artists in the area of morality. They too are unable to paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Likewise, they too are deeply and personally saddened whenever a certain beauty is violated and, like their artist cousins, they also live with certain taboos. 

One important reason that we need to understand this is because there are many hurtful misunderstandings about how we assess some people morally. What is at issue here is the seeming moral inhibitions and timidities that some people have and how this situation is often not honoured by others. Thus, for example, all of us know certain people (or perhaps you are one of those persons yourself) who, for all their lives, have, in certain moral areas, been timid, inhibited, afraid to make a serious mistake, unable to ever really let go or get drunk (in both the real and figurative sense of that term), or are unable to do all kinds of things that, seemingly, everyone else has no problem in doing.  

Too often we, their families and friends, judge and brand them as timid, uptight, frigid, and rigid. All too often too they are the object of both a certain ridicule (since in our society this kind of inhibition is seen as the opposite of freedom) and pity (“The poor thing, so uptight, unable to enjoy life!”)

Let me give you an example: A friend of mine fits this description: Married, the mother of two children, in her mid forties, she is seen by most everyone around her, including at times her husband and family, as morally uptight (“Our Mother Theresa!”). Looked at very superficially, she would seem to merit the title. Raised in a devout religious home, she has never, in any essential way, strayed from that path. Simply put, she has broken some minor rules here and there, but there has always been something inside of her that stopped her from ever breaking any of the major rules. And it hasn’t been through lack of opportunity. Opportunities for religious and sexual infidelity abounded. She has been tempted and yet never succumbed.

Why? Was it timidity or virtue that prevented her from acting out? Is she naive or full of wisdom? Is she to be pitied for being un-free or envied for living out her convictions?

In today’s moral and intellectual climate, most people understand her hesitancy negatively, namely, as a frigidity and lack of nerve. Few see her as truly adult in virtue. More commonly she is viewed as lacking nerve, as being uptight, as using religious and moral principle to rationalize a timidity and rigidity. Few persons, I suspect, have any appreciation whatever of her moral complexity, her struggle, and the cost of her fidelity. Fewer people still understand what lies at the deep root of her seeming inhibition.

What does? Timidity, lack of nerve, an incapacity to let go? Surely. But why? That’s the deeper question. I know her well enough to know that, in her case, the hesitation comes not from lack of nerve or opportunity. Virtue by conscription, by timidity, by naiveté? No, hers’ is the hesitation of the artist who will not, and existentially cannot paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa. She is a moral artist who cannot violate certain things in the moral order any more than an artist can take a crowbar to Michelangelo’s Pieta. She’s not morally timid. She’s morally sensitive. There is a difference.

Some years ago, Polish psychiatrist, Casmir Dabrowski, wrote a book which he entitled: Psychoneurosis Is Not An Illness. In rough, the thesis was that too often those of us who are not very sensitive are the reason why sensitive persons have to struggle so much in this world. Artists, whether in the aesthetic or the moral area, can vouch for this. And the rest of us? We might well want to check on just how often we have been painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.