Flaubert does no less than assert — an assertion the more trenchant for being wholly a matter of mountainous technical labour, of professional métier carried to the verge of personal breakdown — that artistic excellence, the high seriousness of the true artist, carries its own complete moral justification. Even as it comes to active being in a sphere strangely between truth and falsehood, the work of art lies outside any code of current ethical convention. It acts on that code, qualifying and re-shaping it towards a more catholic response to human diversity. But it lies outside, and its true morality is internal. The justification of a work of literature is, in the deep sense, technical; it resides in the wealth, difficulty, evocative force of the medium. Trashy prose, be it humanely purposive and moral in the utmost, merits censorship; because its executive means are inferior, because the way in which the thing is done diminishes the reach of the reader’s sensibility, because it substitutes the lie of simplification for the exigent intricacy of human fact. Serious fiction and serious poetry cannot be immoral whatever their force of sexual suggestion or savagery of communicated image. Seriousness —a quality demonstrable solely in terms of the fabric itself, of the resources of metaphor drawn upon, of the arduousness and originality of linguistic statement achieved — is the guarantor of relevant morality. Seriously expressed, no ‘content’ can deprave a mind serious in response. Whatever enriches the adult imagination, whatever complicates consciousness and thus corrodes the clichés of daily reflex, is a high moral act. Art is privileged, indeed obliged, to perform this act; it is the live current which splinters and regroups the frozen units of conventional feeling. That — not some modish pose of abdication, of otherworldliness — is the core of l’art pour l’art. This morality of ‘enacted form’ is the centre and justification of Madame Bovary.
George Steiner, «Eros and Idiom», en On Difficulty and Other Essays