This short essay will be an exploration of the ethics of art through the use of a handful of examples. The aim isn’t to draw a definite conclusion about art; a topic such as ethics is so humanistic and variable between different people it is almost impossible to determine the point when one thing becomes another. I have written this with the intent of deliberate provocation and moral ambiguity. The examples I have chosen are in no way the most controversial, but instead illustrate a few ways in which art can and will strike up controversy. The works by Ai Weiwei and Santiago Sierra address the controversy of creating art and the actions of the artist from two different perspectives, where as the work of Sonia Boyce is focused more on the dialogue between the public viewer and the artwork she focused her work around.
Art and suffering have often been lumped together due to todays over-idolized image of the “tortured artist”, who can only be inspired by their own dismay with life. But what happens when the artist inflicts suffering on others in their pursuit of creating something controversial? Santiago gave this description of one of his artworks, “Four prostitutes addicted to heroin were hired for the price of a shot of heroin to give their consent to be tattooed. Normally they charge 2,000 or 3,000 pesetas, between 15 and 17 dollars, for fellatio, while the price of a shot of heroin is around 12,000 pesetas, about 67 dollars.” 1. So obviously this is somewhat striking and Santiago came under fire from the art community for this work. However it could be argued that the women did indeed consent to the action. Also his inclusion of the comparison between the price of fellatio and what he paid them makes his request appear the lesser of two exploitable evils. The Counter to this argument would call into question the women’s mental state and their ability to form a logical conscious decision when they are in such a vulnerable state, due to their addiction and lack of support.
The work has been held up and compared to slavery due to its inherent exploitation. The comparison is easy to see: we have a comparatively wealthy individual that uses (abuses) his position in the pursuit of a product that he can gain from in the form of wealth, fame and notoriety. The women, however, are paid very little and due to their addiction the money they receive only works to prolongs their suffering.
On the reverse of this argument we can view the benefits of its own controversy. By engaging in an exploitative process with these individuals and documenting it, the artist allows the public to be confronted by these actions that they would otherwise be sheltered from. This draws the topics of exploitation, poverty and wealth all into focus. His involvement in the process allows an uncensored and personal aspect to the topic that is often missed by those who approach from a fund raising or help worker perspective. He involves the audience in the exploitation triggering the knee-jerk reaction of guilt and disgust. We then respond with feelings of abuse or exploitation because we didn’t ask for this confrontation of the subject matter so close to home and with direct violation of our own morals and ethics.
The diverging of ethics and morals between art and the public can be caused by the extended life span of an artwork. The subjects that were acceptable during the construction of the work may no longer have the same level of validity. The removal of “Hylas and the Nymphs” 2 is a strong representation of this sentiment. The story behind it removal is often overpowered by the out cry of censorship but was in fact part of a project by artist Sonia Boyce about who decides what is seen and not seen within the gallery space. The work allows a comparative perspective on the ever-changing public opinion over three different time periods: Ancient Greeks, Late nineteenth century and Present. Interesting though this might be, the controversy that was sparked by its removal was heavily weighted by ethics surrounding the depiction of pubescent scenes of seduction. This is not to say that sexual relations of this type were commonplace at the time of its creation in 1896, but that to depict them was less debatable especially when considering the mythology it is based on has the historical gravitas that it does.
So why would we allow an artwork that depicts a subject as immoral as pubescent scenes of seduction to remain on the walls of a gallery? And why would we celebrate its re-instalment? Well firstly we need to recognise the fact that morals have changed since the time of the Ancient Greeks, when the original mythology was established. At this point in time we saw the rise of the Agoge where Spartan men would train boys from the age of seven and seventeen in the act of war and would develop a physically romantic relationship with them. So one could speculate that their opinion on the age of consent would differ to our own.
Secondly the creating of such a piece of art doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist deems the act as permissible, nor does it mean that we should adopt the ethics of the Ancient Greeks. In the case of Waterhouse we need to understand the influences of the artist and the teachings of the era. During the nineteenth century the academic style of art was dominant and artists would look for influence from the grand masters and traditional subject matters such as the Ancient Greeks and history. Due to the fact that the Ancient Greeks have such a strong hold in the academic system and have been viewed with rose tinted eyes has allowed their deplorable acts to be immortalized in beautiful depictions. A great example would be “ The Rape of Proserpina” 3. by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Would the depiction of rape be labeled as beautiful or mesmerizing if it didn’t have the validity of the academics and Greek Mythos to fall back on?
When we remove the academic support from “Hylas and the Nymphs”then what do we have left? The art becomes a visual documentation of history that is interpreted by the artist. You wouldn’t censor a historical text because you disagree with it – or at least you shouldn’t. So why would an image of the same origin be treated differently? The short answer is that you couldn’t, an image on the wall has the same substance as the image one creates from the words on the page.
So if we wouldn’t censor history then how would one feel about removing it all together? Ai Weiwei explores this concept in his work “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”4., this work had a polarizing effect sparking conflicting opinions between those for and against its message and creation. Is it ethical to destroy so as to create, or is destruction inherently bad? The guardian ran a story where they reported, “An attack on the Chinese artist’s installation in Miami has been condemned as an act of vandalism. Why is smashing art only acceptable if an acclaimed global artist does it?”5.. Well firstly we can begin to approach the issue from a more analytical perspective rather than a comparative one. What makes it okay to destroy history or premade art? If we remove the meaning behind the artwork then obviously Ai Weiwei is partaking in the act of vandalism and senseless violence, similarly if you remove the motive between soldiers from opposite sides of the conflict, the act is no longer permissible because it has no greater meaning. This is similar with Ai Weiwei and his work; he relies on the validation of his statement to have more value then the object itself. The issue arises with the value system of the different people who observe the work, some may value the historical importance of the vase more that the political statement made by breaking it. His necessity for a heavy blow to the Chinese public can somewhat justify the act through the use of it as “shock tactics”. By breaking the vase he holds up a finger to the value system of China and it traditional imperial values. The work would not have held water if it was less committed, he needed a object that was recognised as valuable and personal to the Chinese public, otherwise the work would have been meek and feeble. One could argue that in the destruction of the vase Ai Weiwei insulted the original artisan who created it, this is true but also is a minor issue of empathy that would affect some and not others.
“I think the job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget” Arther Miller.
In the case of Ai Weiwei this may mean to remind the public of their voice and power against the state.
For Sonia Boyce it may be that she wants people to have influence and opinion within the gallery but also allowed for an interesting what if? What if we swapped the painting of a modern-day equivalent that neglects the prestige of the Ancient Greeks, subtlety questioning the validity of the art within the gallery.
With Santiago Seirra it is to highlight the exploitive and unfair society that we are involved with.
I think artists can often produce great volumes of controversy where they assume the role of the protagonist. This can often come at the price of sacrificing their ethical standpoint or beliefs so as to allow themselves the freedom to highlight the short-coming of society: self-sacrifice of the artist is what allows them to enter the martyrdom for new beliefs and original ways of thinking.
1. 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain, Santiago Sierra, December 2000.
2. Hylas and the Nymphs, oil painting by John William Waterhouse, 1896.
3. The Rape of Proserpina: A large Baroque marble sculptural group by Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, executed between 1621 and 1622.
4. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Ai Weiwei, 1995.
5. Who’s the vandal: Ai Weiwei or the man who smashed his Han urn?, Jonathan Jones, 18th Feb 2014.
Tate. (2019). ‘160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000’, Santiago Sierra, 2000 | Tate. [online] Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sierra-160-cm-line-tattooed-on-4-people-el-gallo-arte-contemporaneo-salamanca-spain-t11852 [Accessed 20 Apr. 2019].
Jones, J. (2019). Who’s the vandal: Ai Weiwei or the man who smashed his Han urn?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/feb/18/ai-weiwei-han-urn-smash-miami-art [Accessed 20 Apr. 2019].
Natasha Mayers. (2019). Robert Shetterly: “The Obligations of Artists” convocation talk at USM-Lewiston-Auburn. [online] Available at: https://natashamayers.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/robert-shetterly-the-obligations-of-artists-convocation-talk-at-usm-lewiston-auburn/ [Accessed 1 Jun. 2019].