Ethics and Art

We all know ethics (which is a system of moral principles) constantly guides our lives and decision-making. In the art world, there’s a definite relationship between ethics and artwork, no matter if the artist is purposely ethical or not. Even if today we have our own personal beliefs, there’s an ethical line that artists should not cross and are responsible to not do so. Because of the popular belief in society, in which artists should have the freedom to express any ideas or arguments regardless of their religion, gender, or race, this leads to a lot of controversial pieces displayed in public art exhibits. Specifically, when artists create a piece with ethnical intentions, it bridges a link between the creator and the viewer. That’s why some creations might be sensitive to some viewers versus others. However, the choices we make can sometimes be mixed up, ending up blurring the line of the ethnical boundary. Because of the freedom granted to artists and no solid “code of ethics”, it leads to art being highly personal or biased and pushing boundaries that are against people’s cultural backgrounds and moral values.

Capture of the dog in Guillermo Vargas’s Exposicion №1 — Source: Arthur Digital Museum

In Guillermo Vargas’s Exposicion №1, he tied a sickly-looking street dog to a metal cable by a wall and on the wall, it said, “Eres lo que lees,” meaning “You are what you read” written in dog food. Since there was a rumor that Vargas was starving the poor dog to death and mocking it with the unreachable food on the wall, it led to a huge uproar and animals’ rights activists to highly criticize his work. I even must admit that my first impression wasn’t the most optimistic as I also was repulsed at the idea of someone neglecting and punishing an innocent animal, something that is already an occurrence in the world, let alone for an art piece. After some research, it seems like Vargas had three objectives as he first, wanted to prove that something such as putting a starved dog in a gallery is an ethical problem, second, wanted to display how people can easily be manipulated, which was illustrated through the media and rumors of his words “you are what you read.” But what people didn’t know was that the dog in the exhibit was actually well fed, and so Vargas not only mocked people of their lack of judgement and insincerity, but his third objective, highlighted the lack of attention given to animal and human sufferings. His work is a good example of what is seen as controversial and sensitive in the ethic world, but he had true intentions and found a way to get his point across to ignorant viewers through a ground-breaking exhibit.

Protest against Exhibit B at the Barbican Centre — Source: https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2019/05/brett-bailey-exhibit-b/

Examples of explicitly controversial art pieces that set off a whole race, was the works of Brett Bailey’s Exhibition B: Human Zoo and Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmet Till. In Bailey’s “human zoo”, it was a performance piece that featured various black actors chained in cages. Right away, it was forced to close after protests and was harshly marked as racist as the artist who created it, wasn’t even of African descent. Many Africans thought of the art piece to be deeply offensive as there was no challenge to racism & oppression, as well as there wasn’t an discussion or approval from the African society. As well as Schutz’s painting of Emmet Till, an innocent 14-year-old boy who was lynched by two white Mississippi men, was given a huge backlash by her audience. Various African Americans felt like she, a white female, didn’t have the privilege to speak for the black community nor Till’s family. Schutz responded with her reasoning that she knows what it is like to be a mother and the thought of losing a child is horrendous. I am not of African descent nor half-Black, but as a minority myself, I feel that I understand what artists try to showcase, but it isn’t always their place to be a representative of another community if they are not a part of it themselves.

Dana Schutz’s Open Casket — Source: https://www.vulture.com/2017/04/open-casket-dana-schutz-artist-defends-emmett-till-painting.html

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