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JOHN O'BRIEN

ETHICS AND CONTEMPORARY ART:

TOWARDS A NEW UNDERSTANDING





Jiri Kocica, “Vision and Concept
of Continuance (Duration)”,
installation view of exhibition
held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1999.
In 1999, I received an e-mail containing a written text and some images from the Slovenian artist, Jiri Kocica. They were of his exhibition Vision and Concept of Continuance (Duration), being held in Ljubljana in a gallery I was familiar with. Along with his documents, he sent me a terse request to give some thought to contemporary art as a possible source of ethical contemplation. To complete his work, he had incorporated a mode of distributing seeds to be planted by viewers near their homes. This act was a way to locate an element of ethical framing for his work.

Until that moment, I had never much thought about reflecting on ethics in contemporary art. Ethics, as a practical matter, is associated with morality and the moral good. Contemporary art, as far as I could tell, has been so consistently disassociated with those same terms that the question appeared unimaginable. Since I enjoy the unimaginable as a means to re-thinking the known, I proceeded. I will recount the thrust of my thoughts without any promise of systematizing or methodological soundness. Think of this as an extended conversation between mysellf and an artist who is far away and living in very different circumstances from ours.

It makes sense to distinguish between the sensibility needed to investigate ethical issues in art-making from a definition of the good imposed by morality. Though ethics and morality are interconnected at their root, morality is more preeminently concerned with establishing the good in practice than is ethics. I am not prepared to attest to the moral strength or weakness of any given art or artist. I am profoundly uninterested in exporting a moral order. Further, I think we would all agree that the practical issues associated with the "either/or" of moral choice are not as dramatic as the case of even a small moral dilemma played out in life. Whether or not I should eat all the food in the house or leave some for the others who come after me is infinitely more morally clear than whether the choice of a red colored mark stands up better to one’s perception, taste and world view than an orange colored mark. It could be argued that if one wants to discuss the immoral/unethical work of art, it would be simply a work of art in which the constituent elements do a very poor job of being expressive, but that word usage seems to mistakenly overstate the scope of moral obligation and choice (this argument for the extension of the good to include beauty is explored in Ron Bontekoe's and Jamie Crooks' article "The Inter-relationship of Moral and Aesthetic Excellence" from the British Journal of Aesthetics 32, (3), July 1992, pp. 209 - 220).

Probably the most extensive moment in recent American art to reflect on the issues of art and morality involved the controversy over the removal/destruction of Richard Serra's sculpture Tilted Arc. Within that controversy, the question of censorship arose; censorship necessarily carries with it an ethical tone. Was the removal of this artist defined 'site specific' artwork, in effect, a form of censorship? In the case of censorship, morality and art are pitted against one another in a very concrete way. The pros and cons of this argument are succinctly addressed in the articles by Richard Serra, “Art and Censorship” in Critical Inquiry 17, Spring 1991, pp. 574 - 581, and Hilton Kramer, “Is Art Above the Laws of Democracy?” in The New Yorker, 2 July 1989, Section 2. I would add, from an artist's perspective that it is specifically fear of being censored which keeps most artists from overtly addressing questions of ethics in their work. The underlying fear is that questions of ethics lead to issues of censorship, and censorsip can be used to inhibit freedom of expression. Once this is introduced into the concrete discourse and practice of art, ethics cum censorship my prove unstoppable.


Richard Serra, “Tilted Arc,” steel
sculpture at Federal Plaza,
New York City, NY, 1989.

But if we leave the broader and more easily dogmatic lines of moral systems aside, ethics may prove important to creation in the arts. Ethics is an area of thought that is removed from the norms of our ever more technologically driven civilization. It is a speculative endeavor without an immediately acknowledged horizon of deployment. I think anyone who sets out to employ ethical terms will end up necessarily linking their usage to the teleological projection of an immanent spirit that sets some ultimate ethical standard. This just appears inescapable. For example, in the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, or the consequentialism of Pragmatists like Charles Pierce and William James, everything reflects back to the spirit as either being either “better or worse.” A set of consequences derives from the hierarchic ordering of everything from architecture to posture. To assert this hierarchy of belief, however, goes against present day ethical relativism and the grain of secular humanism.

Relativist systems popular today that disavow any such teleological claims tend to leave the social subject detached from any way of collectively establishing the general sense of “the good.” According to this view, even Aristotle's theory of virtue and the Stoic philosophical reasoning that doing things that promote personal excellence of mind and well-being function to promote the general well being of a community are without root, except in faith and empirical testing. So the dilemma remains: How can ethics serve to reflect on why an artist should work one way, or make one thing as opposed to another?

It is my sense is that this type of search for values often, perhaps always, precedes creation in the arts, even though there are few currently acceptable precedents that offer overt reference. Contemplating the creative process, I note where and how an art work breaks down into several distinct moments of social contact. It may be in these moments of changing status that the possibility for an ethical bearing opens up.

Artwork is generally done by a single artist working within themselves to achieve a unity of purpose. When successful, the work of art fulfills its maker’s internal and technical parameters for completion. In this process, there is a type of introjected other who observes, along with the consciously aware artist, the progress of the work and helps judge the appropriateness of each step. This mediation of the creative process is often referred to as a creative reverie. If the first chance to have an ethical bearing towards artwork comes at this personal and solitary juncture, then the delimited impact of established moral orders at the subtlest levels of creativity is obvious.

That said, it makes sense that there is an ever and implicit other being addressed in the creation of art, even if it is no more than the artist's projection of themselves as the viewer. Here “liking or disliking” can be described as being ethically inappropriate, because as was noted, such determinations hinge on taste and style. Those more linguistic components of art objects may well be subject to critical appraisal; but in their initial nucleation, they remain a fundamentally free choice with only the possibility of being a poor aesthetic choice and not an ethically inappropriate one. I would suggest that all successful artwork tends to be ethical to the extent that it authentically realizes an artist's vision.

After an artwork is completed, it is presented to a community for appraisal. This moment is much more social than the one in the studio and as such is more clearly linked to ethical considerations. Artworks are even judged, in our historical moment, for their morality. Accepted norms, means by which to preserve a community's sense of itself and limit attacks on the status quo by virtue of some form of censorship, is a fact of life in most communities (and a hot button issue worthy of examination far beyond the confinces of this article). This is a time in which communities decide which externalizations of self they ascribe to, which they will permit. Public art, monuments, public architecture all have gradients of community-accepted appropriateness and are judged accordingly. It is true that there has often been controversy surrounding the role of the general public in these aesthetic choices. My point remains: once art is public and become socialized and symbolic in its exchange, questions of ethics and even morality are more germaine.

Artwork has many afterlives. Once the artist and the community contemporaneous to them are gone, the social transaction between them is moot, yet the tangible art object remains. Others can project meaning onto this object in ways that are unforeseen. As a result, the ethical nature of their conservation or destruction are appropriate issues; second guessing or ascribing ethical intentions to the artist are not. Ethical guidelines evolve and moral standards change. Some works of art are completely misunderstood by subsequent generations and therefore enter into an ambivalent relationship with the original ethical impulse that guided the artist in making and presenting the work. I would tend to exclude the potential for drawing meaningful ethical conclusions about art dating from other periods, if only because it seems to enhance the ways in which misunderstanding can occur.

I have no illusion that this discussion represents a final word, but can only hope that it does help set the stage for further discourse about ethics and art. It is where I feel I can start from. While I expend no effort whatsoever condemning works that I find to be ethically un-engaged, for, as I’ve argued, these are loaded and nebulous ideas, I am always pleased to find works which somehow manage to satisfy the ethical impulse.



Kim Abeles, “Leaf Leap (All the
World’s Leaves),” (detail), 450
embroidered fabric leaves/video
projection/lavender, installation
at the Cincinnati Contemporary
Arts Center, 2000.





Kim Abeles, “Leaf Leap
(All theWorld’s Leaves),”
(detail with participants)
An Ethical Impulse

Kim Abeles is a local artist who has been creating outstanding art for a long time, and who regularly engages her community and with the environment. I recently got news of a project which I think relates to the questions I raise here and which Jiri (remember Jiri?) described as regarding "changes in art, which are opening new sensibility and new awareness of ethical attitude and could be linked up to the problems of globalization, education or ecology even if it is a kind of artistic testimony."

Abeles’ Leaf Leap (All the World's Leaves), was exhibited at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. It creates a physical space where children are allowed to jump into a mass of oversized, fabric leaves. Each of the leaves is labeled in embroidery with the name of the tree and its location of origin; collectively they represent all the species of trees found globally. Each leaf is scaled to be 5 times larger than it’s actual size, and each has the shape, veins, texture and color of the actual leaf. Straddling reason and imagination, education and installation art, the work includes an interactive wall-scale video projection of all types of trees blowing in the wind, a hushed audio howl is triggered by the children’s jumping. The backdrop is a fictitious ocean that is formed of foam covered with several shades of blue fabric.

Of this work Abeles writes:
"Leaves in the wind like seeds propagating through the moving air from one place to another, past one language, then another, then dry and wet lands, crossing plastic map place mats on kitchen tables. . .over the solid and slashed boundary lines of geography. The leaves, like so many stuffed animals in a child's room, speak of our peculiar, contemporary relationship with nature, at once estranged and as comforting as a doze under a tree in our memories."

And later in correspondence to me she writes,
"I used the word "peculiar" in referring to our relationship to nature. . .I find this piece straddles many attitudes. . .it's both playful and educational (one could really learn about leaves through this piece), but it is also macabre on another level. . .to have these toy-style leaves, as stuffed animals. My work often straddles those various planes of humor, the grotesque, and the instructional."

I found this work to be beautiful, to be physically and conceptually satisfying, and it clearly possesses a strong ethical imprint. From its choice of audience, to its multilevel interpretative nexus, to its soft connection, to a sense of ecological awareness, I can cite Leaf Leap as paradigmatic, to to Jiri I say that the ethical in art is better seen and experienced than articulated!