Flash Points

Flash Points: The Ethics of Art

Gordon Matta-Clark, "Bingo," 1974. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Nina and Gordon Bunshaft Bequest Fund, Nelson A. Rockefeller Bequest Fund, and the Enid A. Haupt Fund, 2004. Installation photography © Francois Robert, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Gordon Matta-Clark works © Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Today we launch the next Flash Points topic, The Ethics of Art. Ethics are defined as “a system of moral principles” which constantly factor into the choices we make. However, these decisions can become confused, making this system of principles more gray than black and white, especially when competing priorities are at work. Over the next two months, we’ll explore the relationship of ethics in art from a variety of perspectives and question the role that they should — or shouldn’t — play.

In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark took a critical stance against the Hooker Chemical Company with his work Bingo, which highlighted the unethical — and as a result, dangerous — decisions they made in the community of Love Canal, New York. Throughout this topic, we’ll feature artists who make this ethical debate a focus in their work, from artists who question the role of the institution, such as Hans Haacke or Marcel Broodthaers, to artists like Alfredo Jaar, who examines the disparity between an oil-rich government and a poverty-stricken populace in his work Muxima.

Ann Hamilton. "Accountings," Jan. 22 - April 5, 1992 (installation view, Henry Art Gallery). Steel tokens, soot, steel, glass, cast wax heads, canaries. Photo: Richard Nicol.

Ethical decisions also factor into the artistic process. Does a photographer who sells a portrait owe anything, financially or psychologically, to the work’s subject? What kind of ownership does an artist have over reproduced images of his or her work? We’ll also look at the discussions taking place around the use of animals in art, such as the range of responses — from acclaim to criticism — received during Ann Hamilton’s exhibition Accountings (which included live canaries), or the severe case of Tom Otterness shooting a dog for his art (an act for which he has since apologized). Ethical issues can even come into play after an artist’s death, especially in the handling the artist’s estate and the management of his or her legacy.

Controversies and arguments abound as ethical decisions, or the lack thereof, play a role in institutional practice. With the ever-shrinking gap between commerce and culture, the prioritization of good business over public service creates an increasingly blurry set of ethical guidelines. Collector-based exhibitions, conflicts of interest, deaccessioning practices…do museums have a responsibility to their public? And if so, is this a part of institutional culture and is it being taught in today’s museum studies programs?

Marcel Broodthaers, "Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section Financière (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, Financial Section)," 1970-1971. Gold bar stamped with an eagle. Courtesy Galerie Beaumont, Luxembourg. Photo: J. Romero, courtesy Maria Gilissen.

Here are a few of the questions we’ll be addressing over the coming weeks. We’d love to hear your thoughts, and any ideas you have for additional sub-topics, in the comments below:

  • How do ethics factor into institutional practice?
  • How do artists address ethical issues in their work?
  • What kind of ethical decisions are made during the artistic process?
  • Are ethics emphasized in art education today?
  • Must art be ethical?


  1. Augustine says:

    Greetings and good luck with your new topic.

    If you will allow a suggestion, I think that defining Ethics as “a system of moral principles” simply shifts the burden of definition to moral principles. One broad yet functional definition is that morality is a system within which a subject (individual or collective) makes decisions on the basis of an idea about ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The precise idea of what is good and what is evil change, but all societies share morality in the sense that they they all subscribe to such systems.

    So, perhaps two questions may be central to the discussion you are starting: First, is art moral? Meaning, are decisions made on the basis of an idea of ‘good’ and ‘evil’? I think we may find that quite often this is not the case. Secondly, could this be because the morality of art and social morality do not coincide?. Meaning that although art is not amoral, the way it perceives ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is different to established perception. Adel Abdessemed may be a case in point. Thierry de Cordier, also, with his painting ‘Asperges me’ where a penis ejaculates on a cross. This might be a crucial example to test whether it is an issue of lack of morals or different morals.

    This line of enquiry would also shed a different light on things like conflicts of interest, which nowadays seem to be more about moralizing than morals.

    Apologies for the long comment.

  2. Arthur Pontynen says:

    Does not the issue of whether art is moral divide between three primary possibilities?

    1)art understood as the embodiment of wisdom, 2)art understood as material perfection, and 3)art understood as a transgressive pursuit of self-expression and self-realization via race,gender,economic class or the individual?

    Are not the first two possibilities associated in the West with the Platonic/Augustinian and Aristotelian modes? That fine art respectively evidences either a degree of ontological wisdom and thus beauty, or a degree of teleological perfection and thus aesthetics?

    Is not a deontologized aesthetic perfection the core of Kantian modernism, and an existentialist ontology the core of Hegelian/Marxist/Nietzschean postmodernity?

    So perhaps the actual question is: can an existentialist ontology provide a foundation for morality, fine art, and culture?

    I think not, as discussed in my book, For the Love of Beauty: Art, History, and the Moral Foundations of Aesthetic Judgment (Transaction, 2006).


  3. This is a fantastic subject, and timely. Another relevant subtopic would analyze the distinction between ethics and law, or the “should” and the “can,” and perhaps what the artist’s role is in defining and blurring these two discourses.


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  5. Perhaps a problem lies in the lack of job description/accountability for “Artists” which one finds associated with other professions such as Doctors, Lawyers, Politicians and Generals. In most societal professions there is a code of ethics (being a testimony of morality) and a clear (as can be) understanding of the purpose of the profession (by the
    people it serves) suggesting responsibility and thus accountability.

    Monitoring social structure might thus be honored as the expected/ respected and desired responsibility of “Artists”. The individual exploration, by Artists, of alternative paths, for the edifying benefit of “the people” coupled with reminders of what is present could possibly have more validity if there was more perceived accountability. Artists could be recognized as the bond between the drivers (government) and the social conscience dissimulators (spiritual guides).

    Thank you for your time.

  6. Jeff LeMieux says:

    Great book, Dr. Pontynen.

    Having followed your line of thinking for some time, I have to say that your questions are clearly rhetorical, but I’ll answer anyway. Yes, in fact an existentialist ontology cannot provide a foundation for morality, fine art and culture because such an ontology denies the possibility of those kinds of distinctions as nothing but arbitrary.

    It seems that at bottom we must choose between freedom and meaning. Or as a denizen of contemporary culture might put it, we must choose between self-actualization and the oppression of oppressive cultural tropes disguised as values.

    I like traffic lights because they let me make it to my children’s homes alive and unharmed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. But oh, that green light is so arbitrary and oppressive!

    I also value the ability to choose otherwise.

    What a dilemma!

    Put me down as a neoplatonist deluded into thinking that Beauty is Real, and to steal a quote from you, is “the image of wisdom.” Yep, I was listening after all . . . Be definition of Beauty I have EVER heard.

  7. Jayme Zimmer says:

    I am an artist and art teacher for middle school children and I talk to kids all the time about this subject. The subject always comes up about what students can (or really cannot) depict in their artwork. We discuss different scenarios of what influences their ideas and how their visual expression can affect them, their family, friends, and people that view it or how it can communicate messages about the “institution” or school itself and its value system…their responsibilities as an artist/visual communicator. It is always an interesting topic and kids really get involved. It segues into discussions about artists’ reasons for creating art to our cultures’ rating systems on movies, music, etc. This even plays into decisions my husband (who is also an artist and art teacher) makes about what kind of art he produces. Some of the content that he wants to express has subject matter that is personal to him and he does not feel he should exhibit because his students would see a side of him that would change the way they view him and invalidate the work that he does with them to foster making good decisions in life. 1st time blogging here. I know this adds different, less “rhetorical”, simple thoughts and viewpoints but I appreciate the subject matter. Thanks.

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