Letter from London

Letter from London: Ethic Minority

Matthew Broderick in "Election"

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

“What’s the difference between morals and ethics anyway? Anyone?”
— Matthew Broderick, Election

If there’s a tipping point in the minds of those casually interested in contemporary art, it’s almost always on moral or ethical grounds. “He/she did what to a dog/sold what for a billion dollars/did what to a dead cow/did what to a crucifix??” your amazed friend asks, and suddenly all credibility is leached from the subject. You’re embarrassed; you get your coat. Later on, you blog resentfully at your friend’s apparent narrow-mindedness (and defriend him: take that!). Art’s leapfrogging of moral and ethical niceties is a Romantic hangover that once was noble and exciting – Courbet, Baudelaire, 2 Live Crew – and now reeks of ghettoized cliché. It’s the thing people don’t like about contemporary art. And the less contemporary art complies with “real world” ethical and moral structures, the less it is of the “real world.” And yet this is what we value in art (in its current late-Romantic state): its ability to discuss the things avoided in the mainstream imagination. To ask difficult questions. This is the double bind of contemporary art’s relationship with ethics. Its purported snubbing of conventional (Judeo-Christian) ethics both allows it to discuss the undiscussable and removes it from the discussion.

When Santiago Sierra created a gas chamber in Pulheim, Germany, in 2006 – filling a synagogue with exhaust fumes from six parked cars, accessible only for five minutes to visitors wearing gas masks – he whipped up a predictable furore. That most critics of the work (including me) never experienced the work doesn’t really matter: that it raised ethical questions does. This is the unfortunate situation contemporary art gets itself into when tackling sensitive ethical or moral issues: the media storm generated by the work is the work, and the original piece itself is drowned out by the buzz of voices. Art of this kind negates its own irrefutable trump card, its visual singularity. The problem is that visual art’s status as chief cultural question-raiser has been gradually usurped, not just by other more immediate cultural products, like cinema or TV (Inglourious Basterds treats the commercialization of the Holocaust in a far more successful – read, “widely seen” and “aesthetically enjoyable” – way), but by the multiplicity of dissenting voices made possible by the advent of the Internet. Why bother jetting in an internationally recognized artist at spectacular fiscal and environmental cost to raise ethical questions when you can do so yourself, sitting at home, with Doritos crumbs all down your shirt?

Jeff Koons, "Art Magazine Ads (Artforum)," lithograph, 1988. Courtesy the artist.

Or take Andrea Fraser’s 2003 performance/video Untitled, in which she had sex with a collector for $20,000. The video – which is the entire “performance” shot from a CCTV camera above the bed in a posh hotel – does the rounds every so often, and featured in Tate Modern’s Pop Life show last year, a show which itself raised, inadvertently or not, certain ethical issues. Fraser’s video is, of course, about ethics. Neither of the parties involved were knowingly exploited, unlike the majority of paid-for sexual encounters (but those don’t raise questions, do they?). Fraser’s work, like Sierra’s, is made with an eye to its afterlife in text; it doesn’t need to be seen to be known. In the Tate’s Pop Life catalogue, Untitled is described thusly:

Fraser challenges the idea of access as a literalised pun – she is “in bed with the collector”…[she] brings our attention to her deliberate reversal of conventional power relationships by exaggerating the strength of her own position…[she] radically mak[es] visible attitudes of complicity…[and] problematise[s] the ideal of artistic autonomy upon which the art market hinges…

“Problematise,” “brings attention to,” “radical” — this is the sound of art talking to itself. Contemporary art such as Fraser’s and Sierra’s seeks to absolve itself from ethical responsibility by preemptively defining its own ethical framework. The dead language of contemporary art becomes the means by which this is achieved. A work of art might perform in a way that in “the real world” would be considered unethical, immoral, or criminal, but within the nested discourse of the academic write-up, it’s not unethical; it’s raising questions about ethics. And in order to do so, art must think of itself as existing outside of – perhaps even above – the moral framework that structures ethical decisions in other cultural arenas.

Joseph Beuys's "Action Piece," 26-6 February 1972; presented as part of seven exhibitions held at the Tate Gallery 24 Feburary - 23 March 1972. © Tate Archive Photographic Collection.

You’re not really supposed to discuss moral and ethical matters around contemporary art, though. Disdain for moral squares is so entrenched that those questioning the morality of works of art are jeered at from the ramparts as backwards or unsophisticated. Express discomfort at Sierra’s synagogue or Fraser’s fornication or at a range of diverse “question-raising” activities (Andres Serrano, Damien Hirst, the Chapman brothers, etc.), and your contemporary art membership card is permanently revoked. They tear it up in front of your face and leave your headshot with the Art Basel bouncers. It’s a measure of contemporary art’s insecurity that discussions of ethical issues are relegated to the sidelines. No amount of furious Rachmaninovian typing about the New Museum’s show of Dakis Joannou’s private collection, for instance, was ever going to slow its tank-like inexorable forward motion. It’s worth reading some of (not all of; it’s time you can never get back) the wildly disproportionate back-and-forth on that show by New York art bloggers (it’s barely known about outside of New York, by the way). Ethical in-fighting looks comically pedantic to art world outsiders, and it’s easy to forget there’s any art actually involved. And isn’t that what we ought to discuss — the possible ethical dimensions of a post-Romantic art? Anyone?


  1. anna says:

    hi, sorry I dont understand well English im Greek, I wrote something around the joannou exh, with bad English, in my blog: http://commentsanna2010.blogspot.com/2010/03/httpwww.html

    I am studying art history but not contemporary stuff. If you got time, can you explain why you say ‘post-romantic’ and not ‘post-modern’? How do we qualify now, except than the similary of merely being at the change of two centuries, with the post-romantic era, at the start of the previous century? Anna

  2. Nettrice says:

    I once read that morals make the moron — possibly from the Barefoot Doc’s Guide to the Tao. Empires have thrived based on enforced rules and our own vast empire often places a high value on virtue. But IMO (in my opinion) that’s not what art should be about. Art should be about all aspects of nature and the human imagination, including the dark corners of our existence. IMO no morals other than to respect all art as much as your own is necessary.

  3. Ben Street says:

    Hi Anna –

    Thanks for your comment. What I mean, to be clear, is that the overriding spirit of all art made since the late 18th C has been Romantic, and despite the coming and going of labels like Modern, or Post-Modern, or Alter-Modern (!), we remain almost entirely entrenched in notions set in place at that time. That’s why I say “late Romantic”: despite the huge variety of artistic fashions that have happened since then, a spirit remains the same – which is a hugely different spirit to the one that guided, say, Watteau or Chardin or Velazquez or Titian.

    In other words, notions that we attach to ‘Modern’ or ‘Postmodern’ are usually equally applicable to cultural products in the previous century – and the spirit is one of independence, experimentation, aloofness and expressiveness. Separation from such petty bourgeois concerns as morality or ethics is part of that disdain of “the mainstream”…the Wilde quote pretty much sums it up.

  4. Ben Street says:

    Nettrice –

    yes, I agree that art should plumb the depths of human experience, or should be able to. I do however also think that rejecting the shackles of Romantic notions of moral aloofness is desirable. I would love to see art engage with the ethics of its time in a way redolent of art produced before Romanticism, but I don’t know if that’s possible now. (And when I say ‘engage’, I mean actually engage, rather than “comment on”). I would love to see art take the cultural centre stage, rather than continually snickering from the sidelines, raising interminable questions. Contact with art produced before our rather self-serving age sometimes brings this on:



    …these aren’t ABOUT ethics, they ARE ethics.

  5. William Powhida says:


    When a conservative Christian shoots an abortion doctor in America, the shooter doesn’t say it’s about ethics, but being ethical.
    It’s relative man. Jihad, suicide bombs, shootings. Sorry, can’t sign on with your religious illustrations. More soon here on Art21.



  6. Ben Street says:

    William –

    Thanks for your comment – to be a bit more Billy Crystal about it, I’m not showing those images to advocate a particular religious position (I’m a lapsed Zoroastrian meself) but to illustrate some sort of publically-orientated ethically alive works of art that might be called ‘didactic’. Playing devil’s advocate a bit here, but that absolute belief in visual rightness (every part locked in) being somehow parallel to an ethical rightness (whatever your position is on those ethics) is so out of whack with contemporary art orthodoxy that it’s worth looking at again. Not as a proposal, as a corrective.



  7. anna says:

    I agree, ‘about ethics’ art and talking, is what the defenders of non-ethic ‘romantic’ art call ‘moralizing’ (they accuse anyone who evenmentions eeeethics as moralizer’. Whereas as you point out with examples, art can itself be a cultural enforcement of morals, although both of your examples are also expressing the already firm moral characteristics of their cultures. I can hardly imagine an ancient Greek feeling shame for walkin about naked or making love to the same sex, these where considered normal activities therefore not immoral. This is a big issue again to discuss and this is just a comment but I feel like our culture (which is global) while it makes a statement (through abject conceptual art) she is ‘free’ and what you call ‘romantic’ at the same time she is very prudent and fearful of real cultural change, very chritian that is deep inside. We havent seen prominent new yorkers walking in koons exhibition to make love to the same sex while naked ,expressing what ART expresses. And I suspect this is why abject art is so successful, ppl need to see (to experience in a safe way, by merely looking) what they are no allowed or willing to express in their own lives. Art, even conceptual art, still is a business of LOOKing and it is still experienced by the senses primarrily and I will end this comment by saying that even ‘traditional’ representative art like the examples you gave ,still addresses itself to the senses AND the intellect, as conceptual art (cause conceptual art says it addresses itself ‘unlike representational art’, to the intellect). This is my understanding at the moment.

  8. anna says:

    Thanks, its totally comprehensible. If we try to make things clearer (although that will not please the so many university specialty lectures I guess) it is as you say, individuality over collective moral, attitude, aesthetic, whatever, since Turner. all the ‘isms’ after Turner where breaking apart the same thing, the ”classic” although in the end they produced their own ‘classic’ artists (like Picasso is a modeern art classic and Beuys a fluxus and conceptual art classic and so on).

  9. I enjoyed your piece, and can relate to some of the artists, not because of I any artistic ability, but because I tend to say things in writing or over dinner which offend people. Usually it is me offending their religion. I don’t like to hurt feelings, but I also don’t like the sacred. We should be able to ask questions, and challenge common wisdom, or strongly held beliefs. Art can do this well. What bothers me in a lot of contemporary art though is that I perceive a cynicism attached to a lot of it. It doesn’t feel like social, religious, or racial commentary. It feels like a stupid pun. I always hope that I am wrong about this, so I try to learn about the art. I would say I am convinced about 50% of the time right now.

  10. Heather Ravenscroft says:

    So by having the opinion that this crap sucks, you’re a moron? Then artists and the art world in general are above critique and are controlling feedback through excommunication? Wow, must be nice to say everyone who doesn’t believe in what you believe or like what you like is wrong. No wonder the state of art is so degraded. Elitism is great, I want to be part of that crowd.

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  12. Ben Street says:

    Thanks a lot for your comments – sorry I haven’t got round to answering them all (but: chin up, Heather!), but my next piece here will take them into account. So thanks for doing my job for me. Ben

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