Flash Points

The Nonexistence of “Unethical Art”

Photo courtesy of Winkleman Gallery, New York.

I’ll agree with Ben Street who said in his recent post that there is “no consensus about the difference between ethics and morals, so let’s be broad about it.” This seems to be the most helpful way to have a constructive conversation. It also helps me to excuse why I’ll interchange the two throughout this text in the service of brevity. Also, in order to avoid an annoying series of additional caveats, I’ll note first off that I’m limiting my considerations here to art objects (which include video and film, in my opinion) and not performances or other such live actions.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” Replace “artwork” where “book” appears and “made” where “written” appears, and you’ll have a concise summary of my answer to the question, “Must art be moral [or ethical]?” To suggest that “art” can be either ethical or unethical is to personify an object. We don’t talk about the ethics or morality of a hammer or an ocean. We may discuss the ethics of what humans do with a hammer or what they do to an ocean, but ethics are a means of measuring human behaviors. Therefore, it’s actually nonsensical to me to discuss whether an art object must be ethical or unethical. Art cannot be either. Artists can and, to my mind should, be ethical, being fellow human beings within a society, but “art” itself is not human.

Moreover, the subject matter of art cannot be considered “ethical” or “moral” any more than the object itself. All manner of abhorrent human behaviors are represented in artwork. That doesn’t make the work, or even the artist, unethical for tackling such subjects. We wouldn’t suggest that the painter who captures the extreme suffering of a brutal mass murder (clearly an immoral act), such as Picasso’s Guernica, had done anything immoral himself. Nor would we suggest that the act of painting The Rape of the Sabine Women was a good reason to arrest Jacques-Louis David or Nicholas Poussin.  In my opinion, how true the representation seems (part of how high the quality of the work is) remains the only valid issue where subject matter is concerned. Is it well-made or poorly made?

Furthermore, even less savory subjects dealing with the unseemly sides of sexuality or human excesses are not in and of themselves immoral or unethical if they truly reflect a human reality. The failure to make such work well is condemnable, but not the task of creating work about something that most adults know all too well exists (despite the wishful thinking we often hear that not making such art somehow makes the behavior less real).

I’ve had similar discussions on my blog long enough to know that as soon as I suggest that no subject matter is immoral or unethical, someone will raise questions about art that was created through a process that hurt an animal or another human being. Usually in doing so, they’re conflating an individual’s (the artist’s) behavior with the resulting object of their process. Which explains why they tend to get very emotional and confrontational in response to my position. “He killed an innocent horse to make that video! What do you say about that, Mr. Open-mindedness?”

My response is that artists are as subject to the laws and customs of of their communities as any other citizen. If they break these laws, they are subject to the consequences of doing so. If they step outside the ethical customs, there will be repercussions. Making art is no excuse for breaking the law* or for unethical actions, but it remains important to direct one’s outrage at behaviors and not objects.  None of this makes the resulting objects, which cannot abide by the norms or values of their community, “unethical.” It makes them an object that we can approach with all of our subjective criteria, to judge for ourselves whether we consider them well-made or poorly made, good art or bad art.

In my role as an art dealer, this issue sometimes comes into play while explaining what our artists create or the artwork we exhibit. Specifically, this opinion informs my position that I need not defend the subject matter in any particular work of art against charges that this or that art object is immoral or unethical. If a visitor to the gallery is offended by nudity, violence, or depicted behaviors within any of the works on the walls, it’s not up to me to convince them to open their mind to new adventures or think differently about this or that behavior (no more than it’s my role to tell an artist to close his or her mind or avoid certain subjects). My role is to explain to the visitor why I feel this artist has created something important. In short, my role is to explain why I feel it’s well-made…why it’s good art.

Of course, if a visitor still wishes to project his or her disgust at certain behaviors onto an object, there’s no way for me to stop him/her. I have heard some offended art viewers claim that certain works “glorify” immoral behavior by their mere existence. I would counter that, if made well, an art object stands just as much of a chance of discouraging immoral behavior. But, again, I’m not in the business of dictating which elements of human existence artists should or should not pretend doesn’t exist.

*Making art that challenges an oppressive law may be an ethical excuse for breaking the law, but still leaves the artist subject to the consequences of doing so.

Edward Winkleman is an art dealer and blogger who heads Winkleman Gallery.

  1. Robert Boyd says:

    What if an artist stole the material with which he or she made the art? What if the art is plagiarized? What is the art is carefully designed to cause epileptic seizures in a small number of people when viewed? What if the art is deliberately installed in such a way that it could randomly collapse and crush a viewer?

    A work of art cannot be unethical because it has no agency. But the artist who created can be unethical, as can the gallerist who shows it.

  2. Edward Winkleman says:

    Robert, we agree. Each of those instances you describe is unethical behavior, and I’d go so far as to agree that a gallery that knowingly exhibited work that might hurt someone or was created with stolen materials is behaving unethically as well. None of which changes the fact that the art itself cannot be unethical.

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  4. Harry Kent says:

    Perhaps the distinction, that an art object is ipso facto still just an object which cannot of itself contain a set of ethics, is perhaps too fine a point of semantics. If that’s all it means then it would sure let gallery operators off the hook. However, what is at stake is not simply a bunch of marketable inanimate objects that fill a gallery space, but the legitimacy of art-making itself. In other words, an object that is made through immoral art-practice is inevitably culturally loaded (tainted), regardless of whatever cultural significance the artist intended. Is it ethical to market the SS lamp-shades made from human skin acquired from the extermination camps? No. The processes involved and the media used put the creation of such objects is beyond the pale. So, using a transferred epithet, society designates such an object as ‘immoral’. We do not mean by this that a lampshade can do shady things but that the object came into existence out of the grossest of human sensibilities and through the vilest of criminal acts. We mean that profiting from the sale of such objects cannot be condoned, and that the collecting and viewing of such objects for pleasure is pathological. All of this is understood in the commonly used construction of, ‘the work is unethical’.

  5. Edward Winkleman says:

    Thanks for the the thoughtful response to the post, Harry. I’ll address a few of your points below:

    “Perhaps the distinction, that an art object is ipso facto still just an object which cannot of itself contain a set of ethics, is perhaps too fine a point of semantics. If that’s all it means then it would sure let gallery operators off the hook.”

    I actually assumed that the point of such a debate (not being held to determine policy or draft legislation) was to hold an exercise in semantics, but my goal in turning the conversation this direction was not to let gallery operators (nice term) off the hook, but rather to help carve out some rhetorical room for artist to have confidence in exploring the subjects they feel most important.

    As for your example of lampshades made from human skin, I would put that in the same category as artwork created with stolen goods and agree that its unethical for galleries to exhibit it. If an artist created another work based on the existence of the lamps, however, say representing them in a painting or recreating them out of other materials, I would still insist those works be judged on their quality and oppose any attempt to declare that new work unethical or immoral.

    Therefore, I would disagree with your conclusion that your example illustrates the validity of “the commonly used construction of, ‘the work is unethical’.” Your example of objects whose very materials were procured through crimes against humanity doesn’t weaken the importance of the distinction I’ve drawn above.

  6. Conor says:

    My gut response to this blog post is disagreement. Then again, I’ll say now I’m just a student without any expert, art-world street-cred.

    In the judgement of art on an ethical basis, I’d say there’s no avoiding an inclusion of the context, presentation, and response to an “art object.”

    Here’s a philosophical thought that may or may not be relevant- is a horrendous crime, say murder, itself wrong? Or does evil lie in the dreadful forethought and the horrible consequences surrounding the act? This is arguable… that the act of murder isn’t intrinsically wrong, but the context that surrounds it is (the hatred, the loss of life, the guilt, the pain, whatever)…

    But in what scenario is the act, the “object”, of murder removed from its moral context? In what scenario is a shocking art object removed from the conversation and reaction to that piece?

    Comparing shocking art to homicide probably isn’t the faaaaairest parable. But doesn’t the discourse surrounding Piss Christ become fused with the art object itself? Perhaps the human interactions surrounding a piece in fact must be removed to truly judge the art object. I can see how doing so would leave only a judgement on its merits, ie- it being good or bad. But, again, my gut feeling with this judgement of only the art itself seems to me wrong because art, by nature, is conversational.

    I think it comes down to me thinking that a piece of art is human- that an art object is inseparable from its curation, public response, and artistic intent. In the question of art being ethical, I would say that it only makes sense that “art” include all of the above.

    Just a thought more than anything.. I hope it’s fair and somewhat reasoned

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  8. Cedric Caspesyan says:

    I don’t expect goodness from art because I don’t expect goodness from artists. But if a work of art comes out of pure goodness, I will hopefully see it, and know it.

    Objects have reasons behind their existences, and these reasons always come with views about the world and existence, which are inevitably politic.

    Art only exists because of our judgment. When they lose
    their inherent moralities, they also loose their meanings as art, and simply are drawn back to being pure objects again, collections of matter. The fact that we term objects as art is an ethic in itself.

    Art is also the result of process (what Beuys so insisted upon, the anthropological aspect of any art object, the meanings hidden through the come-into-being of objects being as important as the meanings visually foreseen), and some processes are wounded ethically. For example, a film that costs millions of dollars that is trying to move its audience following the story of a poor family in the outskirts of Dublin or Mumbai. The intentions are not unethical. Ethics supersede to intentions. Ethic is a hidden dialogue that only the people who have developed a sense of compassion can have (I am thinking of the Parsifal fable in which finding a compassionate man is depicted as not being an easy task). Most people don’t understand or realize about ethics until they affect themselves personally. Demanding ethics at the detriment of other people liberties is also the most common abuse of egoistical purpose.

    Cedric C

  9. Cedric Caspesyan says:

    I think I would prefer to say about the art object or event that it is both tainted in the ethic of its come-into-being (its process) but also bathes in a constantly fluctuating morality, depending on the viewer’s expectations and desires (interpretation). If I am Charles Manson and I interprete the song Helter Skelter by the Beatles, there is an interesting morality (or delusion of morality) that goes in here.

    When no one is there to perceive an art object, an art object thus cease to be. In this, an art object actually constantly fluctuates between being art and non-art, depending if a viewer is present. So because the standard expectations about human life lead us to believe that it won’t be eternal, than yes, art has no attached ethics
    most of the time, but that is simply because art, most of the time, is not art at all.

    Cedric C

  10. Ross Selavy says:

    I’ve been following the debate about (un)ethical and/or (im)moral art with both interest and confusion. It seems to me there are (at least) two discussions going on.

    With regard to semantics, I believe Mr. Winkleman has it right. Start with basic dictionary definitions. (I happen to have an old Merriam-Webster Collegiate at hand, and it doesn’t get much more basic than that.) Ethical: “conforming to accepted esp. professional standards of conduct.” Moral: “of or relating to principles of right or wrong in behavior.” Art does not conduct itself properly or improperly, nor does it behave well or badly. People do.

    For example, plagiarism is unethical conduct by an artist. Sexual activity with children is immoral behavior by an artist or anyone else. It both cases, it is the person who transgresses. The plagiarized artwork and the porn video are neither unethical nor immoral. They simply are.

    However, a case can be made that museum curators, art dealers, and even collectors are unethical or immoral, because they aid and abet unethical or immoral behavior by artists (e.g., killing a horse to make a video, to use Mr. Winkleman’s example). The movers and shakers of the art world provide the imprimatur of legitimacy and the benefits of publicity and financial reward to artists behaving badly.

    On the other hand, I simply do not understand Mr. Street’s proposition that art can be aesthetically (apart from didactically) ethical and/or moral — in his words, “absolute belief in visual rightness (every part locked in) being somehow parallel to an ethical rightness.” Would someone please explain?

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  12. Cedric Caspesyan says:

    So basically, if I create a rifle, which has an aesthetic (functional) and a purpose (it was made to kill people and animals), this purpose doesn’t exist until I use it. Is that what I’m hearing, here? That objects are without purposes until we use them.

    Now let’s forget the purpose (which is artist intention, IMHO always impregnated by morality). I am not interested in using the rifle. I only made it so I can sell it and sustain a living. That’s the ethic. I’m gone from the shop, the rifle is in the window. My ethic’s gone with me. But let’s presume the current political system is communism: I am not supposed to put a rifle in a shop window as if it was for sale. When does the object clashes ethically? When other people come about and start rioting in front of my shop.

    Objects are absent of ethics only when people
    are not present. They are always ethics and
    morals at play in any social context, just like
    art only exists when an object or event triggers
    the kind of sensual, emotional and/or intellectual
    responses that makes someone accepts the object or
    event as art.

    The morality of art itself is an interesting debate.
    Plato was condemning arts as being the adoration
    of the superficial, but that was close to saying art is
    immoral, like the stoic view that hedonists take pleasure
    while they’re oblivious to suffering peers.

    I know I love art because I’m an escapîst. What’s the moral
    value of escapism? Now, this seems to be about my attitude,
    my psychology, but what about art clearly inviting to escapism? Isn’t it what half of the artists intentions do? Use art as a mean to grab attention? Art doesn’t talk or pull you by the hand, but when you’re not there, it’s not even art. So because art only exists when I agree to it, it is always bathed by a moral dilemna: Should I really be paying attention? Should I find this more beautiful than nature? Is art leisure when I should be out there helping people who crumbled in an earthquake? I hardly think you can make art entirely escaping any moral dilemna, and you can’t perceive art without the slightliest concept of morality either. Morality (this is still in debate in name-me-the-science-symposiums) is a condition of nature, not a human invention. It is triggered by emotions and its
    aim is to protect life. In most religions, the essence of existence is that we are dipped in a moral dilemna throughout all of human life. This doesn’t sound like a
    coincidence. I am not sure about a God, but moral dilemna is the constant pressure of survival, even (this is again, controversial) at the most basic state of instincts. Animals have emotions, and generally don’t eat their youngs.

    In some esoterical circles, there is a morality to matters, which is close to relating matters to their chemical purity. This dates from the years of alchemy, and it’s really pulling a leg. But some elements of chemistry were believed to have “better energy” than others. Today a similar hierarchy of elements and their “powers” is verifiable by science. In aesthetics, morality brings us
    to the grotesque discourse. How do we receive things as grotesque? How are immoral villains portrayed as ugly in cinema?

    Ethic is kind of the gestion of morality by social politics and general acceptance. It’s pooring cold water on the upsets of morality which often rely on personal emotions and faith. Ethics are redundant without social consensus.
    I am not so sure about morality.

    Let’s come back to my rifle and its purpose.
    It is thousands of years later, and humans
    have now vanished from the earth. My
    rifle stands abandoned on a rock somewhere,
    but fully loaded. A strange new animal, remotely
    intelligent, come flies by it and tries to understand
    what this object is doing there. By manipulating
    the rifle, it goes BOOM and instantly kills the
    animal. Is the object amoral, for being purposedly
    dangerous to life, is what I’m asking. If part
    of the purpose of life is to sustain or seek
    morality, are objects that were created to be
    detrimental to this aim, inherently amoral?

    Crazy Cedric C

  13. Ross Selavy says:

    Yes, Cedric, the rifle is amoral.

    (For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the words “moral” and “ethical” are interchangeable, although the distinction you make, that “ethics” has to do with social politics, general acceptance, and social consensus, is insightful.)

    As you point out, “objects are absent of ethics only when people are not present.” Precisely. It’s people who bring ethics to objects. Similarly, it’s people who give purposes to objects. I have a steam iron. Its maker no doubt intended it for pressing clothes. Ostensibly, that is its purpose, and it does a very good job. Now, if I pick up that iron and bludgeon someone to death, that doesn’t make it a deviant, immoral iron. I’ve used it for an immoral purpose.

    Returning to the rifle, let’s agree that its intended purpose is killing. (And let’s not digress into a discussion about the morality of killing anything ever. I’m a carnivore, and proud of it.) Suppose the owner of the rifle uses it to kill a deer to feed his hungry family. Now suppose the owner of the rifle uses it to kill a grocer to take food to feed his hungry family. Is it a good, moral rifle in the one instance and a bad, immoral rifle in the other? Of course not. It’s just a rifle. It doesn’t have morals.

    To borrow a slogan from another context: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Guns just make it easier.”

  14. Conor says:

    Perfect point-

    But can art be judged beyond good and evil in the same way a rifle can? Isn’t an art object constantly “firing bullets” into the people that view it? A stagnant rifle is going to be “amoral” regardless of when or if it is viewed. But an artwork is constantly part of a discourse with the viewer… some might say, in your analogy, a piece of obscene art never ceases to be a violent weapon..

  15. Ross Selavy says:

    Just a quick question in response. Is a swastika on the wall of a Buddhist temple a “good” swastika, and a swastika on the wall of a Nazi building an “evil” swastika?

  16. Ross Selavy says:

    P.S. Or is a swastika just an inherently evil work of art?

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  18. Colin says:

    Art is unethical because people are unethical. Discussions about ethics arise within groups who cannot reconcile their own capacity for unethical behaviour within the popular ethics of the dominant social culture.

    The rifle: When someone digs it up as an artifact and has no knowledge of it’s intended purpose and finds through accident that it can kill, is the object that makes a sound and accelerates lead particles immoral? The person who acted unethically was the artist, who in bringing it into creation knew full well that it could be used for any purpose or alternatively, was completely unaware of the purpose and was happy to proceed.

    The suggestion an object without an observer has no ethics proves there are no ethical artists. From an artistic point of view, a lack of ethics is completely without meaning on any level. Accept it, embrace it, go create some more unethical objects.

  19. Ross Selavy says:

    If someone intentionally creates something which, when misused or mishandled (i.e., accidentally) proves lethal, s/he is not immoral or unethical. Nor is the creator, blithely unaware that the thing s/he is creating could potentially be used for bad purposes, immoral or unethical. We can all make lists ad nauseam of things that have such potential. For convenience, I’ll refer back to my steam iron. Its maker could hardly be considered immoral or unethical for being happy to proceed in making it, completely unaware that I would use it to bludgeon someone to death.

    As for the object (as opposed to its creator), it could be considered immoral or unethical if, in context, it exhorts wrongdoing. It is analogous to words and free speech. We all know the cliché about the limitations on free speech. Hollering “Fire!” in a crowded theater is not acceptable (or protected) free speech when there is no fire. Hollering “Fire!” in a burning theater – or an empty theater – no problem.

    A recording of someone hollering “Fire!” is also unacceptable, and could be considered immoral or unethical when played in that crowded theater. On the other hand, a recording of someone hollering “Fire!” kept in a closet is just an amoral object, a plastic disc, a bit or a byte, a thing. The presence of an observer (or here, listener) is critical.

    Why does that prove that there are no ethical artists?

  20. nick says:

    the entire point of this article was to point out the fact that art cannot be considered either ethical or unethical. it simply is. the actions it depicts, the way it is precariously hung upon a wall to squish an unsuspecting viewer, the steps taken to create the art, all of these can be either ethical or unethical, but art is an object. as the writer already said, it is no different than a spoon or a bowl.

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