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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:

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