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The Conflation of Ethics and Morality

William Powhida, "How The New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality," 2009. Courtesy Schroeder Romero+Shredder and the Artist.

I’ve drawn myself into a debate over ethics and morality with my work, How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality (view the high-res version here). I threw a brick through the window of the museum and people want answers. My first problem with this is the assumption that I have them. I don’t. I also don’t envy the New Museum’s position. It is dependent on a few wealthy individuals instead of broad public funding to run its institution. We share the same paradoxical over-dependence on a limited number of wealthy individuals to maintain our independence from political and ideological interference. Assuming public funding, even from the NEA, can bring unwanted political scrutiny of the moral content of the art. This is a paradox the art world faces in its efforts to make art accessible, while remaining free from the kind of traumatic, political interference caused by the politician Jesse Helms, who famously tried to cut funding from photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980s.

My second problem with the demand for answers is the conflation of ethics and morality. Art critic Jerry Saltz and blogger Tyler Green have engaged in a protracted public feud over the terms. Tyler is an advocate for stronger ethics in the art world, while Jerry seems intent on defending the relative tolerance and heterogeneity of the commercial side no matter how dysfunctional it may appear, even lovingly referring to the art world as “Babylon.” I agree with both of them. I can because they aren’t talking about the same things. Advocating ethical practices and tolerance are two different positions. This difference is key to understanding that freedom of expression is different from maintaining an ethical buffer between the market and the museum.  When Jerry accuses Tyler of engaging in a witch hunt, I believe Jerry does so to protect artists and their freedom of expression. However, perhaps this is at the expense of the New Museum’s questionable ethics.

Similarly, when Jerry and the critic John Yau got into a public spat over their definitions of “America,” I believe that neither of them would side with our previous administration, which used moral authority to justify both immoral and unethical behavior. Ben Davis argues, in his “9.5 Theses on Art and Class,” that the art world is not separate from society or its class structure. But I believe that the general character of the art world is far left of center. Artists are an educated class of cultural producers who routinely challenge “moral authority” and share a tolerance for minority perspectives. That this vision is supported by a wealthy elite is also paradoxical, but there aren’t many alternatives at this point in our late-capitalist democracy.

I think Ben’s document is important and I hope you will read it and consider the implications, but I would argue that Tyler’s, Jerry’s, and John’s public non-debate is really a fraught defense of the art world from twin assaults on its integrity and independence. Increasingly it is dominated by a plutocracy, represented in the New Museum controversy by the collector Dakis Joannou, while simultaneously trying to maintain its independence from the moral authority of conservative America, currently represented by the likes of Glenn Beck. While the politics of the plutocracy certainly includes conservatism, I don’t believe we are talking about the same kind of ideological drive and religious fundamentalism that motivates Beck.

The art world is not reflective of any entire society. It represents the tolerant and pluralistic factions that encourage—and even celebrate—difference and dissent. On one hand, as Davis points out, this can be a symbolic release valve for class differences, but it is also reflective of the moral and ethical differences that fracture the societal landscapes of diverse cultures, from Iran to California. Western culture is no more monolithic than American culture, where morality and ethics vary from community to community, as the Helms-led furor over Mapplethorpe’s exhibition in Cincinnati revealed. In Europe, the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad published in the Jyllands-Posten spurred Danish Muslim organizations to protest and riot. Freedom of expression and religious tolerance often collide spectacularly around the morality of art. The sign of a healthy society is that these two can co-exist. The art world certainly privileges freedom of expression above all else, allowing for a plurality of moral perspectives. This may make it seem amoral or immoral depending on where you live and whether or not you understand expression to be a right or a privilege.

The art world’s paradoxical support of radical newness and originality also runs counter to its role of preservation and reliance on tradition. The two aspects are representative of society’s contradictory desire for progress and stability. Art museums are charged with preserving history and presenting an image of continuity even as they acquire, omit, and discard art works in a glacial state of constant change. The art museum is a contested site where cultural value is established long after the market has determined the art’s economic value. For the New Museum, simply displaying work validates its cultural worth, if not its economic value, even if it does not maintain the illusion of a “permanent collection.” In the exhibition Skin Fruit, it is defining art by the tastes of one wealthy individual with minimal curatorial and critical intervention.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the ethical and moral divide in art is the paradox itself. As an artist I am to both invent and preserve, challenge and perpetuate, be new and responsible, for the past and the future. It is not territory for anyone who cannot grasp the possibility that there might not be a past or future, but a continuous present. The New Museum and its director Lisa Phillips need to recognize their role in historicizing the role of the plutocracy in art by not mounting a significant challenge or raising questions about a co-dependent relationship.

I would like to believe that ethics are a humanist ideal, based on logic and reason, and drawn from observation and experience of the world over time. I would argue that morality is very similar, but draws its authority from beliefs and faiths connected to metaphysics and a priori knowledge. What I am left with is the idea that strong ethics are more important than a discussion of morality or immorality because they are the internal criticism of any system, discipline, or institution. They are not laws from the state or god. They are our guidelines for participating in late-capitalism — a system that increasingly operates on the premise that success means maximizing profits, reducing waste, and improving performance. The New Museum and other nonprofits need to realize that their ethical guidelines buffer the art world from the influence of the plutocracy, as well as defend it from social forces that would deny it its greatest assets — tolerance and difference. When those guidelines fail or become skewed in favor of the plutocracy, it opens the doors to governmental regulation and political interference. I think this is the point where the art world can appear elitist because it relies on the funding of a wealthy minority to defend its perspectives from the majority. This is also a paradox of democracy. While a majority may rule, it should not suppress the rights of a minority population. This is a challenge that requires discussion, compromise, and empathy.  My definition of late-capitalism doesn’t include any of these words, because it’s just a system. Only its participants can make sure we include promoting tolerance, empathy, and understanding, while not only offering the taste and art of mega-rich collectors like Dakis Joannou and his inner circle as the alternative. It is a delicate balance that the New Museum has tilted further towards the plutocracy, and in the end, this becomes another limitation to the freedom of expression.

William Powhida is an artist based in New York City.
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