What the artists say
To explore these questions I looked at two contemporary art projects:
Maxwell Rushton’s Left Out (Rushton 2018).
A jesmonite cast of a seated person in a bin bag placed in public spaces.
“It’s a message about people being disposable. It’s quite a shocking an image. It’s the idea we see homeless people as garbage, it’s challenging.”
– A member of the public, Westminster Bridge (Ruston 2018).
Kristian von Hornsleth’s ‘The Hornsleth Homeless Tracker’
“The HHT follows Hornsleth as he buys homeless people from the streets of London and sells them as art works to private collectors.
Each homeless, has been fitted with a tracking device allowing their owner to follow them 24-7 via a private app, effectively converting the homeless into a real-life Pokémon Go or human Tamagotchi. The owners will receive a real gold portrait of their homeless.” (van Hornsleth 2018)
What the philosophers say
Van Gerwen (2004) says “much contemporary art seems morally out of control. Yet philosophers seem to have trouble finding the right way to morally evaluate works of art.”
“Some artists, however, in their search for the front line, go a long way in what seems to be the wrong direction. We might mention the Austrian Aktionskünstler, Wolfgang Flatz, dropping a bull filled with fireworks from a helicopter; or auto-mutilating performance artists; or Orlan who, induced by no apparent physiological or psychological accident, had her appearance rebuilt through plastic surgery, to reflect facial traits of famous women from art history, such as Botticelli’s Venus, and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa; or, Günther von Hagens, a German self-acclaimed professor in anatomy who applies artistic procedures to real human corpses, even though the educational benefit of that is doubtful.”
What I say
Crudely I think two schools of thought prevail – Art at most reflects and chronicles moral issues or art is an agent of morality (i.e it influences our behaviour and thus has a direct impact on moral behaviour). We see implicit belief in the latter when the view is put forward that, for example, graphic and violent computer games encourage real-life graphic and violent behaviour.
This may seem a theoretical philosophical point but I think it makes a big difference to the moral evaluation of art. That matters to me, in terms of the choices I make when doing art.
If Art merely reflects moral issues then whether I think a piece of art is right or wrong depends on the motives of the artist. I draw the analogy to journalism. I wouldn’t consider investigative journalism whos aim is to inform the public, and in the public interest as morally questionable – I would find it morally questionable if the exact same story was published by a sensationalist, paparazzi fuelled publication whose primary motive was to sell more copies or advertising. Same content + different motive = different moral judgement.
On the other hand, if Art can influence or determine moral behaviour, the issues are different. The above applies but it is additionally and even more important to understand your intentions and unintended consequences.
My day job is in science. There is a similar debate in science as to whether a scientist should somehow be held responsible too for the harm others do with their work? Should, for example, Einstein be held responsible for Hiroshima? Should the scientists who discovered thalidomide be held responsible for the unforeseen life-changing side effects? Some say yes – some say no.
So science hasn’t found a philosophical answer either but it has found a practical one. Science has established a number of ethical codes that, if followed, would amount to good moral conduct even if there turned out to be adverse events. These include processes like peer review, open publication of scientific results, informed consent, unbiased experimental methods, and crucially, approaches for balancing harms against benefits. They are not full proof by any means, harm still occurs, but if a scientist follows them their moral choices are less likely to be questioned. This in effect is the difference between ethics and morals.
So let me bring this back to the topic at hand. Here is how I would summarise it albeit in a crude and naive way.
- Art reflects the moral actions of others. With that knowledge, the motives of the artist are important to determine the morality of the art. In terms of art involving vulnerable people, I would argue it is OK if I would find the reasons for doing so OK. I appreciate this requires a values framework which would vary from person to person but for me an artist trying to give a voice to an otherwise voiceless person, highlight a social injustice, raise awareness or charitable donations etc would all be ethically and morally consistent. How they went about that would also be important. Issues of consent, recompense, respect and sensitivity would be as important to my appreciation as the artwork itself.
- Art influences moral and immoral behaviour. With that knowledge, the more important consideration is what might others do having experienced the art rather than just the motive of the artist (though that still matters). If a piece of art could cause others to do good then that should be deliberate and celebrated. If a piece of art could cause someone to do harm; that has to be taken into account and it should be avoided if reasonably predictable. In terms of vulnerable people, art that changed social attitudes changed the treatment, experiences or opportunities of vulnerable people would I think, to be good art. Art that promoted violence, widening of inequalities, or harmed individuals would I think, to be bad art.
How would I apply this thinking to my two examples – Rushton and von Horsleth?
I have no problem with Rushton’s Left Out. Whilst I don’t know much about Rushton nothing even hints at his primary motivation being to sell more art through exploiting homelessness. I can imagine he would be driven to be a successful artist but I can also imagine no more than would be appropriate given that without some drive, the art would not get done at all. If his work influences moral behaviour it seems likely that would lead to positive net outcomes. It is possible of course some would look at Left Out and think – “he’s absolutely right they are no better than trash”. I would think the more common reaction would be to make his audience stop and think about how we treat homeless people. On balance, my best guess is that the net effect would be positive. It is good art.
van Horsleth is harder to assess though. He argues the commercialisation and commoditization of homeless people is satirical. It could then fall into the category of Art reflecting others’ moral actions. This is weak in my view, however. Art can exaggerate and extrapolate to get a point across but Horsleith’s consumer offer is thankfully very unique. So does it stand up to moral scrutiny if art influences moral behaviour? One argument would be yes with a positive affect – Horsleith is horrifying us and therefore we would be less likely to let this happen or anything like it. An alternative argument would be that it fuels the denigration, disrespect and exploitation of homeless people. I don’t know which would prevail but I would argue neither does Hornsleith. It is at best a risky strategy that we would never ever condone if this was how we decided public health policy or clinical practice; we would find it morally wrong. Science’s solution would be to design a careful experiment to answer this uncertainty – including informed consent, managing conflicts of interest, safety checks and careful monitoring. Only once it has resolved the question “does this do more good than harm” would it allow it out into the real world. This is bad art.
Now I am not trying to paint an overly positive picture of science and evidence-based public policy. A lot of science doesn’t follow these ethical codes – a lot of policy decisions are not based on good science. The point I am making is that the existence of these ethical codes allows me, and society to explore the good and bad against a framework that is generally agreed upon. Perhaps art needs its own ethical codes.
Rushton, M. (2018). Left Out | Maxwell Rushton. [online] Maxwellrushton.com. Available at: http://maxwellrushton.com/projects/left-out/ [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].
von Hornsleth, K. (2018). Hornsleth Homeless Tracker Project. [online] Hornsleth Homeless Tracker. Available at: https://www.hornslethhomelesstracker.com/ [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].
van Gerwen, R. (2004). Ethical Autonomism: The Work of Art as a Moral Agent. Contemporary Aesthetics, [online] 2. Available at: http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=217 [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].