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Humanities LibreTexts

11.1: Introduction

  • Page ID
    10179
  • This chapter is concerned with the perception, susceptibility, and ethics of art. It will explore and analyze the moral responsibility of artists and their rights to represent and create without censorship.

    Morality and art are connected usually in art that provokes and disturbs. Such art stirs up the artist’s or viewer’s personal beliefs, values, and morals due to what is depicted. Works that seem to purposely pursue or strongly communicate a message may cause controversies to flair up: controversies over the rights of artistic freedom or over how society evaluates art. That judgment of works created by artists has to do with society’s value judgment in a given time in history.

    The relationship between the artist and society is intertwined and sometimes at odds as it relates to art and ethics. Neither has to be sacrificed for the other, however, and neither needs to bend to the other in order to create or convey the work’s message.

    Art is subjective: it will be received or interpreted by different people in various ways. What may be unethical to one may be ethical to another. Because art is subjective, it is vulnerable to ethical judgment. It is most vulnerable when society does not have a historical context or understanding of art in order to appreciate a work’s content or aesthetics. This lack does not make ethical judgment wrong or irrational; it shows that appreciation of art or styles changes over time and that new or different art or styles can come to be appreciated. The general negative taste of society usually changes with more exposure. Still, taste remains subjective.

    Ethics has been a major consideration of the public and those in religious or political power throughout history. For many artists today, the first and major consideration is not ethics, but the platform from which to create and deliver the message through formal qualities and the medium. Consideration of ethics may be established by the artist but without hindrance of free expression. It is expected that in a work of art an artist’s own beliefs, values, and ideology may contrast with societal values. It is the art that speaks and adds quality value to what is communicated. This is what makes the power of free artistic expression so important. The art is judged not by who created the work or the artist’s character, but based on the merits of the work itself.

    However, through this visual dialogue existing between artist and society, there must be some mutual understanding. Society needs to understand that freedom of expression in the arts encourages greatness while artists need to be mindful of and open to society’s disposition. When the public values art as being a positive spiritual and physical addition to society, and the artist creates with ethical intentions, there is a connection between viewer and creator. An artist’s depiction of a subject does not mean that the creator approves or disapproves of the subject being presented. The artist’s purpose is to express, regardless of how the subject matter may be interpreted. Nevertheless, this freedom in interpretation does not mean that neither the artist nor society holds responsibility for their actions.

    Art and ethics, in this respect, demands that artists use their intellectual faculties to create a true expressive representation or convey psychological meaning. This type of art demands a capability on the viewer’s part to be moved by many sentiments from the artist. It demands the power of art to penetrate outward appearances, and seize and capture hidden thoughts and in- terpretations of the momentary or permanent emotions of a situation. While artists are creating, capturing visual images, and interpreting for their viewers, they are also giving them an unerring measure of the artists’ own moral or ethical sensibilities.

    Ethical dilemmas are not uncommon in the art world and often arise from the perception or interpretation of the artwork’s content or message. Provocative themes of spirituality, sexuality, and politics can and may be interpreted in many ways and provoke debates as to their being unethical or without morality. For example, when Dada artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968, France) created Fountain in 1917, it was censored and rejected by contemporary connoisseurs of the arts and the public. (Fountain, Marcel Duchamp: http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/ artwork/25853#ixzz3mwCWDOxZ) A men’s urinal turned on its side, Duchamp considered this work to be one of his Readymade, manufactured objects that were turned into or designated by him as art. Today, Fountain is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and is widely considered an icon of twentieth-century art.

    More recently, The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (b. 1968, England) shocked viewers when it was included in the 1997-2000 Sensation exhibition in London, Berlin, and New York. (The Holy Virgin Mary, Chris Ofili: www.khanacademy.org/humaniti...ly-virgin-mary) The image caused considerable outrage from some members of the public across the country, including then-mayor of New York City Rudolph Giuliani. With its collaged images of women’s buttocks, glitter-mixed paint, and applied balls of elephant dung, many considered the painting blasphemous. Ofili stated that was not hisintention; he wanted to acknowledge both the sacred and secular, even sensual, beauty of the Virgin Mary, and that the dung, in his parents’ native country of Nigeria, symbolized fertility and the power of the elephant. Nevertheless, and probably unaware of the artist’s meaning, people were outraged.

    Traditionally, aesthetics in art has been associated with beauty, enjoyment, and the viewer’s visual, intellectual, and emotional captivation. Scandalous art may not be beautiful, but it very well could be enjoyable and hold one captive. The viewer is taken in and is attracted to something that is neither routine nor ordinary. All are considered to be meaningful experiences that are distinctive to Fine Arts. Aesthetic judgment goes hand in hand with ethics. It is part of the decision-making process people use when they view a work of art and decide if it is “good” or “bad.” The process of aesthetic judgment is a conceptual model that describes how people decide on the quality of artworks created and, for them individually or societally, makes an ethical decision about a certain work of art.

    As we can see, art indubitably has had the power to shock and, as a source of social provoca- tion, art will continue to shock unsuspecting viewers. Audiences will continue to feel scandalized, disturbed, or offended by art that is socially, politically, and religiously challenging. Being consid- ered scandalous or radical, as already observed, does not take away from experiencing or appre- ciation of the art, nor do such responses speak to the artist’s ethics or morality. Art may, however, fail in some eyes to offer an aesthetic experience. Such a failure also depends on the complexrelationship between art and the viewer, living in a given moment of time.

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