Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

11.2: Ethical Considerat ions in Making and Using Art

  • Page ID
    10180
  • 11.2.1 Appropriation

    Artists have always been inspired by the work of other artists; they have borrowed composi- tional devices, adopted stylistic elements, and taken up narrative details. In such cases, the artist incorporates these aspects of another’s work into their own distinct creative endeavor. Appropriation, on the other hand, means taking existing objects or images and, with little or no change to them, using them in or as one’s own artwork. Throughout the twentieth century and to the present day, appropriation of an object or image has come to be considered a legitimate role for art and artists to play. In the new context, the object or image is re-contextualized. This allows the artist to comment on the work’s original meaning and bring new meaning to it. The viewer, rec- ognizing the original work, layers additional meanings and associations. Thus, the work becomes different, in large part based on the artist’s intent.

    Sherrie Levine (b. 1947, USA) has spent her career prompting viewers to ask questions about what changes take place when she reproduces or makes slight alterations to a well-known work of art. For example, in 1981 Levine photographed images created by Walker Evans (1903-1975, USA) that had been reproduced in an exhibition catalogue. (After Walker Evans: 4, Sherrie Levine: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/.../search/267214) She titled her series After Walker Evans, freely acknowledging Evans as the creator of the “original” photographic works. And, she openly stated, the catalogue—containing reproductions of Evans’s photographs— was the source for her own “reproductions.” Levine created her photographs by photographing the reproduced photographs in the exhibition catalogue; the photographs in the catalogue were reproductions of the photographs in the exhibition.

    Visitors to the exhibition who were familiar with Evans’s depictions of Alabama sharecropper families struggling to make a living during the Great Depression were being challenged to view Levine’s photographs, such as this one of Allie Mae Burroughs titled After Walker Evans: 4, in- dependent of their historical, intellectual, and emotional significance. Without those connections, what story did the photograph tell? Did the photograph itself having meaning, or is its message the sum of what meanings the viewer ascribes to it? Levine’s work in the 1980s was part of the postmodern art movement that questioned cultural meaning over individual significance: was it possible to consider art in such broad categories any longer, or is there such a thing as one, agreed-upon, universal meaning? She was also questioning notions of “originality,” “creativity,” and “reproduction.” What product can truly be attributed to one individual’s thought processes and efforts, with no contribution from a collective of influences? If none exists, then we cannot state something is an original work of art, springing from a single source of creativity, after which all subsequent works are reproductions. One is not more authentic or valuable than the other.

    In 1993, Levine was invited by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to be the first artist to participate in Museum Studies, a series of contemporary projects: “new works and installations created by artists specifically for the museum.” Levine created six translucent white glass “reproductions” of a 1915 marble sculpture by Constantine Brancusi (1876-1957, Romania), titled Newborn I. (Crystal Newborn, Sherrie Levine: s3.amazonaws.com/classconnec...cards/7114093/ jpg/thenewborn1334629599199-14C4CC989054F51F15F.jpg) She titled her 1993 work Crystal Newborn; it is shown here along with Black Newborn of 1994. (Crystal Newborn and Black Newborn, Sherrie Levine: api.whitney.org/uploads/image...ge_8._crystal_ newborn_1993_black_newborn_1994.jpg) Both works are cast glass, which in the case of Black Newborn, has been sandblasted. (Black Newborn, Sherrie Levine: http://www.moma.org/ collection/works/89955?locale=en)

    Similar to her 1981 photograph After Walker Evans: 4, these works are meant to examine notions about something being an original or, instead, being a reproduction. Just as her earlier photographic reproductions of Evans’s work themselves could be reproduced, so also were these glass works part of a series; Levine cast a total of twelve versions from one (original?) mold. In addition, although sculpture such as Brancusi’s Newborn I, is generally displayed on a pedestal or stand that elevates the work to a comfortable viewing height and separates it from its surround- ings, Levine had her work displayed on a grand piano. Doing so changed the setting from a more conventional, expected, but consciously neutral mode of display, the pedestal, to the more nu- anced, domesticated, yet sophisticated tone of a polished piano top. She wanted the difference to register in the viewer’s mind and influence the viewer’s response to the work, including thinking of the contrast: the typical museum display is masculine, that is, part of the male world of wealthy collectors and museum board members. The piano, on the other hand, brings to mind the femi- nine world of the comforting and comfortable home it is a sculpture of a newborn, after all. But the cool, smooth, hard surface of Levine’s glass, as was the case of Brancusi’s marble, does not allow the infant head to descend to the level of maternal sentimentality.

    Levine maintains tremendous similarities to the works preceding hers that she appropriates from, but she opens up their accumulated meanings to even more, new ones.

    11.2.2 Use of Materials

    The materials artists use to create their art throughout history have generally contributed to the value of the work. Using silver or ivory or gems or paint made from a rare mineral or numerous other materials that are costly and difficult to obtain literally raised the monetary value of the work produced. If the artwork was made for a political or religious leader, the cultural value of the work increased because it was associated with and owned by those of high status in society. On the other hand, using materials at odds with social values raises questions in the viewer’s mind. For example, ivory was and still is a desirable material for carving, but it is illegal to trade in elephant ivory within the United States as African elephants are now an endangered species. Viewers’ awareness of and sensitivity to the plant and animal life impacted in the production of art is increasing, and may actually be a factor in the materials an artist chooses to use.

    Damien Hirst (b. 1965, England) began his career in the late 1980s associated with the Young British Artists (YBA). Hirst, along with others in the group, was known for his controversial subjects and approaches in his art. Much of his art from that time to the present has been concerned with spirituality Hirst was raised Catholic and with death as an end and a beginning, a boundary and a portal. One of the motifs he has returned to throughout his career is the butterfly. With its transformative life cycle, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult, the butterfly serves for Hirst as a “universal trigger.” That is, the symbolism associated with the butterfly’s life cycle, linked by the ancient Greeks to the psyche, or soul, by early Christians to resurrection, and by many to this day to innocence and freedom, is so deeply imbedded in human consciousness that it springs to the viewer’s mind automatically. In his art, those associations are the foundation upon which Hirst builds.

    Hirst began his experimentations with butterflies in 1991 when he created a dual installation and exhibition, In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) and In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays). Both contained living butterflies that were intended to and did die over the course of the five-week display. (http://www.damienhirst.com/exhibitions/ solo/1991/in-out-love) His first solo show, In and Out of Love, set the stage for Hirst’s career and reputation as an artist who confronts definitions of art and provokes the viewer to explain how art helps us to grapple with boundaries between and intersections of life and death, reason and faith, hope and despair.

    Touching upon his interests in religion and science, including lepidoptery, the study of butterflies, Hirst often makes biblical references in the titles of his artwork, and he mimics aspects of how butterflies have traditionally been displayed in his compositions. He began the Kaleidoscope series in 2001, not using entire living or dead butterflies, but using only their wings, symbolizing for him a separation from the unavoidable ugliness and unpleasantness of life—the butterfly’s hairy body—to preserve only the fleeting beauty of the wings and their associations with the swift passing of time. The Kingdom of the Father is a later work in the series, dating to 2007. (Kingdom of the Father, Damien Hirst: broadmuseum.msu.edu/sites/def...rst-Kingdom%20 of%20the%20Father_72.jpg?width=90%25&height=90%25) The title, compositional elements, and overall shape of the mixed-media work are directly linked to the artist’s absorption with religion: here, as with a number of works in the Kaleidoscope series, the work looks like a stained glass window found in the Gothic cathedrals that fascinated Hirst as a child.

    Despite the splendid effect of their vivid colors, energized compositions, and iridescent glow, some viewers object to the materials Hirst uses: the beauty and luminosity is derived from thou- sands of butterflies killed so that their wings could be used in his work. In 2012, the Tate Modern in London mounted a retrospective of Hirst’s art, the first major exhibition in England to review work from his entire career. His 1991 installation, In and Out of Love, was recreated as part of the show. (http://www.damienhirst.com/exhibitions/solo/2012/tate) Some critics and animal rights activists lodged complaints about the estimated 9,000 butterflies that died over the course of the twenty-three week event. For example, a spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) stated, “There would be national outcry if the exhibition involved any other animal, such as a dog. Just because it is butterflies, that does not mean they do not de- serve to be treated with kindness.” The Tate Modern issued a statement that the butterflies were “sourced from reputable UK butterfly houses.” They also defended their use as integral to Hirst’s art, stating, “the themes of life and death as well as beauty and horror are highlighted, dualities that are prevalent in much of the artist’s work.”

    In essence, the museum, along with many other individuals and institutions over the course of Hirst’s career, acknowledged the complaints, but accepted the artist’s actions as an acceptable part of his creative process, and determined his artistic intentions were of greater importance than any issues of morality raised. Simply, the butterflies were the means to a higher end, his artwork.

    11.2.3 Digital Manipulation

    Digital manipulation of photographs through the use of Adobe Photoshop and other computer software is so commonplace today it generally goes unnoticed or without comment. Digital manipulation is used by amateur and professional photographers alike, and can be a helpful, con- structive tool. When photographs are manipulated with the aim of altering factual information, however, an ethical line has been crossed.

    In 2006, freelance photographer Adnan Hajj made changes to a photograph, carried by Reuters Group, a news agency, of smoke rising in the midst of buildings in Beirut following an Israeli attack during the Israel-Lebanon conflict. (The Adnan Hajj photographs controversy revolving around digitally manipulated photographs: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikiped...comparison.jpg) A blogger commented that the photograph showed signs of manipulation. Comparing the unaltered photograph on the left to the published image on the right reveals that the smoke is obviously darker; in addition, the spreading smoke at the top of the photograph shows the telltale patterning, known as cloning, which indicates a digital effect that has been repeatedly duplicated. Reuters immediately retracted the photograph and issued the statement, “Reuters takes such matters extremely seriously as it is strictly against company editorial policy to alter pictures.”

    The ethical premise is that photojournalists are expected to conform to accepted professional standards of conduct. In fact, the National Press Photographers Association has established a Code of Ethics that addresses the issue: “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.” Of importance here is that, as news, these images must remain factual, and must represent the events and people truthfully and faithfully. When a photograph is manipulated with the intent to deceive the viewer, as was the case with Hajj’s enhancement of the damage done by an Israeli strike against the Lebanese, it changes the historical record; it is unethical.

    11.2.4 As an Observer

    Photojournalists are expected to follow the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Code of Ethics not only when it comes to the manipulation of news images, but also in the acquisi- tion of those images. In times of war, political unrest, or natural disasters, for example, they may be in the midst of events that unfold in unexpected and disturbing ways. The photojournalist is an observer whose role is to make a record of the events, but as a fellow human being, should the photographer become involved or offer aid?

    In 1993, photojournalist Kevin Carter (1960-1994, South Africa) photographed a starving young girl being watched by a vulture during a time of famine in Sudan. (Vulture, Kevin Carter: http://theunsolicitedopinion.com/wp-...er-vulture.jpg) The photograph was sold to The New York Times and was featured in that newspaper and numerous others worldwide, generating tremendous concern about the fate of the child and commentary on the ethics of taking the photograph, especially as the scene was described as a toddler having collapsed on her way to a relief station for food. But, guidelines in the NPPA Code of Ethics state: “While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.” Many felt, however, that in light of the child’s condition and helplessness, the photographer had the responsibility to take action.

    According to Carter and Joao Silva, a friend and fellow photographer, the situation and Car- ter’s responses were more nuanced than it may appear in the photograph. Carter and Silva arrived by airplane in the village of Ayod with United Nations personnel bringing provisions to the local feeding center. As women and children began gathering at the center, Carter photographed them. The child was a short distance away in the bush, approaching the center with difficulty on her own; as Carter watched, the vulture landed. As recounted later in Time magazine:

    Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle. Afterward he sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried. “He was depressed afterward,” Silva recalls. “He kept saying he wanted to hug his daughter.”1

    So while Carter did not otherwise aid the child, he did remove a source of immediate danger to her by waving away the vulture. He expressed regret he did not, and felt he could not, further help the girl and the many other victims he saw while on assignments. The unrelenting suffering he witnessed contributed to the depression he was subject to for years. A little more than a year after the photograph of the starving child was published, in April 1994, Carter received the Pulitzer Prize for the controversial image. A week later, Ken Oosterbroek, another friend and fellow photojournalist, was killed during a violent conflict they were photographing in their native South Africa. Haunted by sorrow, regret, atrocities he had witnessed, and the pain he felt, Carter committed suicide three months later.

    • Was this article helpful?