In the first part of this article, we mentioned that artists can have a huge impact as role models. We invited you to share some of your ideas and questions with us, and in the meantime, we have put together some strong examples of the huge impact of art.
– At the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards singer Lady Gaga wore a dress made of raw beef, designed by Fran Fernandez using meat sourced from his family butcher. The dress was condemned by animal rights groups, raising ethical questions on the exploitation of animals. Gaga had also previously worn a bikini made of meat for the cover of the Japanese edition of Vogue.
– In 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon produced a controversial conceptual film called Rape, in which a small film-making crew randomly selected a woman and followed her through a cemetery and a park, and eventually to her apartment. According to Ono, the woman in the film was not a voluntary participant in the project.
The film has grown to become an example of how the institution of cinema has mistreated women. (https://faroutmagazine.co.uk/john-lennon-yoko-ono-film-rape/)
– A striking example is when the London Design Museum decided to host an event for a weapons manufacturer and had to return about a third of the works in the current exhibition to those artists who strongly criticized it. It happened in July 2018 and nearly 40 artists signed an open letter requesting that their work be removed from the museum after they discovered it had hosted a reception for Leonardo, the ninth largest defense company in the world.
The letter reads: “It is deeply hypocritical that the museum exhibits and celebrates the work of radical anti-corporate artists and activists, supporting and profiting from one of the most destructive and deadly industries in the world.” It also urges the museum to adopt a new policy that rejects any funding from arms, tobacco and fossil fuel companies.
– In 1995, British artist Marcus Harvey painted Myra, an adaptation of the mugshot of serial killer Myra Hindley, who, along with her husband, had killed 5 children in the 1960s. The painting was included in the Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1997. Four members of the Royal Academy resigned in protest of its inclusion in the exhibition. The exhibition was protested by the mother of one of the murdered children, and on the opening day of the exhibition, the painting was vandalized twice with ink and eggs (Quint, 2019).
– Jan Fabre’s Knight of Despair / Warrior of Beauty exhibition opened at the Hermitage on October 21 with stuffed animals in strange poses and situations, sparking hysteria in Russia. Shocked visitors, animal rights activists and even the Russian Christian Orthodox Church called the event disgusting and inappropriate. The Hermitage responded to criticism by complaining about an audience that “proved uneducated” and even organized a special event to explain the essence of The Knight of Despair / Warrior of Beauty (Guide to St. Petersburg, 2016).
– In 2013, Tate removed from its online collection 34 prints of Graham Ovenden, the artist found guilty in the Truro Crown Court of six counts of indecency with a child and one count of indecent assault (Higgins, 2013). The museum also considered ethics more important than showing Ovenden’s work. In 2013 he was jailed for two years and three months by the Court of Appeals. Following his conviction, some galleries have removed images of his work from the exhibition. In 2015, a judge ordered the destruction of Ovenden’s personal collection of paintings and photographs (Tate, 2018).
– Damian Hirst is known for the use of animals in his works. Over the span of his career, it has been calculated that Hirst has used 913,450 animal carcasses in his work. One Thousand Years featured a severed cow’s head, while other exhibitions have featured various animals, such as sheep and sharks preserved in formaldehyde, and thousands of butterflies fixed onto canvas. In Venice, an exhibition of his was protested by means of depositing manure on the steps of the exhibition space, while in San Francisco an artist made 9000 paper butterflies out of pornographic magazines to protest Hirst’s use of insects. (https://news.artnet.com/art-world/damien-whats-your-beef-916097) (https://www.complex.com/style/2014/04/paper-butterflies-in-protest-of-damien-hirst)
There is a question that arises spontaneously when we reflect on contemporary artistic production: what do we really want to leave for the future, what message do we want to shout to posterity, what do we want to feed them?
Should we judge artists by their work or by their ethical position?
Can we appreciate the artistic achievements of figures (and I would add institutions) despite their peculiar characteristics and approaches?
Much of public opinion and art users argue that art should be judged for what it is, disconnected from the ethical point of view of the creator. It is also true that art cannot be seen as separate from the person who created it, because it is in itself a message and represents its creator.
And we also want to introduce further food for thought: to what extent is the message expressive art, and how much of it is art for the market? In other words, we would like to pause for just a few moments to ask ourselves how much art really expresses the artist or how much the market is asking the artist to express themself through that specific message in order to achieve the desired result.
The exhibitions promoted by the institutions inevitably reflect the beliefs, assumptions and ethical values of the market. However, decisions on the content of the exhibition necessarily pose a series of crucial questions including: is it really necessary to exhibit any work of art without censorship limit?
Some may argue that the qualities that have enabled certain artists to gain a place in the Tate collection cannot be suddenly erased by the perversions of the man who created them. But we can also argue: why not? Everyone is responsible for their actions and their consequences, isn’t their work incinerated at the very moment when a minefield is created around it?
To what extent can success allow the artist and the individual to shake off universal responsibilities and above all, as an icon and a means of communication, educational responsibility towards the public and the future?
It is often thought that an ethical principle should be openness and honesty, inviting the public to participate in the interpretative process. But what remains of art at this point?
What we express and exhibit authorizes, authenticates and soothes or, conversely, offends, disturbs and irritates. It is essential to remember that exhibitions communicate values and that these values have an impact on the public.
Ethical responsibilities are obvious and often overlooked; the message spread by the works on display is fundamental to shape the perception of the public.
Ethics in art is not only about sensitive or controversial content, but also beliefs, assumptions and the image of the world. It is only through the process of systematic reflection and evaluation of the ethical commitment towards the diversified public that artists and art managers can exclude certain practices because they are unjustifiable, offensive or wrong. This demonstrates strength, sensitivity towards sensitive issues, openness and breaking stereotypes. To the extent that art professionals recognize the ethical dimension underlying expressiveness by discussing and condemning unhealthy practices, contemporary art can truly become a terrain for reflection, growth and pure value.