Art, Ethics, & the Limits of Expression


Alexandra Phillips


Recently several works of art have come to public attention that have that skirted or even exceeded the limits of legality or norms of decency, creating deep revulsion among the public and strong reactions in the art world. The controversies have brought the role art plays in society, and the responsibility of the artist to society, into question once again. In the United States for example, Yale art student Aliza Shvarts claimed to have executed a work that consisted of multiple impregnations and subsequent abortions. Although Ms. Shvarts now says this project was a hoax, the fact that she presented it as a serious work for which she expected to receive credit from her faculty, underscores the dilemma many instructors, and the art world in general, face in dealing with such controversial works.

There are numerous other examples from recent history. Last year in Canada the Vancouver Art Gallery presented a retrospective of renowned Chinese-born artist Huang Yong Ping. Ping’s art, which is influenced by traditions of randomness in Chinese fortune-telling in the I Ching, as well as Dadaist games of chance by Marcel Duchamp, critiques colonialism, racism and the operations of power in numerous works, many of which include taxidermic displays of dead animals such as tigers and bats. Ping went too far for many however, when, interpreting the instructions of the ancient hexagram for Decay, he placed in an undivided screened enclosure a collection of venomous animals including cockroaches, millipedes, tarantulas, scorpions, snakes, lizards, and toads. The work: “Theater of the World” purported to act as a metaphor for the innate hostility of human societies.

No sooner had the work gone on display than the SPCA received a complaint from the public citing animal cruelty. The SPCA’s subsequent order to modify the exhibit by removing certain animals and offering more shelter and warmth to others, so enraged the artist at the infringement of his freedom of expression, that he ordered the piece closed. In its place were mounted hundreds of letters, emails, and articles both pro and con, received by the gallery. For its part the gallery steadfastly defended the artist’s right to exhibit this work, citing the important role artists play as harbingers of a future as yet unknown, and mourning the loss to society of the important insights that only they can provide. The fate of this work in Vancouver was a virtual reprise of its reception in Paris in 1994, when the director of the Centre Pompidou complained: “It’s terrible. The object of the exhibition is precisely the transgression of taboos (Julius 140).”

In yet another recent example Costa Rican artist Guillermo Habacuc Vargas tied a starving dog to a gallery wall and allowed it to slowly expire from hunger and thirst. No one observing this “exhibit“ offered relief to this animal. As an expression of its appreciation for this act of cruelty the Costa Rican government awarded Mr. Vargas the honour of representing his country at the Central American Biennale. Then there are the examples of the NEA five whose work in retrospect seems almost innocent by comparison, but was used by right wing politicians as the justification to end federal funding to individual artists.
As the faculty who advised Aliza Shvarts discovered, academicians are not protected from these controversies. In fact, some would say, its our reiteration of avant-garde values in the classroom that give rise to them. I myself have at various times been approached by students who wished as part of their course material, to urinate in front of their classmates, to display as sculpture the body fluids they had collected as part of their ongoing self-mutilation exercises, and to exhibit homeless people in the classroom.

In the career of every instructor of art there will be instances where students approach with project proposals that present debatable parameters and you will be forced to decide whether this work can be accepted for credit. How do we determine whether such proposals are acceptable as a course contribution? What guidelines should we employ when confronted with art that makes us deeply uneasy, but which may nevertheless, contain important insights? Moreover as artists and designers ourselves, how do we determine what limits if any, of expression are acceptable in the production of art?

Are there ethical standards that should be brought to bear in the production of art? Or do such standards merely reinforce the status quo of social acceptability, unintentionally playing the censor’s hand and thereby abetting the forces of repression that would end creative exploration?

Two poles of this debate can be expressed in the following terms: Yale professor Seth Kim-Cohen, quoted in the Yale Daily News in an article responding to the Shvarts debate, defined art as a “zone of free play in which the ideas, concerns, joys and sorrows of a community can be engaged in safety and without practical ramifications.” Art for him is a form of “societal role-playing, a testing of conceptions of identity and ideology undertaken in a buffered space. In this sense art tests societal mores as drug trials test medications: prior to or separate from their availability and use in the real, legislated world. It is incumbent upon us, especially as members of a community of learners, to understand what art does and how it does it. It is our intellectual imperative to ensure that art not be confused with politics, law, business or science. Such confusion has ramifications: books have been burned, poets exiled, filmmakers blacklisted, painters jailed. For art to speak to the interests of its time and place, it must be allowed to speak.” For this professor, art is that activity that isn’t anything else, a place where the imagination can play without fear of intimidation or consequences. In this Kim-Cohen echoes Gustav Flaubert who wrote: “This is why I love Art. Its because at least there, in the world of fictions, everything can happen…(Julius 224).”

On the other hand Art Institute of Chicago Dean Carol Becker, no stranger to controversies among her own student body, characterizes this notion of the “free space of the imagination” as a bourgeois conception of freedom. In a conversation with Suzy Gablik, Becker talks about how art schools have perpetuated the avant-garde myth of the disenfranchised, infantilized artist on the periphery of society as one that supports capitalist ideas of the autonomy of the individual and individual freedom. Becker describes this idea of freedom as one apart from society, not a freedom for the individual within society (Gablik 364-365). Ultimately she says, these notions of the bohemian, avant-garde artist perpetuate alienation, and reinforce the view that freedom is something to be found outside society, in opposition to its more and structures.

So here we have two poles of a debate that addresses the role of art and the responsibility of the artist to society. On the one hand, an absolute freedom of the imagination where alternative ways of being and doing can be tested as an integral part of a progressive society’s attempts to regenerate itself. On the other, the idea that a paradigm shift is needed which recognizes that artists are embedded in society and that they should think about their relation to society, and their responsibilities as creative producers.

Now any discussion of the role of the artist should recall that the idea of the artist as outsider originated with the early avant-garde in the late nineteenth century when the traditional sources of employment for artists as visual recorders were supplanted by photography. Finding themselves outside the mainstream, artists searched for ways to continue working that no longer involved strict adherence to illusionist representation. This condition, arising at a time of overall social unrest and dislocation with the onset of industrial capitalism, promoted the idea that art as a category of human productivity was a thing apart from normal life. Reacting to their own alienation and widespread social disillusionment after the Great War, avant-garde artists seized on shock as an implement of the artist’s tool-box, both as a weapon of protest and as a vehicle of creativity.

The Futurists in particular took an aggressively hostile position to society, deriding everything that wasn’t modern, progressive, or technological. Within the context of the creaking edifices of post-Victorian, imperialist societies with their class-bound, gender and race-restricted mores, shock must have seemed a powerful antidote to the intransigence of the status quo. The transgressive nature of progressive art was captured by Theodor Adorno who wrote: “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime (Adorno quoted in Julius 222).” For a hundred years transgression has fueled the production of art. “The modern period can be characterized in part by three distinct kinds, or versions, of transgressive art: an art that breaks art’s rules; an art of taboo-breaking; a politically resistant art. That is to say there is an art that repudiates established art practices, an art that violates certain beliefs and sentiments of its audience, and an art that challenges the rule of the state (Julius 102).” Indeed the very idea of the artist remains implicated in the notion of the creative genius as “lawless, necessarily violating the conventional and the lawful in the realization of his genius. Rules are mere restraints on his creativity; the art canon is a tyranny from which he must free himself. He must surmount many obstacles, among which is the burden of art’s own past. His family may suffer, laws may be broken, he may even have to defy the state itself. This is the heroism off the artist, a transgressor for the sake of his art (Julius 100).”

But has transgression’s shock now become a convention of art, something that serves to reinforce notions of artists as amusing if thought provoking fools on the outskirts of society? Has shock in fact now become institutionalized, so that its appearance among the “chattering classes” signals the presence of a significant work? I give you as an example the recent sale of Emily Carr University graduate Terence Koh’s semen-stained underwear for tens of thousands of dollars. Such prices underline the degree to which the market still considers shock as one of the key indicators of value. The significance of shock remains intimately tied to the amount of discourse an artwork generates: the volume of press is conflated and confused with the inherent value of the artwork as the intoxicating spotlight of international media beams down like a high-megawatt grow light, expanding the art’s aura in its glare.

But even the early avant-garde recognized the limited value of shock: once the initial effect has passed the entire effect fades away, never to pack the same punch. Today works that once shocked and offended even the avant-garde, are under heavy guard in our great institutions where they reign as anointed sovereigns of the empire of international culture. I give you Duchamp’s urinal, whose legacy of shock and disgust still acts as the font of honour, if not the Fountain, for subsequent works that stir similar reactions.

But does shock still carry the same ability to propel society forward by challenging outdated notions, in effect to regenerate itself through the element of surprise? Does shock still carry the ability to regenerate outmoded art forms, as it has for the past century? What is the contemporary context of shock as an art supply?

I submit that in a world where fundamentalists regularly blow themselves and the public up for a cause, where the most intimate details of the lives of the famous are voluntarily divulged on the mass media, where unimaginable extremes of wealth, poverty, and racial division exist in adjacent neighbourhoods in the great cities, when private investment banks are rewarded for their larceny with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, where we contemplate the utter extinction of ancient species such as birds, whales, amphibians, and plants, as well as the disappearance of all the glaciers and polar ice sheets due to global warming, that there is little art can do to shock anyone. I would argue in fact that the sense of immanent global disaster is now so acute that the shock delivered by the occasional artistic outrage acts only as a momentary diversion from the general emotional paralysis in the face of our colossal problems. We no longer live in a world where people have to be forced to take notice of startling and disturbing events, rather these are the nightly fare of news stories. The rapid, ceaseless, technological change the Futurists longed for, is now the exhausting norm.

In contrast to the shock generated by works such as those by Aliza Shvarts and Terence Koh, I would ask you to consider the shock that Carol Becker experienced when on a trip to Spain during the Gulf War, she discovered that artists were regularly sought out by newspapers for their considered reflections on that conflict (Gablik 361)? Can you imagine a world where creative people were normally quoted as thoughtful leaders of opinion? Such a scenario is nearly unimaginable in North America, but I put it to you that our persistent reiteration of avant-garde alienation now only serves to sideline artists in the public view as inventive freaks. Moreover, the use of transgression as a motivating force in art now appears spent. As Susan Sontag noted: “Transgressions presuppose successful notions of order. But transgressions have become so successful that the idea of transgression has become normative for the arts- which is a self-contradiction (Sontag quoted in Julius 234).”

But what of Professor Kim-Cohen’s stalwart defence of art as a free space, a place where the imagination can roam without fear of intimidation or consequences? Should artists limit their creative impulses to only those ideas and areas of production that follow existing norms? I would argue that the human imagination is not some fragile flower: many are the totalitarian regimes that have witnessed the flourishing of creativity under their heels. No less an artist than novelist and former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel ironically noted the vacuum of ideology created by the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the negative effect it was having on the country’s artists who no longer had anything to react against.

But where I differ from Professor Kim-Cohen is where art departs from its “buffered space” of the imaginary and enters the real where the conception of the artist is no longer a representation but actuality. To inflict suffering in the name of art may contain important insights as the Vancouver Art Gallery or Guillermo Vargas maintain, but the value of these insights must be weighed against the assumption that the public will silently accept the wanton cruelty they cause. To gain notoriety through acts of self-mutilation, humiliation, or cruelty must be weighed against the very real calls from disenfranchised peoples or the immanent threat to endangered species.

Rather than erecting new standards of censorship I think it would be useful if new standards of value based on an ethical questioning of an artwork’s intentions, were determined by artists themselves. Instead of allowing ourselves to be titillated by apparent outrages to existing standards of decency and acceptability, perhaps we should be asking questions such as: “what is the work’s intention, and whose interests does it serve?” Is it a cheap publicity stunt, or does it have something meaningful to say other than its attack on convention? Other questions that might be raised in relation to an artwork’s value are: “which relations of power does it support?” “What are its effects on the health of the planet and of the person?” “Does it break the bond between humans and nature?” “Does it serve community?” “Does it serve to commodify knowledge or relationships?” “How does it affect our way of seeing and experiencing the world?” “Does it foster a diversity of forms of knowledge?” “What values does it foster?” “How does it affect our perception?” “Is it consistent with the creation of a communal, human economy?” “What are its effects on relationships?”

By these standards of measurement I would venture that Aliza Shvarts’s project succeeded only as a trivialization of the struggle of millions of women over the last century to obtain reproductive freedom through access to safe, legal abortions. Shvarts’s work is weak because it tells us only that one woman can acquire a medical service for her own purposes, but fails to contextualize the political and social struggle for access to that service. Interpreted by fundamentalists Shvarts’s project could well become an unintended billboard for those who would deny women control over their bodies. As artists I believe we share responsibility for the consequences of our works, as far as can be reasonably foreseen.

Professor Kim-Cohen thinks art should occupy an exclusive zone of freedom precisely because its realm is imaginary. But there is nothing imaginary about the slow death of Guillermo Vargas’s dog on the exhibit floor, and the inevitable conflict between Huang Yong Ping’s scorpions and tarantulas would more nearly approximate the Roman Coliseum than the debating chamber of the United Nations. While the realm of the imaginary is limitless, all actions in the real are subject to the law, just as freedom of speech is bounded by the limits of libel and slander. Exactly the same arguments for freedom of scientific inquiry are made as for artistic freedom, that is the advancement of knowledge is critical to social renewal. But the scientific community long ago accepted ethical standards in the conduct of its research involving life, and these standards are held to frequent public and professional review. I would suggest that artists subject their own practices to similar standards. Rather than asking “How low can we go?” How shocking can we be?” I would ask: “How far can we as artists creatively challenge society within an ethical framework?” For if we ourselves violate ethical norms, how can we expect to sensitize others?

Emily Carr University of Art & Design
November 2008


Gablik, Suzy. Conversations Before the End of Time Dialogues on Art, Life, and Spiritual Renewal. Thames and Hudson, London: 1995.

Julius, Anthony. Transgressions the Offenses of Art. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 2003.