Imagine a world in which our preconditioned minds are temporarily erased upon entrance to a museum or a gallery, so to allow us to consume art objectively. What would art and its consumption be like if our memories, traditions, and beliefs did not interfere with the way we create and understand the creative?
It’s nearly impossible, unless you are a young child whose mind is yet to be affected by the world. Jean Paul Sartre wrote in Situations, “You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.” As those who have read his work know, Sartre spent his lifetime evaluating the worth of human existence, ultimately questioning the freedom of an individual in the context of social and political limitations. Since the conditions of life ultimately affect human expression and as a result of living in harnessed environments, the individual is not entirely free. The same goes for artists, as they create based on their experiences. For years, artists have been pushing the idea of freedom to its ethical limits, as artistic boundaries are not officially ordained. Art does, however, come into conflict with the boundaries of human governments and societies as contemporary artists explore themes such as child pornography, violence, terrorism, sexism, and racism. These topics are strictly criminal and offensive to the structures to which Jean Paul Sartre has implied we are born into.
In the thousands of years of its existence, many topics in art have lead to controversy and misunderstanding. Art is nonetheless the medium through which these topics are discussed and given wider recognition. There are so many artists working today who use political, economic, and social issues as vehicles in their artwork which often result in being received as too controversial, extremist, or politically incorrect. At this point in history, it is nearly impossible to envision harsher restrictions and censorship, just as it is difficult to separate the ethical boundaries of our own belief system from the way in which we view the visual arts.
So, can a stronghold of controversial artistic themes exist when it is done in the name of and for the sake of art?
We are constantly torn between the rights and wrongs of contemporary art. Even in a Western democratic world which embraces its alleged freedom of speech, many people can still take offense to art that violates their inherent codes of ethics. While we gloat in our freedoms of speech and alleged progressive ways of thinking, we as human beings still manage to create ethical boundaries for ourselves which hinder and limit ideas that are portrayed in contemporary art. Considering this, what are the limitations of contemporary art even though its foundation is very much based on the freedom of institution and the seemingly limitless connotations that contemporary art ideals seem to delineate? What is right, and what is wrong?
As Oscar Wilde would agree, the true artist is the one who does not assimilate or abide, as art is a response to and a reflection of humanity. Art imitates life, and vice versa. The offense people take when viewing art is usually based on ignorance of the darker realities of life. In this regard, is it the idea and the physical, visual object which occupies our emotional space that truly offends us?
When considering a work of art it is difficult for people, including myself, to separate their own upbringings and cultural beliefs from their interpretation of the artwork and the same goes for artists. Sometimes there is a difference between the artwork and the artist’s intention and even so, with or without a given context we associate binaries to determine its appropriateness within our own contexts and consequently for others. Ethics in this case do not only occupy the physical object, but also the space in which it is placed.
Does that mean the ‘dog torturing’ Guillermo Vargas or the ‘glorified insect mass-murderer’ Damien Hirst should be safe from Animal Rights activists because they do it in the name of art? With that in mind, how can one differentiate the sociopath from the artist?
The world is full of labels and hypocrisy. People point fingers as harshly as they want to at whomever and whatever they choose. Hirst’s art deals with already dead specimens while Vargas’ works with the live decay of an animal. Many people would even agree that an insect’s life is inherently less valuable than that of a dog. In this sense, why would we favor one life over another? Who are we to determine why one work of art is more wrong than the other? Perhaps Vargas was also trying to prove this very point: that we as humans have the will to either act upon or ignore the situations around us and that humanity picks and chooses what it wants to see.
I understand that the hole that is ‘ethics in art’ is being dug deeper with these questions, but these are ideas we must think about more often. It is my concluding thought that as art remains to be a platform for the individual or collective artist’s ideas it should be executed in any imaginative way they feel is necessary. Though I do not condone the exploitative use of animal abuse for example, objectively speaking, through the analysis of modern and contemporary theories and their seemingly limitless boundaries, an artist should be allowed to express themselves freely despite the context and the impending criticism they may face. With that in mind, we as spectators must hold on to this same responsibility when we consume art.