When Ethics and Art Collide

It’s difficult to read a headline like that without imagining it being about some form of art which, intentionally or not, tries to disregard social ethics in its quest for meaning. Many artists make a name for themselves through such controversy; regardless of whether Guillermo “Habacuc” Vargas actually starved a dog as part of an exhibit in 2007, he is one of those with such a reputation. Widespread rumours and e-mail petitions about the ethics/art conflict which many believed him to be indulging, resulted in an almost legend-yet-devil like status.


This kind of dispute is a relatively easy ethical conundrum to solve: is it unethical to starve a sentient individual in an attempt at creating aesthetic value? Yes. We can teach ourselves to get aesthetic pleasure from almost anything, so to go about demanding it (or trying to teach some sort of message of meaning) through enforced suffering is to allow art to encroach upon basic ethics. This doesn’t seem to be a controversial analysis.


But what about when artists and performers try to do the opposite? What about when art is used to promote or ‘preach’ about ethics? That’s a whole different and more interesting story; one which we have a lot more familiarity with.


Bill Bragg, for instance, is well-known not only for his ‘normal bloke’ ballads but also for his promotion of working class causes. He’s a song-writer who has not just influenced honest folk music for 30 years, but also played a heavy hand in influencing the US and UK punk scenes. This influence can mainly can be seen in ethical stances. He even made an appearance on the first ‘Rock Against Bush’ compilation: a project aimed at mobilising alternative musicians and fans against the 2004 US presidential re-election campaign of George W Bush.


There are many Bragg-esque examples on the music scene, especially as you dig into the youth subculture genres, however the issue of mingling art with ethics doesn’t stop with music. Mark Thomas is a comedian who also highlights issues of ethics and politics within his work: work which spanned six series of the ‘Mark Thomas Comedy Product’ on Channel 4, as well as various other shows, stand up tours and documentaries.


Again, Thomas’ influence is not hard to spot, but he also is only one speck on the comedy map of ethics. The alternative comedy movement of the 80’s – partly reinvigorated by Stewart Lee last year after he spotted a building change in style through comedy clubs up and down the country – is abundant with comedians pushing ethical positions or statements of some sort.


Stand-up comedy, in fact, gives a unique insight into the merging of art and ethics. As many have noted, stand up often consists of the performer sharing values with an audience, or throwing out an opinion with which the audience can sympathise or share: at which point the comic can then create absurdity or an idea of the bizarre with which to garner shared humour. This kind of analysis would argue that it is almost impossible to have ‘ethics-neutral’ art, as promoting one’s opinion (or the opinion of one’s stage persona) is a vital part of much art.


To be clear, it is not indirect ‘value-sharing’ that I am talking about, so much as promotion of direct ethical causes. Is it right for performers of any moral persuasion to use art to promote their causes?


So far I have talked about primarily politically moderate performers, but what about the ultimate in extremely political art? The Nazi’s famously promoted art that they believed to be in agreement with their values of racial purity and obedience.


This is where we can begin to see a potential problem with the merging of art and ethics: art can become like a Trojan horse, cloaking the values and opinions for hidden entrance into a person’s mind. The Nazi’s are an extreme example of this – a fascist government who clearly believed that propaganda was best when mobilised in a Trojan manner. How firmly did they believe this though? After all, the Luftwaffe were not endowed with speakers and banners, they were filled with bombs.


Never-the-less, the problem remains. A good theory of moral philosophy has to stand up to criticism in journals, a study touting an ethical result has to do the same, and at the very least moral causes tend to face a strict examination in the media before becoming accepted. What artists can do is push an ethical position purely on the basis of one shared observation with an audience: this is, at least to some degree, a dangerous proposition.


The question, when it comes to art and ethics, is whether we think we are educated enough to spot bad ideas when they are disguised in a loveable manner? Or at least, are we educated enough to reject new bad ideas (after all you can hardly blame art for pushing negative norms which the media may have given us)? In general, I tend to sit with the opinion that we are, but this is based on little but my own experiences of enjoying the odd performer but rejecting their ethical stance on politics.


I like to think that I enjoy watching some political comics perform because I enjoy their overtly self-aware and critical comedy, just as I like to think I like listening to Billy Bragg and Frank Turner because their style appeals to my aesthetic senses. But it can be no coincidence that I share comparable views to many of the explicitly political acts that I enjoy.


Similarly, how many of us with an appreciation of ethics can claim to have not been influenced by art during our formative years? If you had grown up with art of a different perspective, would your views be as they are now? I love that art can interest people in ethical causes, especially in a world that seems to have become colder to philanthropy, but I worry that art can cloak the transfer of values that I disagree with. Being an honest rationalist, I also therefore worry about art that can cloak the unexamined transfer of my preferred values.