Oakley, Jason: ‘ARTISTS AND ETHICS’, A PANEL DISCUSSION HELD AT THE VAI GET TOGETHER 2014

How do artists deal with the ethical problems posed by showing work in dubious and conflicted contexts? Recent examples would include Manifesta 10 in St Petersburg, the Dubai and Qatar art fairs and the Sydney Biennale. These have been criticised, respectively for complacency in relation to the oppression of human rights in Russia and the annexing of Crimea; parading radical art world chic in repressive non-democratic states; drawing sponsorship from a company building and running off-shore internment camps for illegal immigrants. Can a shared code of ethics ever govern the random and uncaring artworld universe? Should artists subscribe to the notion of ethics when it comes to making work and their day-to-day practices?

To consider these issues ‘Artists and Ethics’, a panel discussion organised by Visual Artists Ireland in association with AICA Ireland (1), brought together Elaine A King (Carnegie Mellon University, USA) – a specialist in the field of art and ethics – with socially engaged Irish artist Brian Maguire and the writers Gemma Tipton (Irish Times, RTE, Artforum) and Fionola Meredith (Irish Times, Belfast Telegraph, Guardian, BBC NI). Artist Alan Phelan chaired the discussion. (2) The event focused several elements: the ethics of art production; the relationship between artist, subject and audience; and how art world super-structures – professional individuals, institutions and the market – influence the reputational and financial value of art and artists. (3)

For Fionula Meredith the ethics of art and the artworld is a complex and perhaps irresolvable issue, and she underlined this argument in provocative terms. Meredith noted that in 2013 the Tate Gallery, London removed Graham Ovenden’s works – creepily sexualised of images of young girls – from its collection, when he was convicted of paedophile sex offences. Then, in complete contrast, Meredith continued, the institution seemed apparently nonchalant about holding on to Eric Gill’s sculpture Ecstasy, a depiction of the artist’s younger sister Gladys in an erotic tryst, despite the life-long incestuous relationship revealed by Gill’s biographers.

Meredith juxtaposed the two cases, posing a mischievous non sequitur: What constitutes an acceptable subject for art – incest or paedophilia? Meredith was satisfied to let this unanswered question nag disturbingly at the back of everyone’s minds. Closing on an equally iconoclastic tack, Meredith stressed the complex entanglement of interests present in an ever-hustling arts sector by recalling the concise thesis advanced in the 1979 single by Bristol based post-punk band The Pop Group, entitled We Are All Prostitutes.

While not explicitly addressing Meredith’s troubling Overden / Gill juxtaposition, Gemma Tipton seemed marginally more optimistic about the possibilities of teasing out an ethics of art. Tipton’s presentation We Need to Talk honed in on the ways in which the commoditisation of the art world has closed down discussion of the ethical implication of individual works. As Tipton bluntly stated, wealthy collectors are happy to acquire works that are critiques of the ills wrought by the actions or apathy of the rich and powerful, provided that the conversation around the works concentrates only on the ‘radicalness’ of the theory or concept. Tipton wryly observed that this state of affairs is compounded by the reluctance of those within the contemporary art world to talk about anything as crass or obvious as current affairs or actual human suffering – hence the absence of any widespread discomfort with the questionable elements that underpin the international art fair and biennale circuit.

Tipton noted that there had been very little discussion about the scandal of child soldiers depicted in the work of Richard Mosse – Ireland’s representative at the 2013 Venice Biennale – but a lot of chatter about the artist’s rising profile and how the work problematises representation and the documentary. Likewise she pondered why Andy Warhol’s portrait of Mao is most often considered as a deadpan commentary on media culture, rather than inspiring any discussion of the terror and oppression wrought by its subject.

Tipton presented works by Alfredo Jaar and Santiago Sierra – who embed social critique within their artworks – as instances of resistance to the neutralisation of critical engagement. Jaar’s (Untitled) Newsweek 1994 unequivocally damns the West’s complacency during the Rwandan massacres by juxtaposing the triviality of News Week cover stories – vitamins pills, suicide and stock-market fluctuations – with the week-by-week unfolding of the horrific catastrophe.

For Tipton, Santiago Sierra’s comments about his contrivance of ethically unpalatable scenarios – such lining up semi-naked prostitutes in a gallery space and paying them to have a line tattooed across their backs – were a perfect provocation for what the art world should really be talking about “I do the work of an interior decorator or an organiser of exclusive events for the cultural elite … I give high society and high culture the mechanisms to unload their morality and their guilt.”(Santiago Sierra BOMB Magazine Winter 2004).

With an emphasis on American institutional contexts, Elaine A King concentrated on conflicts of interest impinging on the management, collecting policies and curation of art museums and galleries. King observed that, unlike other professional sectors, the art world’s ethical terrain, especially in the interaction between the art market and public institutions is fluid and not subject to any compulsory formal codes or centralised regulatory body.

King cited the art critic Jerry Saltz as a leading apologist for this state of affairs. While he’s typified the commercial art world as ‘Babylon’, Saltz is wary of regulatory buffers between the market and museum, fearing a kind of authoritarian trickle down, impinging on the artist’s freedom of expression. Saltz responded to criticism of private collection exhibitions as ‘fluff shows’, writing: “When I hear a word like ‘ban’ I reach for my dictionary and review the definition of the word democracy.” (4)

While King broadly agreed with the notion of keeping art practice free of ethical regulation, she is adamant that collectors and public museums must be held to account for any questionable dealings. For King the issue is more pressing now than ever, with public spaces in the US and globally struggling with reduced staff and strained budgets, being pressurised into delivering economically productive programmes and engaging with cultural tourism or urban development imperatives.

King cited New York’s New Museum, which was embroiled in controversy when it announced the 2010 show ‘Skin Fruit’, drawn exclusively from the collection of Dakis Joannou, a trustee and patron of the institution. Critics claimed that an ethical line separating curatorial selections from commercial interests had been crossed. As King pointed out, super-rich collectors can donate works to public museums in return for considerable tax breaks – basically getting their money back – and in turn increase future profits when further works by the same, now ‘museum accredited’, artist are sold.

King also considered the ethics of institutions portraying sensitive matters such as commemoration of human tragedies, focusing on the 9/11 Museum in New York. At the time of the discussion controversy was raging around the notions of a national place of mourning – a graveyard – that charged admission and was formulated along the lines of a ‘visitor attraction’ or entertainment experience – including the breath taking insensitivity of locating a gift shop over a site of unexcavated remains.

Addressing the ethics of artists and art making, King boldly asserted that actually, on occasion, they could and should be called to account. For her, Maritzio Cattalan’s untitled 2004 public installation work, comprising realistic mannequins of children lynched on a tree Milan, was step to far. For all the arguments that the work could be read as a criticism of the failings and abuses perpetrated the Catholic Church towards the children placed in its care, King felt that the work’s sensationalism – in the context of the near idolatry of children within Italian society – entirely obliterated the legibility of the work’s critical content. Chair Alan Phelan stated that he saw the work as satirical and humorous, but King’s point did chime with Tipton’s assertion that art deserved better than the hip art world cognoscenti’s knee-jerk prohibition on discussing emotive issues.

Artist Brian Maguire sketched out his long-standing socially engaged practice, working in ‘closed places’: prisons, mental health institutions, marginalised social groups and places. In doing so, he outlined his personal ethical code – fallible, humble yet robust – that is based on a strong personal sense of common decency. The artist was honest about how narrow the border between solidarity and exploitation is, but professed the utmost commitment to staying on the right side of the line.

Maguire’s recent work deals with the rape and murder of young women in Mexico. It’s based on a methodology of working with bereaved families and making portraits of their deceased loved ones. The resulting body of work comprises paintings that the artist gives to the families to do with as they please – including sell to the art market – and works he makes for himself.

These works include deeply troubling images, based on images taken by photojournalists of the victims’ mutilated remains. While admitting that paintings do become part of the commercial art market, Maguire argued that ‘fixing’ these images as unique paintings is a significant act of resistance. It prevents these telling pictures being lost, as photographic images become more and more devalued in our information-overloaded present. Maguire also noted that this body of work had been bought by a collector who wanted only to keep the works together and was allowing the artist to hold onto the work for five years, in order to circulate the paintings and keep the issue of the Mexican femicide in the public eye.

Maguire’s presentation emphasised the complexity of all ethically motivated actions. He noted wryly that he could only vouch for his collector’s taste in art, not his business practices. Referring to current controversies around Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg, Maguire spoke about his anti-boycott stance, maintaining that ‘closed places’ were the ones most in need of visitors. Maguire summed up his belief in an ethics of engagement, quoting American labour leader Eugene V Debs: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” (5)

A speaker from the floor expanded on the discussion, criticising the increasing bureaucratisation of everyday life and erosions of civil liberties. It was a point that was perhaps worth expanding on – after all, while contemporary theorists are rightly critical of the rise of this virus-like ‘bio-politics’ intruding on every aspect of human life, there remains the paradox that, other than regulation and enforcement, how are abuses of power to be countered?

Adding to Meredith and Tipton’s provocations, another speaker from the floor wondered aloud whether socially engaged art was an equivalent to reality television or the evening television news headlines – provoking little more than schadenfreude, assuring audiences of their own relative good fortune. There were no takers for this rather jaundiced observation, other than Maguire’s categorical disagreement: “Art is nothing like television”

The value of this discussion was in disentangling questions around the ethics of art making from the more institutional and structural matters of circulation and display, which includes questions around censorship. King made it clear that we must be aware of the web of relationships that exist between museum directors, boards, curators, dealers and collectors, and the impact this has on the ethical integrity of the art world. Furthermore, she insisted that guidelines and regulations must to applied to address this. Likewise (although the point is hardly revelatory), the entire panel concurred that artists and the art world should clearly be free to create, support and circulate art that provokes and examines ethical questions. In doing so we strive to create a democratic space for debate, proposition and provocation.

Jason Oakley, Publications Manager Visual Artists Ireland.

Notes

1. Philosophical ponderings about the nature and origins of ethics were pragmatically kept out of the frame by the event organisers (of which this author was one), with the common-sense presupposition that ethics could be broadly understood as ‘doing the right thing’.

2. AICA Ireland (www.aica.ie) is the Irish section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA).

3. Elaine A King is Professor of History of Art and Theory and Museum Studies in the College of Fine Arts, Carnegie Mellon University. She is a specialist in twentieth century American art and culture, as well as Central Europe and Puerto Rico. King was a Senior Research Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in 2000 – 2001. She contributes regularly to Sculpture and Artes Magazine.

Alan Phelan’s practice involves the production of objects, participatory events and projects, writing and curating. These inform and contribute to an interest in the narrative potential surrounding an artwork, located in an inter-textual context. www.alanphelan.com

Gemma Tipton is a regular contributor to the Irish Times, Artforum and RTE radio and television.

Brian Maguire’s work emerges from social and political situations and approaches painting as a gesture of solidarity. Since 2010, his work has focused on the Mexican city Juarez, addressing the phenomenon of femicide – by working with the families and women affected, and by becoming ‘embedded’ with crime reporters on the city’s newspaper El Norte. Maguire has shown consistently in Europe and the USA with participation in shows in Korea, China and Japan. In 2000, a major retrospective toured from Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane to Contemporary Art Museum, Houston USA.

Fionola Meredith (PhD Scholastic Philosophy, Queen’s University) is a Belfast-based freelance writer who is a regular contributor to the Irish Times, the Belfast Telegraph, the Guardian and programming on BBC Northern Ireland.

4. Jerry Saltz, On Defending the New Museum, New York Magazine, November 2009

5. Eugene Victor Debs (1855 –1926) was an American union leader, and one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World.