The ethics of admiration

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Robert Kennedy, Feb 7, 2003.

  1. Robert Kennedy

    Robert Kennedy Member

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    An ethics question for all of you -

    Should one apply an ethical standard to an image based on the manner in which it was taken?

    Example - The work of Joel Peter Witkin. Some of you may or may not be familiar with his work.

    Witkin is famous for pretty much creating a look that can be described as "Victorian Horror". It is a look that has been adopted by almost every creepy rock group out there (Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson have used this look a lot).

    Most remarkable about Witkin's work is the subjects.

    Many are dead.

    And not "Grandpa quietly laid out in the living room dead" either. We are talking about severed heads, bodies that have had autopies performed on them, etc.

    The ethical conundrum with Witkin though is not so much the fact that the subjects are dead, but as to how he has in the past gotten his subjects.

    Witkin is famous (infamous really...) for his habit of driving down to Mexico and bribing morgue workers to let him "borrow" body parts for a while so he can shoot them. He now claims that he doesn't do this anymore, but he has done it in the past. He freely admits this.

    Keeping this in mind, can one admire his work in light of his past actions?

    Now from a technical standpoint his work is great. He does some neat stuff with the medium.

    But he has in the past (and possibly in the present) done some shady things. Can one legitimately admire some fo his working knowing that the subject may very well be an unwilling participant? Especially in light of how the bodies were appropriated. Witkin intentionally took advantage of a corrupt system and used it to his advantage.

    Personally, I find that one can not seperate the two. Witkin is in essence a grave robber. He engaged in some very unethical behavior in order to create his pieces. As such they should not be admired. It would be like admiring a murder in my mind. He also had no regard for the relatives of these people he used. Imagine the horror somebody would experience if they saw a picture of Tio Julio after he had an autopsy posed next to a vase of flowers in a grisly tableau! To me there can be no seperation between the image and the actions of the artist here. His actions were unethical, so his art can not be admired.

    What are your thoughts?

    PS - I would very much like to hear from Jorge on this, as it directly relates to where he lives.
     
  2. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    Robert, the fact that Witkin was able to bribe morgue workers does not shock me. When you take into account that minimum wage in Mexico is $150 US a month, this is no surprising. Witkin taking advantage of this is not uncommon, but as to the morality of using someones body parts to create an image which has shock value, well...let me put it this way, how would you like it if it was your aunt or brother body part? and this I think applies to any country in the world.


    This to me falls in the category of shock photography, not really art but
    something that creates controversy and becomes famous for that, not for the piece itself, much like Andrés Serrano's christ in piss, I had the opportunity to see the real image and it was very mediocre, but the shock value of the title and the challenging and insult to a religion was what created the controversy. I don't think is wrong to challenge the boundaries of what society considers "good taste" to create art, but when this challenge includes or is based on insult and lack of respect to create controversy I think is worthless art and I don't concern myself with it. I am sure the followers of Marilyn Manson and nine inch nails have posters of witkin's photographs, but then these are not people in society known for their good taste and respect of values. I don't think your question is really about the ethical process of creating art but the difference between freedom and libertinage. Freedom requires responsibility, libertinage is the abuse of freedom to do as we want, which in essence is what Witkin does.

    As such, once the shock values has worn out the true art surfaces and we find these are not true artists. How many of you have heard of Andrés Serrano since his infamous piece? I bet very few, I had the opportunity to see his latest work and it was utterly boring and derivate. So, to me the "art" these people produce is meaningless and merely like an annoying fly which eventually will die or go away.

    Well that's my two cents...for what is worth.
     
  3. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    The real shocking aspect to me is that thier is a willing audience to view and purchase his work. Maybe a deeper meaning to his work exists that delves into the duality and co-existence of life and death, beauty and decadence etc., but their are many artists who do a much better job of it.

    His approach is simply borderline pornographic, designed to titillate the senses, but ultimately leaving the viewer empty and depressed, usually drained of any beuatiful or positive thought about the subject, be it sex or death.

    Most of this type of art, even if it is technically good, appeals to the lowest common denominator in all of us. The fact that the man violated any dignity the subject kept in death demonstrates how little he cares about the viewer.

    Admiring art arrived at through these circumstances is akin to admiring and using the results from human cold weather and freezing experiments performed by Nazi "doctors" on cncentration camp victims in WW2 as some current researchers were doing a few years back.
     
  4. avandesande

    avandesande Member

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    </span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE (Jorge @ Feb 7 2003, 09:43 AM)</td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'> I am sure the followers of Marilyn Manson and nine inch nails have posters of witkin's photographs, but then these are not people in society known for their good taste and respect of values.</td></tr></table><span class='postcolor'>
    Actually Johnny Cash just put out a cover of a Nine-Inch-Nails songs. I guess one man's trash is another man's treasure.
     
  5. Mark in SD

    Mark in SD Member

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    I had never heard of Witkin before so I did some looking.

    It is interesting and different. As usual, some of it I liked, some I didn't. All of it was original.

    But, back to your question on how he got his subjects. I have only one word:

    Michealangelo

    OK. Maybe a few more. If you don't know, Michealangelo did something completely illegal to learn about the human body so he could paint and sculpt. He snuck in and disected them. da Vinci did similar things.

    Yet both of these men are revered today as masters of art.

    There are always going to be those who work outside the box. Witkin appears to be one of them. What he does with his art is what will eventually determine how he is judged. Many living at the time of Michealangelo were scandalized by his nudes. Today, they are considered masterpieces but, over the years, many have had clothes attached or painted onto them.

    I would need to see an artists body of work in think on it to decide what it is to me. We need to remember, however, that great artists are often not entirely in step with their times.
     
  6. SteveGangi

    SteveGangi Member

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    "Great artists are often not entirely in step with their times". That sounds too much like some mediocre "movie star" or athlete who thinks they are above the law because they are a "star" or celebrity. To me, relying on shock and offensiveness, and portraying corpses in this way is not art. It is just an overgrown two year old screaming dirty words to get attention and it is sick. Even if technically "well executed" I would have no desire look at it, and would definitely not buy it. It is easy to act detached if you can stay at a distance but I wonder. If any of you happened on a picture of your sister, brother, or mother, how many of you would consider hunting him down and doing some very bad things to him? It would be on my mind. You might not do it but I guarantee you would think about it. Some things should be left alone for the sake of simple human decency.
     
  7. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    </span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE (avandesande @ Feb 7 2003, 02:42 PM)</td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'> </span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE (Jorge @ Feb 7 2003, 09:43 AM)</td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'> I am sure the followers of Marilyn Manson and nine inch nails have posters of witkin's photographs, but then these are not people in society known for their good taste and respect of values.</td></tr></table><span class='postcolor'>
    Actually Johnny Cash just put out a cover of a Nine-Inch-Nails songs. I guess one man's trash is another man's treasure. </td></tr></table><span class='postcolor'>
    So just because Cash has put out an album with their songs it has become "good taste". I am sorry but I am more discriminating than that.
     
  8. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    </span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE (Mark in SD @ Feb 7 2003, 04:14 PM)</td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'>
    Michealangelo

    OK. Maybe a few more. If you don't know, Michealangelo did something completely illegal to learn about the human body so he could paint and sculpt. He snuck in and disected them. da Vinci did similar things.

    Yet both of these men are revered today as masters of art.

    </td></tr></table><span class='postcolor'>
    True, but the anatomical drawings of DaVinci became the basis for what today we know as anatomy and medicine. Somehow I doubt Witkin's work will become that relevant in the future. But even if we concede you the point, two wrongs do not make a right, if we follow your reasoning and since autopsis became an accepatble way to teach medicine I guess it is ok to put a body parts store so hollywood and any photographer can go and "rent" them for their art.

    I have to disagree with this, there should be a basic respect to humanity if not for the dead people at least for the relatives still living who considered this person a valuable one in their lives.

    On another plane, Michelangelo's and DaVinici's actions were motivated by a desire to learn and know how the human body worked, lets remember that DaVinci was also what we would call today a gifted engineer. I seriously doubt that Witkin wanted to learn anything.
     
  9. Aggie

    Aggie Member

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  10. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    </span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE (Robert Kennedy @ Feb 7 2003, 09:07 AM)</td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'>An ethics question for all of you -

    Should one apply an ethical standard to an image based on the manner in which it was taken?
    Example - The work of Joel Peter Witkin.&nbsp; Some of you may or may not be familiar with his work...&nbsp;

    Can one legitimately admire some fo his working knowing that the subject may very well be an unwilling participant?&nbsp; Especially in light of how the bodies were appropriated.&nbsp;

    Personally, I find that one can not seperate the two.&nbsp; Witkin is in essence a grave robber.
    To me there can be no seperation between the image and the actions of the artist here.&nbsp; His actions were unethical, so his art can not be admired.

    What are your thoughts?
    </td></tr></table><span class='postcolor'>
    This one takes some "beating". Can I legitimately admire...? The reverse is no less daunting: Can I *Illegitimately* admire anything?

    In my opinion, the act we call admiration is an aesthetic exercise --- and as such it is really not in the realm of "reasoned" (read: ethical) thought. I can be "enraptured" by a work - and that hypnotic effect is really beyond my conscious control.

    Questions here rise to the surface: Does - or CAN a "Work" (whether or not it is labelled "art") stand on its own, or must it be necessarily linked to its history? Do we - or is it possible - to reserve our emotional response to a time where we investigate the factors surrounding its creation?

    One of the philosopies in my life - I am not here on Earth to cause grief to anyone, for any reason. *I* would not bribe morgue attendants to photograph body parts -
    But ... It is difficult for me to assume the position of Judge over the work of another.

    Freedom in art is no less difficult to maintain than freedom anywhere else. There, invariably, will be those who stretch it to hell ... who, in my humble opinion, abuse it to the point where it irritates me... but then, the question arises: "What is the alternative?"

    Who could we choose to "set limits" on art ... who would be able to establish limits that would not compromise *some* artists freedom? - And I am of the opinion that if ypou deny freedom to one artist, you are denying freedom to all.

    Ah well - another knotty problem resulting in a rambling rant. I've got to give this more thought ... although this is one of those subjects that I do not STOP thinking about.
     
  11. David Hall

    David Hall Member

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    Wait...


    Isn't that what art is supposed to be all about...what gets a response in US, the artists, first, and then the rest of the world as a happy coincidence? If it's what moves him, it's art.

    dgh
     
  12. Mark in SD

    Mark in SD Member

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    </span><table border='0' align='center' width='95%' cellpadding='3' cellspacing='1'><tr><td>QUOTE (Jorge @ Feb 7 2003, 03:38 PM)</td></tr><tr><td id='QUOTE'> I have to disagree with this, there should be a basic respect to humanity if not for the dead people at least for the relatives still living who considered this person a valuable one in their lives.

    On another plane, Michelangelo's and DaVinici's actions were motivated by a desire to learn and know how the human body worked, lets remember that DaVinci was also what we would call today a gifted engineer. I seriously doubt that Witkin wanted to learn anything. </td></tr></table><span class='postcolor'>
    So, da Vinci and Michelangelo sneaking in to cut apart corpses showed respect? Did the desire to learn make it any less of a disrespect to the dead? Their relatives?

    You say that their actions are justified by what they accomplished. At the time they would have been killed had anybody found out what they were doing. Michelangelo created scandals by sculpting and painting nudes. His work was considered by many at the time, and for centuries later, to be obscene. The Sistine Chapel was so objectionable that later popes ordered that clothing be added to the nudes.

    While I don't condone what ANY of these people, modern or renesaince...(sorry, I never have been able to spell that word)...have done, I'm not necessarily sure that I am able to judge their work fairly. It is often centuries before the full import of an artist's body of work becomes apparent. Maybe in 100 years Adams will be relegated to the dustbin while Witkin will be revered as a visionary. I can't tell that from the present.
     
  13. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    So, da Vinci and Michelangelo sneaking in to cut apart corpses showed respect? Did the desire to learn make it any less of a disrespect to the dead? Their relatives?

    No, as I said two wrongs do not make a right.


    You say that their actions are justified by what they accomplished. At the time they would have been killed had anybody found out what they were doing. Michelangelo created scandals by sculpting and painting nudes.

    I did not say they were justifiable, only understandable. To the point they risked their lives. What did Witkin risk?...a few bucks.

    I think the motivation is different. While Michelangelo and DaVinci had a genuine curiosity, Witkin shows us the basic purient curiosity we all have when we see these parts and mishapen bodies. He tries to say he is showing us the the darker part of us, but I dont buy it. I was exposed to his work back in 96 and after the shock wore of....well I never gave the guy a second thought until now. He has been called a genious and a visionary by some, when I heard this I asked myself why? and I could not come up with an answer, what he has done is nothing more that what many people did back in the 19th century by showing "freaks" in circuses, and the reactions are exactly the same, base curiosity, shock, shame in us for being curious, and then...well people went home and forgot about it.

    Although as you said Michelangelo created scandals and the pope asked the figures to be covered, he in essence recognized the beauty of the work and did not have it removed. besides Michelangelo also produced many other pieces with great beauty which were not controversial. Witkin's work is repetitive and concerned with only one thing, to cause shock.

    As to how history will judge, well now that you have been exposed to Witkin's work, I bet the next time you hear of him you will say.."yeah I have seen his work", while if by some miracle someone found AA prints never before seen I would think you at least would be curious and want to see them, even though I am sure you have also seen his work. At least that is my reaction, someone tells me there is a new Witkin exhibition my reaction is.....so?

    As I said is one thing to keep an open mind and give those artists who push the boundaries of good taste and socitie's moral bounds their freedom and space to express their ideas through their art, it is another to condone the desecration of bodies in the name of "art" and beacuse the "masters" did it before. As I said, two wrongs do not make a right!
     
  14. SteveGangi

    SteveGangi Member

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    This is one of those threads where we will never have a final answer. I can only speak for me. I believe art should NOT be controlled or regulated (usually). That would be enforced mediocrity, and it would be enforced by bureaucrats and "do-gooders" with their own personal agendas and mental hangups. I say "usually" because where do you say ENOUGH? Years ago, there were a lot of stories about "snuff" movies. I still don't know if they were true or just urban legend. So, if the guy doing that called it art, would that make it OK to commit and film a real murder? Nope. On the other hand, any "artist" should have at least a touch of common sense and respect for their subject. To me, robbing graves and buying bodies as if they were car parts from a junk yard is just wrong. I enforce "my personal law" by not buying any of it. Even if the prints were only 50 cents apiece, I would not buy any. For someone trying to deliberately offend us, while trying to make money off us, that is the kiss of death. Supply and demand. Let the market place decide.
     
  15. Robert Kennedy

    Robert Kennedy Member

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    Personally, the thing that really offends me about Witkin is the fact that he exploited a group of people to his own ends.

    The bodies he snatched were, according to him, those that had not been claimed by relatives. Therefore he concluded that they were "unwanted" and he could do as he pleased.

    In other words, if nobody claims your body, nobody would mind if it was abused a bit.

    The amount of insensitivity this shows is appalling.

    First off, the bodies were mostly taken from large city morgues. Mexico is a very poor nation. As a result many people travel to find work. It is not unusual for someone from say Chiapas to travel all the way to Sonora looking for work. Many times they will cross the border into the U.S. Where I live this is a daily reality. Every summer the desert claims dozens of immigrant lives here.

    Now, if you die while traveling, chances are your family may never know what happened to you. Unless you can be ID'd effectively, they will have no idea of what happened. I am sure there are many families in Mexico who have no idea what happened to their relatives who went "norte" to look for work and never returned. It happens in the U.S. too. Morgues get the usual flow of "Does". Many are never identified. In a poor nation IDing a body is even harder.

    That does not mean these people are simply "disposable" though as Witkin thinks they are. How many of his "subjects" had families who wondered what happened to them? Witkin seems to think none did because the bodies were never claimed. A convient assumption for him.

    Add to that a total ignorance and lack of respect for local attitudes towards death and you have a heinous crime.

    I'm sure Jorge can provide more illumination into this, but living near Mexico, I have become aware of Mexican attitudes towards death, They appear to be pretty different in some ways from the attitudes we see in the U.S. I have no idea of what taboos and traditions exist in Mexico regarding dead bodies specifically, but I am pretty damn sure the "do what you want with the body" attitude is not prevelant! Especially when you see families making pilgimages to the grave sites of their relatives for Dios de Muertes. The amount of cultural insensitivity exhibited by Witkin is extreme. It borders on imperialism. "Well, I am an American, so I can just buy bodies down in Mexico. No harm done."

    Then, when someone buys these works, they end up reinforcing and rewarding this behavior. Why would Witkin stop when he can command thousands of dollars per image? If you reward a dog for biting the mailman, he won't stop. Same principle here. I find it disgusting that Witkin has in any way been rewarded for his ghoulish acts.
     
  16. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    Very well said Robert! I have nothing to add to your thoughtful comment. Although I was thinking from the art point of view I failed to dig deeper into his actions as to the procurement of his "props", but you have put it very well.

    Respect for the death is a very serious matter and I think is not solely a mexican traditon. As said before if it was any of our relatives I think Witkin would not still be around to enjoy his fame.
     
  17. Aggie

    Aggie Member

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  18. lee

    lee Member

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    very well said Robert. I look forward to meeting in Az in a couple of weeks.

    lee\c