When is art immoral?

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Robert Kennedy, Oct 30, 2003.

  1. Robert Kennedy

    Robert Kennedy Member

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    This is sort of a preemptive thread here....see, in one of my classs we will be viewing a presentation on Witkin. Now, the prof. is all about "postmodernism" (which is word you pretty much only hear in colleges....) and "feminist critiques", etc. etc.

    Fine and dandy. But we have to have a class discussion on Witkin. And I KNOW....I just KNOW....that somebody will defend his work. Specifically his early work in Mexico.

    You know, the work where he literally robbed graves and exploited the bodies of poor Mexicans.

    Any defense of his early work (his later work, while it may be gross, icky, and at this point showing a complete lack of imagination on his part, apparently uses "volunteers" so the ethics become less of an issue) will most likely go something like this -

    "Well, Michelangelo and many other artists robbed graves. This is the same. Don't impose your values on him. Blah blah blah."

    Now, I have I think a decent counter arguement. Which I won't go into here, but suffice it to say it revolves around the fact that Witkin is essentially act like an imperialist and is disrespecting the Mexican culture by not respecting their ancient and deeply rooted views of death and dying (which I know not that much about, but any culture with two days devoted to celebrating the deceased and honoring them is probably not keen on some gringo coming down from New York and rummaging through their morgues for his own purposes....).

    This leads me to consider this question though -

    When is art immoral and unworthy of being called art? To me any of Witkin's work which exploits a corpse sans the decedant's permission purely so he can make "art" (a VERY loose term here) is immoral, criminal, and shouldn't be sold, bought, displayed, etc. Just like kiddie porn shouldn't be treated as "art" and thus legalized in that context.

    What are your thoughts?

    Oh, and if you are following my art school rant, this is discussion will occur in a class taught by the same teacher who told me to give up ever trying for my MFA at the school I attend.

    It should be fun.... :smile:
     
  2. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    I believe any work involving exploitation is immoral. In Witkin's case not only was it immoral but also illegal and it should not be protected under the guise of "art." I am preparing to go this weekend to take photographs of the "day of the dead" celebrations and as you say, it is something that is taken very seriously in this country, families take these days and specially Nov 2 to take time and honor their dead relatives, they go and spend the day in the cemetery taking care of the tombs, cleaning them, repairing them etc.

    If, as you say, you get the argument that this is "art" and you should not impose your morality on them, simply ask them: How would you feel if your parents died in a car accident and Witkin went and moved their bodies and placed them in the middle of the road to make and "artistic" shot?.

    What he did here in Mexico is no different, he actually moved the bodies and placed them in positions so that he could take a better shot.

    In the end, shocking photography is not "art" per se, it is only that, shocking photography.

    Bottom line, and you can tell your class mates this comes from a Mexican, it is my estimation that if Witkin had been found doing this by the families of the deceased he would most likely would not have made it back to the US, and furthermore, proof of his cowardice is the fact that his pictures are not shown in Mexico, nor has anybody heard of him here. I am sure that if he came down here to make an exhibition and it was found out how he made his photographs, he would most likely have a riot in his hands.
     
  3. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    In the strictest sense, i would say that anytime a photograph of someone is used in a way they did not agree with or is exploitive in some way is immoral, or the photographer misrepresents his reason for wanting to make the image. This makes me think about the images of Diane Arbus. did she tell the subjects that she regarded them as a collection of freaks and odditites or that the view would most likely think the same of them?

    I suppose if you agree to have your picture taken, you are agreeing to its use in any way that the artist sees fit. But what of the images that are taken of people who are unaware?

    Last year I took the family to Six Flags Over Texas and was armed with my usual Nikon and 35mm lens. At one point I saw a group of adults with matching hats and shirts, all males. It was a group of retarded (I know, mentally disabled) youths from probably a Bethpage or similar home. When I was younger, one of these homes was across the street from my parents, so I got to know the clients there and the caregivers and the every day challenges, ups and downs of the retarded.

    As I saw this group I knew they were having a wonderful time. There was a look of excitement and joy and freedom on their faces. the caregives also were having a great time. I sort of walked around following them looking for the right shot, something to display this joy, But I thought, maybe I am the only one who knows what is going on. Someone else would see the photo and say I was being exploitive. And even though I though my intentions with the image were good, if I were to post it on the web others might see the youths and laugh ridicule them. So I didn't take the picture.
     
  4. Aggie

    Aggie Member

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  5. Eric Rose

    Eric Rose Subscriber

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    Art and morality are two seperate things and should never be discussed in the same sentence. It's kind of like the seperation of church and state in it's concept.

    Witkins work IMHO is totally uninteresting and devoid of any "art" as defined by my perception of what art is to me. Next sentence. I also find his work and working methods to be totally immoral.
     
  6. Ole

    Ole Moderator Staff Member

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    I admit that I don't understand the question here.

    The artist may be immoral, and commit "immoral" acts in the pursuit of art. But the artwork itself may challenge our concept of morality, but not in itself be immoral.

    I don't know enough about this particular case to say anything about it, so I'll merely round off by mentioning Andres Serrano...
     
  7. SteveGangi

    SteveGangi Member

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    There are many ways, in many cultures and countries, to describe what Witkin does or did. No matter what words are used, whether it is respecting ancestors, letting the dead rest in peace, or any other words, there is a universal sense of what Jorge was saying. Whether Witkin calls it art or not is totally irrelevant. WARNING! I am going to get a little crude here. We have all over the years had a belly full of "sensitivity training", tolerance training, and moral relativism which is almost always used to excuse the fact that someone is an asshole, and demanding the rest of us to "respect and understand" him or her. Some people are just assholes. Period.
     
  8. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    YOu know I thought the same about Andrès Serrano until Dick Sullivan clarifeid something for me. His now infamous "christ in piss" was part of a body of work having to do with santeria. As such the practicioners of santeria utilize many body fluids comingled with religious icons in their rituals. I now can see that that image was taken out of context and made a big hoopla about it by overzealous religious groups. As a catholic now that I am aware of the circumstances under which the picture was taken I am not offended by it.

    One could argue that there are circumstance where the "artist" as well as the produced piece is immoral, child pornography being one of those cases. IMO not only are the adult participants immoral but their product also carries and immoral message.
     
  9. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    This discussion kind of brings to mind the work of Leni Riefenstahl, who was never allowed to live down the incredibly artistic work she did of the early Nazi Party Rallies and the German athletes in the Berlin Olympics.

    Who she worked for was an immoral group and her work was great art. Hard to reconcile.

    How about Migrant Mother. Are we exploiting when we travel around and take pictures of the less fortunate. We are making money off of their pain. We may rationalize that that we are trying to help them with this exposure but whose to say. Look at the people that photograph the homeless. Is this exploitation.

    How about news photograph. They make money off of other's misery and make the claim that they are just covering the news.

    Paparazzi - the lowest of the low. They claim that celebrities need this exposure, and the public eats it up. So who is being exploited. The public, the celebrity.

    Michael McBlane
     
  10. Ed Sukach

    Ed Sukach Member

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    One in every crowd ....

    I don't personally "see" the mission of art as the primary "propaganda "tool" for the enhancement of morailty.

    I will admit, that knowing the situation, Witkins work is disturbing to me ... but as it is with Mappelthorpe or Arbus .. it is a form of displaying "what IS" among the dark recesses of human experience.

    I think there must be a time when we find it necessary to investigate possible consequences associated with our concepts: If I, or a group us us - or "everyone" - finds a work offensive - then what? Do we censor it, or destroy it, or destroy both the work and the artist (all of which has been done before)?

    Much work that has fallen under the label "offensive" in times past is now viewed as remarkably "good" - cases in point - Goya's "Naked Maja"; Velasquez' Nudes; Anything by Grosz ... all meant not as ways to enhance morality, but as displays of what *IS*. Possibly these works serve to either shake us into a heathier morality structure - or remind us where we are deficient in the one we have now.

    One can only wonder about morbid veneration of scenes depicting extreme cruelty - but that would really include Crucifixes - death on the cross was one of the most horrible and cruel ever devised - or St. Bartholomew pierced by hundreds of arrows ...

    So - art... when is it "good" or even "art"? I really do not know - I think one of the tests for its success is to determine the reaction of the human being experiencing the work. If we react ... with rapture, being offended, joy, wonder or curiosity - or we decide to investigate the recesses of our own "inner self", ... I would consider it "successful".

    My views, anyway ... possibly not too succinct - I am rather "fried out" after a - not "hard"-, but energy-consuming - day of ... photography.
     
  11. dr bob

    dr bob Member

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    [quote="

    Last year I took the family to Six Flags Over Texas and was armed with my usual Nikon and 35mm lens. At one point I saw a group of adults with matching hats and shirts, all males. It was a group of retarded (I know, mentally disabled) youths from probably a Bethpage or similar home. When I was younger, one of these homes was across the street from my parents, so I got to know the clients there and the caregivers and the every day challenges, ups and downs of the retarded.

    As I saw this group I knew they were having a wonderful time. There was a look of excitement and joy and freedom on their faces. the caregives also were having a great time. I sort of walked around following them looking for the right shot, something to display this joy, But I thought, maybe I am the only one who knows what is going on. Someone else would see the photo and say I was being exploitive. And even though I though my intentions with the image were good, if I were to post it on the web others might see the youths and laugh ridicule them. So I didn't take the picture.[/quote]

    Jim:

    I was Chairman of the Board of the Chesterwye, a service organization dedicated to the aid and deveopment of mentally retarded (Yes, we use the term) adults. Developmentally challanged is just one level of retardation - there are more and less severe conditions.

    You should have no quams at all about photographing our clients and care givers. Most would apprecite the honor. All would take great pleasure that someone exhibited so much interest. What you do with the image is somewhat different. I'm sure your personal morality would prevent any exploitation and what others may say or think is not important, is it? I'm sure there are people, I refuse to call them photographers, who would "pose" our clients in "compromising" conditions just to produce a sensational image for sale. If that ever happens they will have to deal with me - and I can be very disagreeable ;-)
     
  12. Robert Kennedy

    Robert Kennedy Member

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    I personally like the view that the Bhutanese ascribe to those with mental disabilities like this. They feel that they are souls who have too much good karma for their mere human bodies to deal with and that they are here to teach us.

    Jorge - Thanks for that quote. I will be sure to print it out for that discussion. Hard to argue with a man who lives in that culture. Witkin's work is so offensive to me it is beyond words. Especially in light of the beauty and love that goes in Dia de los Muertos. The folk art that comes out of that one holiday is one of my favorites.

    Everyone else - To me, the issue of immorality comes from the way in which the art is created.

    Example -

    If someone commits a murder, and films it, should they be allowed to profit from it?

    The law in the U.S. (and most places) says no.

    Witkin's early works were based wholly on the comission of an extremely heinous crime.

    How is displaying or selling any fo his work different than displaying or selling a picture of a child being raped or say a snuff film?
     
  13. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    Michael, none of the instances you mention are a crime, what Witkin did was and is. Even more so the typical Da Vinci argument and his anatomical drawings are always use to justify Witkin, even though I dont condone Da Vinci's practice, those were another times, supposedly we have matured and evolved, and even then he did in the search of knowledge, Witkin did it for prurient reasons, his only desire was to shock and revolt the viewer and gain fame at the same time.

    Obviously the glaring questions is, why didnt he do it in the US? I am sure we all know the answer, so you see, it is not so much what he did, how he did it, etc. It is the lack of character and if you all excuse my expression lack of balls. If he was so sure what he was doing is art, then he should have done it in the US and take his chances and defend his action under the first amendment rights. The fact that he came to Mexico to commit illegal acts shows the kind of person he is and the message his art conveys.
     
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  15. lee

    lee Member

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    no huevos de toro I think Jorge is the correct way of putting it.


    lee\c
     
  16. Jeremy

    Jeremy Member

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    it seems to me (from Robert's original post) that his fellow students will be arguing that

    "Well, Michelangelo and many other artists robbed graves. This is the same. Don't impose your values on him. Blah blah blah."

    This is just cultural relativism and as such Robert's counter-argument that Witkin:

    "is disrespecting the Mexican culture by not respecting their ancient and deeply rooted views of death and dying."

    They are therefore supporting an act which defies cultural relativism with cultural relativism and contradictions are a logical no-no.

    (Cultural relativism in a nutshell is the idea that morality is just that, relative to each individual culture and therefore we cannot place blame on any culture for what they do within their bounds--this includes genocide, slavery, and the oft-used example of clitorectomies.)
     
  17. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    I disagree Jeremy, there certain values that trascend cultural relativism. You dont have sex within your family, you dont eat dead people and certainly you respect the sanctitiy of the deceased.

    Sure, you can say well such and such tribe in the deepest regions of the amazon do eat their enemies...yeah sure, and they still think the sun is God the earth is flat and walk around naked....

    I am sorry but cultural relativism sounds to me as a very convenient excuse for the wrong that a society has inflicted on its members. According to this theory, what Hitler did was perfectly reasonable and in keeping with the times....nope, I dont buy it...
     
  18. SteveGangi

    SteveGangi Member

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    Exactly. According to cultural relativism, it was probably OK for the Nazis to wipe out most of Europe. We all just have to understand them and respect their decision to murder everyone in sight. Hitler just had "isues" and we were all just being mean when the good guys fought back. I wonder why, we are all practically ordered to respect and put up with other people no matter how weird, infuriating or abusive they are, but somehow they never have to play by the same rules. Political correctness run amok. Too one sided. Bottom line is, instead of this grave robber demanding that we respect him for his "art", maybe instead he should have respected our "cultures" which are offended and disgusted by grave robbing.
     
  19. Ole

    Ole Moderator Staff Member

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    When I mentioned Andres Serrano, I was not thinking of "Piss Christ", but his "Morgue" series. I believe this to be somewhat more relevant to the discussion.

    Perhaps this is an example of "Cultural Relativism"? As a non-catholic (and even non-christian), I did not find the "Santeria" series disturbing at all...
     
  20. Robert Kennedy

    Robert Kennedy Member

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    Well, as Jeremy pointed out, the problem here is that many people use cultural relativism to defend Witkin. Yet what Witkin did was completely ignore the morality and ethics of the Mexican culture.

    The irony being that all these kids (most are like 19 or 20) who are usually so concerned with respecting other cultures etc. tend to defend a guy who has NO respect for anyone but himslef and his own deisres. Ironically Witkin is the quintessential "White Male Oppressor" that these kids rail against.

    Yet because he cloaks himself in the title of "artist" he must be defended in their minds.

    The hypocrisy is insane.
     
  21. Jeremy

    Jeremy Member

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    note: I'm NOT defending cultural relativism, I'm just stating that it is the argument Robert's saying his classmates will probably use, but this is self-defeating due to how he procured the bodies for the photos.
     
  22. Jeremy

    Jeremy Member

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    Ole,
    your views on Serrano aren't due to cultural relativism ... I would classify your response as apathy :smile:

    The odd factor here is that before the cult of saints from Christianity, to convene with the dead was considered an offense punishable by death. The earliest surviving record of Christian hagiography (study of the saints) is the The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp (a letter written in 155 or 166 if I remember correctly--they can't pinpoint it more than that). It records the preservation of the martyr's body as a relic and the celebration which took place on the day of his death in the form of a feast. I'm not versed in Mexican history, but does The Day of the Dead spring from this Catholic tradition?
     
  23. Robert Kennedy

    Robert Kennedy Member

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    As far as I know....and this is from someone who is not Mexican and simply just lives 100km from the border...it is the same old story as with all the other holidays in the Catholic church...

    It is an adaptation of a Pagan holiday, most likely some sort of autumnal feast day or something. Since people like to have their holidays the church just took the date and adapted it.

    Traditionally the 1st of Sept is All Saints Day and the 2nd is All Souls Day. All Saints Day is supposed to be a day to honor all the saints at once (I mean there are TONS of them....this was literally a catch-all holiday. Otherwise every other day would be Saint Somebody's Day....). All Souls Day is supposed to honor all the dead.

    Of course things change. In some places they have the two seperate days, in others you just honor the dead on All Saints.

    Now, Mexico is not Europe. The indigenous religions (primarily the Aztec religion) had their own ways to honor the dead. And the Aztecs were pretty concerned with the afterlife. So everything got blended together down there. Mexico is a crossroads of a lot of different cultures. Even Spain recieved a lot of Arabic/Moorish influence which was of course brought over too.

    As a result the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico has become a uniquely Mexican tradition. If I am not mistaken the 1st is used to honor dead children, and the 2nd honors adults. And it is a pretty joyous holiday. Children are given sugar skulls (which look a lot like the old Aztec skulls), people make Pan de Muerte (Bread of the Dead) and have picnics at the grave sites of relatives. It is actually an amazingly healthy attitude towards death. Death is seen as a part of life and the dead never really leave you if you remember them every year.

    And like I said before, the best part is the art.
     
  24. Ole

    Ole Moderator Staff Member

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    No, it's just a lack of ingrained visceral response to seeing a crucifix.

    But the "Morgue" series really turned my stomach - as nothing but violent death can.
     
  25. Lex Jenkins

    Lex Jenkins Member

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    Without even having read any replies to your question I'd say the most immoral art I've seen is that which panders to the lowest common denominator. This is art that requires no thought other than a reactionary "Ooh, that's pretty."

    The worst offender is Thomas Kinkade. Since much of what's sold under his name is mass produced in factories by machines and droids it's hard to even call it art.

    Right now there are hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of would-be Kinkades committing the same atrocities in the digital realm. Woe unto them.

    Cezanne said that one of the greatest functions of art is to promote beauty. He was wrong.

    One of the greatest functions of art is to promote thought. When I see such tripe passed off as art I think, "Ooh, that stinks." And so even bad art has served a purpose.
     
  26. sergio caetano

    sergio caetano Member

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    Awful and immoral acts were practiced by physicians in concentration camps during 2nd war. This doesn't mean the medical SCIENCE is immoral.
    Ok, I know I'm saying the obvious, but just to organize my thinking.
    Photography ART has awful, immoral works and good, beautiful works. Fundamental esthetic and technical rules orient us, but there is a zone of confusion, as in any art, where subjectivity is present. Ansel Adams said that Mortensen had an incredible bad taste in his work. I don't think so and I've learned with both. Brett Weston said that the majority of Imogen work was not good. Imogen said that Edward Weston signed some bad prints, something that Stieglitz would never do. Subjectivity is a permanent ingredient of any art, different opinions will remain forever, but for sure there are works exaggeratedly bad or immoral, which the majority of beholders will agree they are in front of a trash.
    Kennedy, I don't know Witkin, so I can't say anything about that.