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What is Art’s Moral Obligation?

January 25, 2010 Art Thoughts No Comments

Skulls at the Nyamata Memorial Site, Nyamata, Rwanda. Photographer: Fanny Schertzer

Morality is way too subjective and way too dependent on the unpredictable variables of year, country, religion, and gender to be black and white.  What is socially acceptable in one part of the world might be morally reprehensible in another.  While never easy to decipher, the moral question becomes especially murky with respect to the arts.

Over the years, photojournalist pictures such as Kevin Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph of a vulture waiting to feed on a dying Sudanese child have elicited moral outcries that have likened Carter to a “second vulture” who, like the opportunistic vulture depicted in his photograph, takes the opportunity to shoot the picture instead of helping the dying child.  Yet the question here, as is the question with most photojournalists whose subject matter is unnerving, is this:  Is the photojournalist’s moral obligation to the individual or the collective?  In other words, had Carter gone to help the child (who, chances are, would have died) instead of taking the picture, would we, the general public, feel the depth and destruction of the famine in Sudan?  The question is perhaps moot for who can unequivocally say what is right and what is wrong when it comes to documenting disturbing realities (think 9/11 and Abu Ghraib).  Whether  it is related to his decision to take the photograph instead of helping the child, Carter committed suicide a few months following his Pulitzer.

What about familiarity?  Does “familiarity” with a difficult subject breed a certain indifference?  Fanny Shertzer’s photograph of skulls at the Nyamata Memorial Site, although disturbing, are less so than the Carter picture because the image of the skull is one that most of us are familiar with.  Whether it be through early 17th century Vanitas paintings, popular cultural references such as the video game Tomb Raider and the Indiana Jones movies, the infamous skulls of  Damien Hirst, or the array of plastic skulls that resurface every Halloween, most of us have had enough skull exposure to numb any potential indignation.

Vanitas - Still Life, Pieter Claesz, early 17thc.

The question – What is art’s moral obligation – is even murkier when it comes to the visual arts.  It depends, I suppose, on how we define art.  Does art have a social responsibility?  An aesthetic responsibility?  A political responsibility?  Is it the visual consciousness of a nation?  A visual commentary on its world?  The artistic whim of its creator?

Art’s moral obligation came up when I approached a well known photographer for an interview.  He accepted.  His altered photographs are a litany of gorgeous color amidst which sits a very young girl who stares back at the viewer with unnaturally large eyes.  While I liked some of the photographs  a great deal, there were some whose disturbing context (the girl, although always clothed, is portrayed as a sexual object) began to bother me.  It is one thing to intellectually understand that photographs such as these are intended to elicit discomfort and uncertainty.  In the case of this particular photographer, the photographs were a critical commentary on child abuse and the treatment of women as sexual possessions.  To the artist’s defense, he felt that were he to have used women as his subjects, his photographs would have considerably less impact given society’s over-exposure to women-portrayed-as-sexual-objects in advertising and the media.

Staring at his photographs (I chose not to publish his name or his pictures as it is not my intention to trash someone whose photographs  have artistic merit) I asked myself whether they were any more more disturbing than images from child beauty pageants.  The answer came down to this:  Notwithstanding the questionable psychological well-being of mothers who subject their young daughters to beauty pageants, there is the underlying (albeit disquieting) knowledge that this is a mother/daughter endeavor.

Two contestants for child beauty pageants (aged five and seven)

So who was the girl in the photographer’s pictures?  Where had he found her?  Was she a willing participant?  Where were her parents?  Making it clear that I needed to know the answers to these questions before we could proceed, I waited for his response.  None came.

In the end, what it comes down to is this.  While the obligation of art (if any) remains unclear, artists are not an entities unto themselves.  Much in the same way a dictator cannot subject his people to atrocities in the name of a peaceful reign, nor can an artist abuse her subject in the name of art.  Art may not have a moral obligation, but artists do have a moral obligation to their subject.

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