Ethical Reasoning



A look at the line across which art becomes destructive.

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I’ve been thinking lately about making an ethical stock portfolio. I suppose it’s hypocritical, and even slightly irrational for me to use Apple products and Facebook but feel uneasy investing money in them. I don’t want to let shady experiments on users, or uncomfortable privacy policies, or disturbing labor practices slip into the shadows as I sit at my desk procrastinating and feeling thankful for blue-shirted “geniuses.” But it can happen. And as I worry about whether I’m an ethical consumer of products, I become increasingly aware as my role as an ethical consumer of art. It’s already a central aspect of my interest in art because it often makes me wonder what the benefit of art really is. How the potentially frivolous products of human work turn into something productive? Is it unethical to make objects that don’t explicitly aim to improve the human condition? Is all art fundamentally indulgent and ultimately unethical? I don’t think so.

Last semester I took the Ethical Reasoning Gen Ed Adam & Eve, co-taught by Professor Greenblatt of the English department and Professor Koerner of History of Art and Architecture. The course was primarily concerned with the questions of ethics in the story of the fall and how sin can come about in innocent beings, and how representations of the original humans relate to those questions. But one week, an entirely new topic emerged, that of ethical style. I distinctly remember section from that week; my TF asked whether there is such a thing as an ethical style, and we all sat in silence (perhaps a similar situation to many sections, but with a prompt that was more perplexing). In lecture one of the professors discussed that Milton was viewed as using an unethical style for a time because he used such lavish verse and made Satan into a sympathetic character. But what about objects of art, namely paintings and sculptures? I wondered if perhaps ethical styles emerge only in contrast to unethical ones. Unflattering, caricature-esque, or disturbed portraits, like those of Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon, can be deemed unethical. But I suppose not, because they are not harmful. I came away from the class completely unsure of whether style can exist within the sphere of ethics, and I still don’t know.

Then, this summer, I came upon the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Perhaps his work is not “objectively” unethical, but ethics always create murky waters. Regardless, I came away from the show feeling that he is clearly an unethical artist. His work ridicules the tastes and cultural options of lower-class individuals, unabashedly objectifies women (in a group of paintings, women’s fetishized facial features or other body parts float across the canvas in equivalence with pieces of corn and other foods, all ready for mindless and endless consumption), and simplifies the complexity of children’s thoughts into a love of pretty, shiny toys. There are certainly ways to examine the fetishization of kitsch objects, the representation of women, and childrens’ selfish fixations on plastic toys. But the work in the show didn’t examine at all — in fact it claimed not to need to ask questions. Perhaps what made the works in the exhibition appear unethical wasn’t even the just these topics were actually depicted, but a combination of that and the fact that in everything, Koons asserted that he knows best. Despite his position as an upper-class, adult male, he knows how the lower-middle class think, and he understands the relationships children form with the objects in their lives, and he can paint women a certain way in a celebration of sexuality (a justification for objectifying women that I will always be skeptical of). So perhaps, an ethical style is one that asserts that you know how those unlike you think, and even worse, that you know what’s best for them.

I’m not a fan of Jeff Koons, and I’m not afraid to say that I think his work is unethical. And identifying an instance of art that clearly crosses the line of what I find acceptable — not, as many insist, because it is shocking, transgressive and appropriately controversial, but because it reinforces the destructive “Artist-as-God” myth that should have ended before Marcel Duchamp. There are plenty of ways to be subversive and controversial that doesn’t require a celebration of others’ inadequacies. Because, frankly, statements like those will never make art more convincing or cerebral. Establishing that for myself, I have decided art for art’s sake can take on an ethically neutral space, always open for critical examination. And even better are works that address the places in society where ethics drop away in an attempt to restore them. That is the art I can get most excited about.

Sarah Rosenthal ’15 (srosenthal@college) still loves the Whitney Museum and would be happy to talk to anyone about the ethics of art.