One can begin by saying that any construct or behavior can be criticized on ethical grounds, and art is no exception. The very idea of criticizing art in this way presupposes that there are viable ethical considerations at play—or that they are of any concern to the players of the art game (artist, spectators, buyers, sellers, promoters). One must wonder if the question, answered in its own terms, merely perpetuates one of art’s deeply cherished self-legitimizing narratives. For nearly a century, western art has been considered a tool for radical criticism of existing paradigms (totalitarianism, consumerism, global capitalism etc.). For art to be seen as engaging the viewer with questions of ethics validates the object as a work of art.
The more important question, though, is hidden behind the curtain: Can a project be so unethical, so heinous that its very claims to being a work of art be questioned, challenged, and ultimately denied? Before answering this question a little background music is necessary . . .
A few years ago a conference was held in Santa Fe on the second anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. Members of the local, national, and international art community were asked to give their thoughtful five-minute reflections on that tragic day. A contemporary curator from the local museum gave a short talk asking the members of the audience to try and take the long (cultural) view of those events. She outlined the following scenario: She mentioned that many of the 9/11 terrorists flying the planes into the world trade center towers were university-trained in Germany. She mentioned that it is routine in any European university for all students to study Guy Debord’s Situationism and its philosophy of aggravated interventionism applied towards the raising of awareness regarding capitalist strictures and modern conditioning. She asked the audience to consider the possibility that perhaps these young militants had a mixed agenda in doing what they did. She asked the audience members to recapitulate in their minds the balletic grace and skill with which these militants had so aesthetically piloted these aircrafts, piercing the skins of the towers with surgical and artistic precision. She asked the members to try and recap the aesthetic clouds of smoke and dust generated by the events that lingered in the air for days and days after the towers collapsed. Could we not see, she intoned, perhaps the glimmer of aesthetic stirrings in these activities that led to those tragic events? Is it not possible, she reasoned, to think of these young men as naïve and admittedly misguided artists attempting to intervene in world events, in a horribly radical but also aestheticized fashion? Could we not shift our perspective, she continued, in order to see the 9/11 event as a gigantic art event, an unprecedented art spectacle with political ramifications? There was stunned silence after these pronouncements.
One older distinguished gentleman lifted a shaking arm. After being recognized he slowly got up and in a clear and pained voice he said the following. He admitted he wasn’t an artist, had never made art and could not make art. Didn’t have the talent, he admitted. Nevertheless, he continued, he loved art and culture and had many artist friends over the years that he respected and admired. He said he had long ago stopped trying to follow all of the latest developments in radical art-making and art experimentation. He quietly insisted that even if he didn’t or couldn’t “get” the very latest art developments he still revered late modern art and the principles of self-reformation underlying the avant-garde movement of the early twentieth century. He concluded by calmly remarking that, that being said, he wanted the museum curator to know that if she, as a leader of the artistic community, was forwarding the proposition that in contemporary art terms these terrorists were, ideologically, to be given consideration as artists he had three suggestions to offer her.
His first suggestion, he said, was that as a person and as an arts-professional the museum official, while being intellectually advanced and academically “smart” was no longer capable of discerning the real from the illusory. Secondly, that as a chief curator of contemporary art she had lost her “moral compass.” Finally, in his view, this official no longer had the credibility to hold a position of authority in the cultural community. He then quietly sat down. A few seconds of stunned silence ensued. Finally a swell of cheers and applause were heard, followed by boos directed towards the podium. The curator, in tears out of frustration and disgrace, was ushered off the stage.
This incident is engraved in my memory. I am a former museum director and museum curator. I, too, was applauding this man’s comments.
The episode illuminates a truth about art and the conditions that make it so. At art’s core lies an unspoken ethical code. And that code is hardly referred to or enunciated as I am doing so now because it is (I would like to believe) the basic “given” of art. That code, like the physician’s code, is inscribed with the mandate to do no harm.
— Dominique Nahas is an independent curator and critic based in New York. He is a faculty member of Pratt Institute, a member of the critique faculty of The New York Studio Program, currently the 2005-6 Critic-in-Residence for Montclair State University’s MFA Department, and is presently the Interim Director of Maryland Institute’s Hoffberger Graduate School.