Blue Table Webinar: On the dynamic relationship between ethics and art
Yesterday, Wednesday 24th November, saw us hold the sixth and final Blue Table Webinar of 2021. With the input of speakers from around the world, these vibrant and thought-provoking sessions have covered the themes of ethics and ecology, economy, diversity, democracy, and - of course - the pandemic.
This last Blue Table of the year focused on ethics and art. With vignettes and interventions from artists and ethicists, the session delved into the links between the two concepts from different perspectives. From art driving an ethical agenda to art being driven by an ethical agenda, to the ethical challenges that arise in the creation, appreciation and valuation of art, the webinar abounded with fascinating insights.
Artivism, or how art can be used to inspire positive change
Following an inspiring welcome from Globethics.net Academic Dean Amélé Ekué, the Blue Table Webinar began with the presentation of two different artist vignettes. The videos highlighted the relationship between art and identity and showed us how art can be used as a tool for activism, to send a message, and to embody and enact ethics. Or, to re-use the phrase used by US American artist Nikkolas Smith, “artivism”.
“The artivist (artist + activist) uses her artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression—by any medium necessary... The artivist knows that to make an observation is to have an obligation.”
M. K. Asante, It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop (2008)
Smith draws lines between art and what it means to be American. Both are blank canvases, melting pots providing the opportunity to make a masterpiece out of life. In that context, art can also bring people together and call them to action. Smith’s artwork includes portraits and illustrations of cultural and political figures, especially of people of colour, with underlying messages to spark conversations around social justice in an effort to inspire meaningful, positive change.
Iranian-Candian artist Sanaz Mazinani draws on her experience working in political activism and social justice and on her cultural heritage to create her art. She uses her works to question the world and show how and where there exists room for change. Her kaleidoscopic collages are carefully laid out in patterns inspired by Islamic ornamentation - but look a little closer, and the photos that make them up represent war, oppression, violence, and more. She describes art as both giving and seeing, a concept that Globethics.net President and Founder Dr Christoph Stückelberger later touched on: art as making the invisible visible, and transforming the perception of the visible.
The ethical challenges surrounding art
We also heard from Dr Manoj Kurian, a medical doctor and public health specialist from Malaysia, who spoke on ethics and art from a philosophical perspective. Everyone has the capacity to create and appreciate art, Dr Kurian reminded us, quoting Socrates, Hippocrates, and 1970 Nobel Literature Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on art as beauty and its possibilities for giving life purpose and saving the world.
Dr Kurian went on to spark a lively conversation around the many ethical dilemmas surrounding art, which continued into the question and answer session as our Webinar attendees contributed yet more ideas.
Value of art
How can you place a price on art? As Dr Kurian pointed out, particularly in the case of famous masterpieces, artwork can be culturally priceless but financially worthless. The monetization of art brings with it many ethical issues, not least because the desirability of art is intrinsically linked to the value placed on the culture from which it stems.
In this vein, the inclusivity, diversity and equity of artist grants and exhibitions of work is also brought to mind. Are artists of colour and non-Euro-centric artists given the same financial and representation opportunities as white artists?
Exploitation of artists
As long as art has been appreciated, artists have been exploited. Dr Kurian explained: the Hebrew bible mentions individual craftspeople by name in recognition of their beautiful creations. However, they were still enslaved people who didn’t benefit from the production and sale of their work.
Equally, while those artists were given credit for their creations, the issue of plagiarism is as much of an ethical challenge in art as it is in education. How many of da Vinci’s paintings did he do himself, and how many were painted by members of his school? Is an unknown artist’s work less valuable, even if it is indistinguishable from a known artist’s?
Fashion brands’ use of original artwork without giving credit is another common, modern case of artist exploitation. This is often also associated with uncredited indigenous designs, highlighting yet again the lack of equity that can be found in art.
An important point brought up by one Webinar participant addressed the repatriation of stolen art. Particularly poignant this week as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art officially returns three works of art to Nigeria after they were looted in the 19th century, the exhibition of stolen artwork remains a key dilemma in the relationship between ethics and art.
Messages being transmitted through art
The ethics of the content and context of the messages behind the art was the final point made by Dr Kurian. While art can be used to convey positive messages, as in the cases of artivists such as Nikkolas Smith and Sanaz Mazinani, it can and has also been used to communicate negative messages, incite hatred, and propaganda.
This issue is especially relevant in our contemporary lives. We are constantly connected to cyberspace and consuming visual data, including art, without registering the messages we are receiving. Whether they are ethical or not and the extent to which they affect us subconsciously are key questions in the conversation around ethics and art.
Ethics & art for transformative action
Dr Christoph Stückelberger closed the Blue Table Webinar giving his perspective on ethics and art from a religious perspective. Placing God as the true teacher of ethics and the true artist, and himself as an assistant, he emphasised the importance of the intention behind the art.
For him, the key to using art for transformative action - to make the invisible visible - is to express gratitude through the work. This thought was echoed in Dr Kurian’s closing words: that art, as with everything we do, should be created and appreciated with empathy, compassion, and care about its impact on others.
Art driving ethics and ethics driving art
Art and ethics are thoroughly interconnected. As many ethical challenges as there are surrounding art and artists, there are also opportunities. Art provides the opportunity, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quoted Dostoevsky, to save the world. When art transmits positive messages, it can inspire change for the better.