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Of Arts and Ethics


 

Wooden wheel
I’ll be exploring the relationship between arts and ethics. Is it necessary for art to go against moral and ethical conventions in order to be considered “good” art? Where are the limits to the freedom of expression of art? In this episode I’ll be asking questions, and not give answers!

In this episode, I’ll be exploring the relationship between arts and ethics. Some time ago, I read an interesting news report, one which links the two areas of knowledge Arts and Ethics. It’s about an unusual art exhibition. The artist placed 10 kitchen blenders on a long table. The blenders have sharp rotating knives and are normally used to smash vegetables or fruit. But in this case, each one of the blenders contained a live little gold fish swimming in some water. The visitors of the museum now had the choice of turning on the blenders – or not. The visitor, essentially, became the “rulers of the decision on life and death”, too use the words of the artist. According to news reports, some visitors indeed turned on the blenders, killing the fish, making fish soup. Animal rights activists complained, of course, and the police started to get involved as well.

When I first read about this art exhibition, I had to ask myself several questions.

  • Must art provoke? Is it necessary for good art to provoke emotions and a discussion?
  • Can art be unethical? And if yes, who defines it?
  • Is it even necessary for art to be unethical in order to provoke emotions or a discussion?
  • Does calling something “art” automatically justify a certain action or painting or work? Does calling something “artistic” make it more moral or ethical? Here we have a connection to language as well. Killing a small fish in a blender is bad. Killing a small fish in a blender and calling it art is good (or at least acceptable).
  • Should certain types of art be censored? Where does the freedom of expression end? I know that some people have a strong view on this topic and say that art should not be censored at all. It’s a little like the freedom of science, which should be, in some people’s view, be unlimited. Now, unlimited freedom of art is also problematic. This would mean that torturing animals like dogs and cats for the sake of art, is also acceptable. Luckily there are laws for the protection of animals that prevent this.
  • Why do people get so excited about this particular art exhibition? Many animals get killed every day for food. If somebody catches a fish and eats it – is this type of killing animals more/less/equally ethical or unethical than killing the fish in a blender? If you say that the fish in the blender was not killed for food, does drinking the fish soup (how disgusting…) make the action more moral? Then it should be the same again, you are eating the dead animal for food.
  • And what if the artist does not use a fish, but rather a dog or a cat? I think more people would complain in this case, but then why? Are dogs or cats “more worth” than a small fish? Is size the issue here? Or is it a question of emotional attachment to dogs and cats?
  • What kind of art is more acceptable: Killing one single fish in a blender or 2 ants? Many people would have fewer problems killing the insects. But why?
  • The last question is a bit controversial, I have to admit. Could it be that some people (not all of them!) oppose the art exhibition not because of legitimate animal rights reasons, but because the art exhibition makes them feel uncomfortable? Maybe people became uncomfortably aware that different people have a different view and would have no problems killing the fish. Maybe they just use an the animal-rights justification as an excuse? In other words, maybe some people want to avoid an uncomfortable ethical discussion and they use an animal-rights motive to oppose the exhibition. But in reality, they don’t care about the fish. They just don’t want to deal with the uncomfortable topic of death or issues of ethics. Maybe they want to avoid the problem or a discussion. I don’t know.

In any case, the news report left me wondering. And I again came to the realization that sometimes questions are more interesting than answers.

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