Ethics & Art

One of Bill Henson's non-pedo (and thus un-famous) photos.

When I was working as a research administrator at Melbourne Uni, I had the dubious pleasure of encountering for the first time, the world of research ethics. Each research proposal submitted  had to pass a labrinthine, rigorous ethics test before it could be endorsed by the school. Often this delayed the start of research by many months as proposals which had been approved for funding were caught in endless ethics review loops, requiring navigation through some bewildering ethics algorithm, before getting the green light. It goes without saying that ethics boards are the bane of a modern research academic’s life, impeding their basic ability to get on with it, as they do. Part of the reason for their disdain is the overly bureaucratic form of the process, and the implication that it is simply an attempt by the university, at future-proofing against litigation.

While I understood the frustrations of the academics I worked for, I guess I always saw it as a neccessary evil. Or, more precisely, a neccessary tedium. After all, there have been many ills committed in the name of science, knowledge and research- that surely we would all want to avoid in the future?

From 1945-1970, children in Victorian orphanages were routinely used for medical experiments, including testing vaccines for polio, herpes and influenza. As far as can be ascertained, the permission to subject these wards of the state to testing was not given by parents or next of kin, but by either orphanage staff or the public servants who administered them. Apalling things happened to these children in the process, not as a direct result of the tests themselves, but directly because of the attitude with which they were treated: as fodder. At the time it was probably seen as a quick and convenient way to push through life saving vaccines which have immeasurably benefitted the community, with no obvious harm done to a social group no-one really cared about anyway. Of course, those orphans neither remained wards of the state, or children, forever.

Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 notoriously blurred ethical boundaries with its prison simulation students in the roles of prisoners and wardens. The results of this were disturbing and distressing for all involved, despite the fascinating learnings it yielded* about the nature of evil. It would never pass a human ethics board now, considering the real and lasting trauma its subjects were exposed to.

I just recently read about the 16th century anatomist Vasalius, who robbed graves, until a progressive Paduan patron made the corpses of criminals available to him to dissect. His revision of Galen’s work- which had reigned for two millennia, despite not referring to actual human dissection- revolutionized medicine and science thought. But wouldn’t you say now that it was wrong to donate the bodies of people who had not given prior consent to violating scientific experiments? If so, consider how these advances might’ve been made without an unscrupulous attitude driving them.

These are just some, there are many others- some anecdotal I guess (including the testing of LSD and Ecstacy on schizophrenics and depressives in the 50s)- some ongoing (Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes Brown Eyes for one- ) in which the ends are given priority over the means.

The thing is, I’m sure the people driving these discoveries and projects believed as strongly as contemporary researchers do that what they are doing will hardly harm their subjects, and that, on balance- it’s worth it. The pursuit of knowledge is a holy, intoxicating grail that can lead people to do all kinds of amazing, stupid, disastrous, heroic and cruel things. Modern ethics boards reflect both that we now live in a litigious society, but an egalitarian and also individualistic one- where not only are individual human rights upheld as sacred, but where the individual takes primacy over the group. It is this strange convergence of ideologies contained within the modern concept of ethics. In the past, the convenience of a hierarchical society where scientists were closer to the top of the food chain than the subjects (animal and human) that they practiced on, enabled research to take place that was justified in the context of “the greater good” regardless of the effect on the individual. Scientists /researchers, are still likely to be wealthier and more powerful than those they examine, it is implicit that they may take advantage of that fact. It is also implicit that there are checks and balances in society now that allow people to sue if they have been wronged. The means and ends of research are thus constantly subject to scrutiny – of both expert and inexpert minds alike.

So… research must be patient, slower, less spectacular, take a more circuitous route to finding answers, for having to avoid harming anyone in the process. And as stated, I kind of think this is how it should be.

One of the questions I am coming to is, how is it that every other area of study/research/endeavour reliant on public funding is subject to this level of scrutiny, while the arts are not?

Thanks to recent furor over Bill Henson’s work we now have the Australia Council’s guidelines on working with Children, but artists are free to interview people, take their portrait, quote them, record them, photograph them in any number of compromising situations and angles, recruit them through any means they see fit and generally exploit and influence them in a hundred subtle self-serving ways without ever having to submit their practice to an ethics board. Sure, releases must be signed, but this is administered by the artist themselves mostly. Who is keeping them honest?

Unfortunately, the occasional hysterical outrage over the subject of a work, misses the point. They are reacting to the final product, and little consideration is given to the process that led to it. To use Bill Henson as the most recent and obvious example: I would argue that his means are way more unethical than his ends.

Some background to this. Western culture, which has a reasonably ad hoc approach to coming of age rites, has a complex range of attitudes to female sexuality, and to girls. They are both over-protected, and forced into the limelight very early. Sexualised girls are both a taboo and an object of desire. Further, there has developed a queasy combination of abject revulsion and titillated enthusiasm for reporting on pedophilia in the media. News items often give bizarre blow-by-blow descriptions of the crimes committed, for no reason that I can logically think of, except that they believe people want to read it. In a subjective, post-post-modern moral landscape, the level of outrage at child abuse et al is easily matched by the graphic level of detail and eagerness with which it is reported.

It is upon this kind of backdrop which Henson posits his photographs of alienated, sexualized, distressed youth. And it can seem that both the most inflammatory, and celebrated aspect of them, is specifically his depiction of their nakedness and their vulnerability. Now, I believe he is sincere about the conceptual and artistic underpinnings of his work. But I also think it benefits and profits him to be selling it into a market in this kind of culture. And I would probably think his insistence on the independence and freedom of the artist was more heroic, if he hadn’t been basically treading water for the last 20 years, regurgitating the same abject youth over and over again, to be lapped up by rich socialites and art fanciers who get a thrill from its illicit edginess. In that sense, I do believe it is exploitative, and he would be a moron to think that angle doesn’t work financially in his favour. I have been at his shows and seen the matrons fawn over how “shocking” and “disturbing” his images are, salivating all the while.

So, I don’t think his work is pedophilic, but I also don’t think it’s at all outrageous for him, and it, to be tested. Lewis Carroll wrote one of the contemporary world’s most loved stories, and he “loved” little girls. Donald Friend both painted and sodomised young Balinese boys. The artwork they made is not necessarily pedophilic, but the process involved most certainly involved serious lapses in morals and ethics. There is absolutely no reason to believe that artists are more deserving of the trust, faith and belief that people like Henson and David Marr (his defender) wish us to place in them- to uphold truth, beauty and other fluffy concepts- than any other professional of any kind.

There is a romantic notion about artists, which artists themselves like to perpetuate, that art is somehow “above” ordinary morals and ethics. That artists are fearless seekers of truth, who must be allowed to work untethered from the ordinary constraints of the rest of the public. This is, quite frankly, bullshit. I think art has the capacity to deal with greater moral complexity than some other types of discourse in modern life- simply because it is not literal, it is visual. Visuality engenders more subjectivity than textuality, you might argue. Truth & beauty are in the eye of the beholder, as they say, and so multiple interpretations of all artworks is possible. This situation renders art suitable for a complex, less narrow encounter with the world. However, I don’t think it should mean that artists can do whatever they want without being answerable, because there is nothing except waffle to suggest that artists motives are any more or less self-serving than anyone elses.

The most ethically disturbing/complex aspect of Henson for me is not the images he creates. It is actually the manner in which he recruits subjects. I know that in the past, he has used young people who were actually in troubled circumstances, without the permission of their guardians or parents. He photographed them and sold their images without acknowledgement or payment for their role in his art. Apparently a strategy he now employs is to approach subjects through schools, via their art teachers, or through fans of his art, and seek consent from their parents before doing any shoots. I assume he thinks this is a more professional and “above-board” way to go about it, but it is hard to say which of these approaches is more unethical and exploitative. I know that neither would pass an ethics board if he was making this work as part of an institutional grant. In the first case, it would be because of the exploitation of vulnerable minors, unable to consent for themselves. In the second, because he cannot escape his fame, notoriety and influence as coercive and compromising factors in gaining consent from their parents.

Again, I want to emphasise that I don’t think his work is pedophilic. I don’t think he is a pedophile. Images of naked children depicted in the way he depicts them definitely make people feel uneasy, and I believe that is what is at the centre of the hysteria. But that doesn’t make him a hero, or make it good art either. Just a convenient example. Another example, which I think is also treads fairly close to exploitation and abandonment of ethics is the film “Red Chapel”, recently shown at MIFF. I discuss this at some length here. The gist of my argument for “Red Chapel” is that essentially this is great art that could not have been made had the director hewed more closely to some established code of ethics. And it is arguably a better film for it – I’m not sure that he could’ve achieved the same poignancy if he’d had anyone’s interests but his own at heart. However, in being selfish and self-motivated, he created a film that is meaningful and valuable to all of us. Is this justification enough?

The traditional Indigenous belief about photography- that it captures a part of the subject’s soul- is absolutely spot on. Once that image is taken, it can never be given back to the subject. By extension, all art is the commandeering of things that were once in the public domain- thoughts, ideas, sounds, colours  included- into the possession of the artist to recontextualise and do with as they please. It is all exploitation- an artist doesn’t really make anything.

Ethics are an ongoing conundrum and challenge that the arts should not be excluded or protected from. You can’t just pick and choose the ones that are most convenient as they suit you. This is part of maturing as a culture and a society, somewhat analogous to the maturing of a person. The more you know, the more difficult everything is. Simple, pat answers and motherhood statements about art are tempting, but insufficient. Once opened, Pandora’s box is a tough one to shut.  ­


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