The Idea of the Moral Imperative in
by Luis Camnitzer
I would like to start by quoting something I wrote some years ago. It
applies to the subject under discussion, but my interest in it here goes
beyond the content of the statement. The quote is "We live the alienating
myth of primarily being artists. We are not. We are primarily ethical
beings sifting right from wrong and just from unjust, not only in the
realm of the individual, but in communal and regional contexts. In order
to survive ethically we need a political awareness that helps us understand
our environment and develop strategies for our actions. Art becomes the
instrument of our choice to implement these strategies."
Though I believe it is a neat statement, I am not using it just to satisfy
my own presumptuousness. I am interested in what happened to the statement.
It appeared, at the time, on the cover of The New Art Examiner, with
big white letters on a violently red background, looking like a piece
by Barbara Kruger.
I was thrilled and flattered by the exposure, but it made me ponder the
ethical implications of appearing within the aesthetics of the cover.
A statement which I had written in the context of a larger article, and
meant to be read as such, had been transformed into an appealing object.
So very appealing, at least for me, that I framed it. But, the content
of the statement had lost its original immediacy and surrounding atmosphere
as designed by me. It became encapsuled and fetishized in the alien space
of a magazine cover.
I am, of course, cynical and vain enough not to regret the event at all.
However, it is clear that the manipulatory steps used to engage the consumer
of a magazine cover are radically different from those manipulatory steps
used by the writer of an article or by an artist in a piece to convey
a message to the reader or to the viewer. While all these steps vaguely
belong to the category of packaging, it is clear that each medium and
product has its own code for how the manipulation shall proceed according
to its destination. A thoughtless substitution can create the same havoc
as when detergent is packaged as perfume.
The question is not if we manipulate the viewer, but what do we want to
achieve by manipulating the viewer and what means do we employ to do so.
I am using the word "manipulation" on purpose. In common usage it has
negative connotations and we always avoid its use when we describe art
processes. We prefer to use euphemisms like "composition" and "design,"
and to deal with decisions about media, colors and size as if they were
imbued with divine purity. In both negative and positive interpretations
we are acknowledging the presence of an ethical component which transcends
the choice and values of the content. This is important, since usually
morals are mostly attached to the story telling part of art and avoided
in the rest. The word "manipulation" has an ethical (or unethical) aura.
The word "composition" has only an aesthetic aura, which in artistic terms
The use of positive euphemisms for words with negative connotations is
more often than not a sign of hypocrisy. In this case, the hypocrisy helps
hide the fact that we are organizing and prioritizing information so that
the consumer shares with us not what there is to share, but that which
we want to be shared. The shift of the action from ethics into aesthetics,
propitiates and confirms the delusion that it is only those decisions
pertaining to content which have an ethical quality. Ethics thus become
something literary, a quality frowned upon by visual aesthetics, which
can be dismissed.
By speaking of manipulation we are forced to acknowledge the presence
of a public. By speaking of composition, on the other hand, we can indulge
in the belief that art primarily consists of an intimate dialogue with
the materials. The public is supposed to relate to this dialogue only
in an incidental way, through voyeurism. By speaking of composition we
don't have to decide whom we want to address with our art, aside from
wanting to make it in a big gallery. We thus neglect one of our first
possible ethical decisions, the one that places us in the context of society.
It is interesting to note that the vast majority of artists working on
art projects for the light board on Times Square resort to written political
messages, no matter what their "normal" art work is. Suddenly the public's
voyeurism can't be ignored and the dangers of visual pollution, happily
marketed by galleries, becomes unacceptable in a truly public arena.
By disguising and erasing ethical processes in and with aesthetic patinas,
we ignore the fact that what we call aesthetics is no more than the formal
packaging of our product. It is our personal form of packaging, a factor
that defines our artistic individuality, something that therefore is sacred
and worth money. We further compound the problem with an obscurantist
mysticism still prevalent in art matters. This mysticism tries to make
us rely on inspiration and taste to resolve artistic problems instead
of using them as tools for adjustment to perfect whatever we really want
to say. We thus are led to neglect both the clear formulation of communication
problems and the emphasis on the visual feasibility of the package in
relation to those problems.
Commercial marketing procedures of consumer products are much more straightforward
and honest. Their mercenary quality is upfront. A market is defined and
a product developed (or vice-versa) and the packaging is developed accordingly.
What, why, and for whom, are the leading questions, and only then comes
the appearance. We may not agree with the motivation, but there is an
ethical consistency. Any mistake in the answers to those questions ensures
economic failure, so they had better be correct The adoption of the same
questions in art would help to place ourselves in our society and clarify
when we are attempting to make a profit, affect society, or when we are
limiting our work to act as self-therapy. It is a clarity we gingerly
employ to dismiss (mostly the motivations of) schlock art and other marginalia,
but we are more careful when we address other cohabitants in the space
of our elite orGod forbidourselves.
Most of our art is socially muddled, even when it functions effectively
in the market. The secret or explicit wish of most artists is to be able
to live off their art pro-auction. At the same time, a profit motive in
art is seen as unethical. We want it both ways, to be non- mercenary and
pure and to he paid for our magic in a mercenary and non-magical society.
In essence, we are dream of living in a monarchical court or in a Utopic
socialist society, depending on what end of the political spectrum we
belong to. But, few of us feel feel urge to help society to develop in
a corresponding direction. It is in this dissociation of the art produced
and our implicit or explicit dreams' that we tend to become amoral.
By placing the ethical commitment solely on content, we may feel better,
but fail to address the issue. We merely confirm the dissociation and
hope to solve two different problems with one and the same solution. By
relying on taste and inspiration to define the aesthetics of packaging
that content, we place the responsibility for whatever happens on an unconscious
and unchallenged ideological platform. Because of our inattention, this
ideological platform, more often than not, escapes our control. We thus
let decisions be made for us instead of" by us
Lately a link has been established between ethics and post-modernism.
I do not see this moralist surge in postmodernism, at least not as compared
to a presumed lack of morals in modernism. Modernism had its own moral
imperative, a Utopic belief that art could better society. While the building
of a language was attempted to express that construct conservative tendencies
were lurking in the background during all of its reign. Much of postmodernism
uses these conservative tendencies as an illustrious and validating genealogy.
With this genealogy, and because of it, postmodernism is not really an
aesthetic developed as an answer lo modernism. It is rather a parallel
aesthetic picked up by the market to occupy modernism's place upon its
exhaustion. Simultaneously, the post-modern label also served to co-opt
and unify some artistic expressions dealing with the consciousness and
assertion of local identities. The potential challenge to the notion of
an international style thus was defused. To a certain extent post modernism
can be seen as the demoralization of older, anti formalist tendencies
and their placement into a conservative context, while re-internationalizing
and unifying what threatened to become a nationalist fragmentation in
This is not to say that ethics have no role in art today. But when issues
connected with ethics appear, unlike what happened in the pas', they do
so marked by the absence of an awareness of posterity. Speculation about
art issues leaves out a previously existing aim at atemporality. Doomsday
has abandoned the signs carried by the cartoon crackpots of The New Yorker
and marked a potential and credible end of history. As a consequence much
of the art being made has short term goals. Some art is produced to transform
artists into commercial and self-profiting icons, rather than to create
icons to serve cultural enrichment. Other art is produced to denounce
the end of history, rather than to create an environment where that termination
becomes an impossibility.
But, whatever the an historical interpretation of our present may be,
our art tradition has always been far from being drenched in ethics, even
in the cases where the concern is at present prone to catastrophe. As
artists we are easily enchanted by effects which may appear during work
and we do not have any scruples about pursuing them no matter how much
the subsequent results may contradict our original intentions. We rarely
challenge in depth the parameters which define art or the technical constraints
offered by art history. Though there are occasional ruptures, for the
majority of artists art has been an evolutionary process with much taken
for granted. But in the specific case of ethics even Walt Disney had surpassed
the notion of them being constrained to content. He forced symbolic values
onto form. In his work, things drawn with curves are cute and good. Things
angular are dangerous and evil.
It is the taking for granted of this superficial and frivolous approach
to ethics which, understandably, helped disseminate the widespread National
Rifle Association philosophy of art: Art is not ethical, only artists
are. It is also what generated the commerce of art which attacks commerce,
or the making of murals which present anti-fascist issues in a fascist
It is undeniable that much of art escapes and even contradicts the personal
ethics of the artist. Nolde was a good and early Nazi and never understood
why his regime didn't allow him to be an official artist with the an he
was making. Fortunately, and who knows for how long, it is accepted that
his an was better than his politics. While it is conceivable that with
a greater historical perspective his art end politics may be fit into
a coherent continuum, any possible consistency still eludes us today.
It would seem that he either didn't draw political conclusions from his
art or that he was unable to express himself fully. No matter how interesting
his "better" half may be for us, he had a problem. Had he been able to
solve it (in the direction of our own values, of course) he might have
been an even better artist and a less despicable person. By accepting
the separation of art and ethics as an unmovable fact, we would in fact
condone split personality, intellectual laziness and inarticulateness
as acceptable positive values. The resolution of the inconsistency should
at least be taken up as a challenge, even if any neat solutions may appear
to be unattainable.
If we really want to deal with ethics in art we will have to anchor all
the questions pertaining to the art-making processwhat, why and
for whom, with a later how? on a solid ethical foundation.
In certain environmentsfor instance those urged by a political crisisit
is conceivable that the act of taking a brush into one's hand, to restrict
production to accepted artistic techniques, may condemn all the decisions
following to be spurious and invalid. Only with a total ethical inquiry
covering every step of the art-making process, an inquiry not yet seriously
addressed by artists or art educators, may we have a chance of developing
a truly valid aesthetic for our time and environment.
We do have clear opinions about the code of ethics of the members of all
the other professions while we are not clear about our own. It is interesting
to see how we can complain about artists not yet being accepted as full
partners in society, without even attempting to sift through the complex
mesh of painful ignorance, defensiveness and justified resentment which,
together with selective elitarian success, produce our alienation. It
is interesting too that as university art educators, in fact forming more
future university art educators than future artists, we were never trained
in teaching nor do we prepare our students for it. Not only do we seem
to believe in shamanism, but it is one based on self-appointment, osmosis
Maybe we should start by recognizing that a successful work of art is
the meeting ground of two radically opposed dynamics. With the created
object or situation the artist is trying to work his or her way out of
a known ground and push the audience into the unknown. The manipulation
by the artist is orchestrated to achieve the crossing of the border. The
audience, on the other hand, tries desperately to push the disconcerting
feeling of the unknown back into the context of everyday cultural commonplaces.
The tension produced is not always a friendly one and leads to a despising
condescension on the side of the artist, and to total rejection on the
side of the audience. The split is tainted by ethical judgment. It resolves
itself by name calling: crazies and elitists vs. philistines and ignorants.
The creation of a strong common ethical ground seems to be more urgent
than the development of new fashionable packaging codes. Once this ground
is established, the more speculative, research oriented andin terms
of communicationmore rarified art, will then also be freed of its
own demagogy. Our work with the unknown makes us researchers, not magicians.
The mystification may sell well, but it is unbecoming.
"The Idea of the Moral Imperative in Contemporary Art"
was delivered at a panel at the 1989 College Art Association Meeting held
in San Francisco. Other panelists were Mel Perkarsky, Amy Baker Sandback,
John Baldessari, Suzi Gablik, Jeff Koons and Robert Storr.