Ethics and the Visual Arts

By: Ken Weathersby, US art teacher and Kent Place Gallery Director

Esperanza Mayobre discussing her work

The current trimester at Kent Place marks the first iteration of a new course, “Ethics and the Visual Arts: the Art of Protest”. Over the course of the trimester we are addressing topics including Exploitation and Capital, Black Lives Matter and Street Art, Native American Experiences and Film, and more. Analysis and discussion are combined with hands-on projects.

As Director of Kent Place Art Gallery, I was recently excited to connect students in the course firsthand with the work of one of our exhibiting artists, Esperanza Mayobre. This very accomplished and admired artist’s work uses an abstract visual vocabulary related to minimalism and post-minimalism. The poetic nature of her art embodies a specific cultural narrative with ethical implications. It was fantastic to be able to walk students across the hall from the classroom to the art gallery and have direct access to a museum-quality show, so deeply relevant to our topic.

Mayobre said, specifically in reference to her work in the show, “To explain the current reality of my home country, Venezuela, is a task that I can’t do. I honestly think while the chaos is happening, no one can…” but she continued, “…Until not that long ago, the gold mine territory was left alone as a source of national income. The government must protect this territory, the fundamental rights of the indigenous communities that live there, and the ecological concerns of this natural reserve. Increasingly through past years, though, it has become controlled by local mafias, the military, the guerillas, drug trafficking, and transnational corporations. Gold and mineral extraction and commerce are illicit, unplanned, and irresponsible to the ecosystem.”

Esperanza Mayobre art exhibition: I cannot connect nostalgia with the current reality

The Ethics and Visual Arts students spent a full class session viewing the exhibition, experiencing the precision and aesthetic beauty of the pieces and their specific, purposeful placements within the space of the gallery. They then became deeply involved in a guided, rigorous discussion, unpacking the relationships they found within Mayobre’s patterned use of the color gold, a precariously balanced sheet of glass, and a single, carefully placed photograph. The abstract open-endedness of Mayobre’s pieces made room for expansive, emotionally significant interpretations and insights. Mayobre described this openness in her work in terms of honesty and vulnerability. It was clear that the students perceived the force and integrity of the artist’s non-didactic presentation, and the way great art can address the whole person.

Ethics and the Visual Arts is a collaborative and cross-disciplinary class, developed by Carey Gates (Visual Arts Department Chair), Ariel Sykes (Assistant Director of the Ethics Institute) and myself (Visual Arts Teacher and Director of Kent Place Gallery).