Is This Art?
By Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School
I was recently reading an article online entitled, “When Can Artists Bend Ethics For Arts’ Sake?” and read this opening sentence: “What right does an artist have to use other people in their work—to invade their lives, violate their privacy, or cause them harm? What will we forgive in the name of art?”
This question reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a Kent Place School parent who worked as a producer for a well-known national television program. Though they were thought of as a “news” program, she said they were more like a daytime talk show – creating documentaries that would be of great interest to the viewer, but doing so in a way that was one-sided and manipulative. One such documentary she was in charge of helping to create was on the theory of “repressed memory” – she needed to find guest “therapists” whose practice focused on guiding people through the painful process of reliving past life experiences. She found one such therapist who was thrilled that his practice would be featured on such a well-respected documentary/ program. Unfortunately, this therapist was never told that the reason for highlighting his work was to expose the practice of guiding people through “repressed memory” as fraudulent. He was never told the intent of their work, or the harm that his appearance may ultimately cause him and his practice. All would be forgiven, though, in the name of “art.”
Some might not consider a daytime talk show – whether news or sensational stories – as a form of “art.” Art is generally defined as some sort of creative expression, whether a painting, photograph or sculpture, or a creative performance – music, dance or dramatic production. Productions that entertain or inform can be considered a performance of sorts; certainly, the parent with whom I spoke described her work in the entertainment industry as a form of creative expression. Their focus was always on providing the audience – the viewer – with what they wanted and, in the process, exploited others in order to achieve that goal.
“What right does an artist have to use other people in their work—to invade their lives, violate their privacy, or cause them harm? What will we forgive in the name of art?”
The entertainment industry – shows, movies, documentaries – all forms of creative expression. A form of art geared primarily toward the viewer that perhaps has created rules of its own. The singular focus on the views/viewership, in the words of the parent, means that we are “taking advantage of people and airing their dirty laundry for the sake of ratings and profits.”
Ethical? Hopefully we can all agree that invading lives, violating privacy and causing harm in the name of “art” is neither ethical nor moral. When we hold art or artists to a different standard of ethical behavior, and forgive it in the name of art, we are truly on a slippery slope toward harmful consequences to all of society.