Morality and art

A difficult field of ethics arises when we mix art and morality and consider the issue of censorship. Given the subjectiveness of art, merit could be found in almost any painting, film or photograph. How do we distinguish art from, for example, pornography, or when should governments censor art for the public good?

We've talked about consequential ethics many times in this column. The right thing to do is the act which leads to the best consequences for those affected. The tragic killings in the US at the release of the latest Batman: Dark Knight Rises movie are a chilling example of the impact of what appears to be imitation of a fictional film character. Heath Ledger's depiction of The Joker as a sadistic psychopath devoid of moral conscience made for compelling viewing and may have contributed to the motivation and design of this recent mass murder.

However we cannot possibly suggest it is unethical to create art containing this evil aspect of human nature. Art would become incomplete, unrealistic and unrepresentative of humanity in all its complexity, and would not provide a window through which we see whom we want or don't want to be. We cannot hold the screen writers, actors or directors responsible for the actions of a homicidal disturbed person. Some consequences are outside our control.

Another case involving ethics and art was the controversy in 2010 when Bill Henson intended to display photographs of naked young teens. Prior to the display the police confiscated 20 photographs, however there were no charges laid against Henson as the DPP found the photos were not pornographic. This doesn't mean that ethically the photos should be displayed in public. Morality and legality are not the same issue.

Some of Henson's photos do more than depict the beauty of a naked human body; some of the confiscated images, whilst not fitting the legal definition of pornography, do depict children in a sexualised context. There was some concern that these photos could encourage paedophilia, but for the same reasons I don't hold Heath Ledger accountable for real life imitation of his psychotic Joker character, we cannot condemn Henson's work by spuriously linking it to acts of criminality.

Another ethical test which Henson's work must pass is that no person should be exploited or coerced into the creative process, and the artistic expression must uphold the subjects' dignity. The mother of the young model at the centre of the Henson controversy said she was "…absolutely in awe of those first proof images and the detail that was captured. He then showed us one blown-up picture... It was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes."

Given the young age of the model, more is required than just her own and her parents' consent to the public release of the photos. We need to be certain she understands what she is consenting to and what the consequences of making the photos publicly available may be, to ensure there is no underlying exploitation or coercion. All of the accounts provided by the mother and her daughter suggest strongly that she was fully aware of possible consequences and wanted Henson to proceed with the display.

Another source of condemnation of Henson fuelled mostly by media sensationalism and politicians pretending to scramble for the high moral ground was the process he used to locate suitable young models; that is he sought and received permission to walk accompanied by the school principal through school grounds at lunchtimes. If he found a suitable model he would arrange for the parents to receive his contact details and they could contact Henson if they wished.

A much more disturbing example of process is provided by the display of photographs from the Cambodian Killing Fields in a New York art gallery. These are photos of victims of the Cambodian genocide. The Khmer Rouge selected a talented young photographer and sent him to Shanghai to refine his skills, prior to returning to Cambodia, always with the express intention to photograph captives prior to execution.

Understandably the photos are haunting and confronting, however the skill of the photographer in capturing the humanity and vulnerability of these victims is acknowledged. Whether this is art is one question and whether the extremely cruel process used to capture these images has implications for their use and display is another. The immorality of genocide and the immorality of forcing victims of genocide to be photographed are separate acts to the moral dilemma as to what should be done with the photographs now that they exist.

I don't have answers to these questions. I wonder whether the photos should be given to the families who may decide to keep them, destroy them or possibly they may want them on public display.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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