Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Morality of Art

There is, I believe, always a morality to art, or should be. For the artist - and the curator, the editor, the critic, those other interlocutors - is a maker of choices as well as the work itself. We still refer to certain art as "naive" or "primitive" or "outsider" usually because we see it as coming without the interlocution or that it doesn't come with an intellectual (and for that read: moral) framework. Even where anarchy rules its the controls on that anarchy which are so important. Composers such as Cornelius Cardew or John Cage created set pieces in which a playful lack of control could take place. A Kenneth Anger film plays with the social mores of the day; and a Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler's own art tells us next to nothing about their diabolical nature. The thousand monkeys typing away forever to create "Hamlet", have to, first of all, be taught how to use a typewriter.

The artist's personal morality is as nothing to the morality of the work. You can have a very poor opinion of Polanski's life choices, and still find Chinatown remarkable. "Billie Jean" can be enjoyed without questioning the motives of its writer. That we might think less of the work, the more we know about the life is a judgement that all art faces. Yet in an irreligious age, religious paintings and great cathedrals can sometimes seem the only thing remaining of our Christian mythos, the Christian art of today - whether Christian rock bands or "moral" films - offering us only a reflection of the decentralised place that the belief now has in society.

I am primarily a libertarian, as I believe censorship is always problematic, and on these grounds alone, I would be appalled at the Met visiting the Tate (now there would be a title for a reality TV show) to remove Richard Prince's "Spiritual America" on the say-so of the Daily Mail. There is always something so wrong, and so predictable about this particular catalogue of events that you almost feel that the Daily Mail must have a staff position, Our Special Correspondent in Dirty Art, or something similar. We are told in the Guardian that "the catalogue for the exhibition withdrawn from sale. The work had been accompanied by a warning, and the Tate had sought legal advice before displaying it."

On the one hand, in British law, something can only be deemed obscene by the courts, not by PC Plod, but on the other, there is an exception to this - in that possession of indecent photographs of children is in itself an offence. The logic of this, legal advice notwithstanding, is that the police should track down the said child in the picture, one "Brooke Shields", put a warrant out for the photographer (as well as the "possessor", which may or may not be the artist, the Tate Modern) and probably then destroy all copies of the picture.

We are told that in fact, this is what Brooke Shields herself has tried to do on several occasions. Adrian Searle, also in the Guardian, adds "it is clear Prince took responsibility when he borrowed Gary Gross's photo, and knew exactly what he was doing." This is, I suppose the morality of the art that I am talking about. It is not an "absolute morality", but a relative one. Probably in the Tate, but certainly in the National Gallery, there are many, many pictures of naked children, whether realistic or "cherubs." The sexualisation of those images may not be as recent a thing as we sometimes think, yet it would be hard to think of them as being the target of the Met. In this particular case, as in other gallery showings of photographs of children in the past, is it the medium or the image itself, or the exhibition of the piece that is most unsettling? Or, in terms of the relative morality of art, is it the intention of the artist, that if it means anything at all, can and should be questioned rather than given "cart blanche" approval.

A libertarian cannot choose whether or not a particular image should be censored or not; but an artist - and those interlocutors - can decide. In an age when we have moved quickly from the indidividual iconography of a single artwork, to the mechanical reproduction of print, film and recording, to the multiple simulataneous imagery of the internet, it seems, more than ever, than the morality of the art is not a "given", but shifting, and that the artist, in order to call themselves that, has a responsibility that is not easily shirked by saying (and I'm not saying Prince is saying this), "here it is, make of it what you will." Artists are the first and best censors of their own work.

In this particular case, I'm minded that a ten year old girl was a "minor" when decisions were taken on her behalf, and that even if the genie can't be put back into the bottle (the internet being what it is), she should be able to have a say in rectifying that particular abuse (and it was an abuse.) It is in that context, not the context of the image itself and its exhibition, that we should question the morality of this particular artist and this particular show. That America had no apparent problem with it (yet was scandalised by Ofili's dung paintings) doesn't make them superior or inferior to us (whether its the "Daily Mail" reader or the Tate Curators), but reminds us instead that there aren't any absolutes in artistic morality.

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