APSU Notes

Chapter 11: Art and Ethics

Learning Outcomes

After completing this chapter, you should be able to

  • Discuss why art and ethics are associated.
  • Recognize works of art that were censored due to their failure to meet societal ethics.
  • Indicate why ethical values change over time by society.
  • Articulate why some societal groups may consider some works of art controversial.
  • Identify ethical considerations in the artist’s use of others’ artwork in their own, the materials used in making art, manipulation of an image to alter its meaning or intent, and the artist’s moral obligations as an observer.
  • Explain the roles that museums play in the preservation, interpretation, and display of culturally significant objects.

Morality, Art, and Ethics

  • Art is subjective: it will be received or interpreted by different people in various ways.
  • Art and ethics demand that artists use their intellectual faculties to create a true expressive representation or convey psychological meaning

Morality and art are connected usually in art that provokes and disturbs. Art stirs up the artist’s or viewer’s personal beliefs, values, and morals due to what is depicted. The relationship between the artist and society is intertwined and sometimes at odds as it relates to art & ethics. Art is subjective: what one finds unethical another may find ethical. It is most vulnerable when society does not have a historical context or understanding of art. Ethics has been a major consideration of the public and those in religious or political power throughout history. Consideration of ethics maybe established by the artist but without the hindrance of free expression. The art is judged based on the merits of the work itself, not the artist. Society needs to understand that freedom of expression in the arts encourages greatness while artist need to be mindful of and open to society’s disposition. The artists purpose is to express, regardless of how the subject matter maybe interpreted. Art and ethics demands that artists use their intellectual faculties to create a true expressive representation or convey a psychological meaning.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964.

  • Fountain was censored and rejected by contemporary connoisseurs of the arts and public.


Ethical dilemmas are not uncommon in the art world and often arise from the perception or interpretation of the artwork’s content or message. Marcel Duchamp created art by turning manufactured objected into art. He did this with a men’s urinal in a work he titled “Fountain”. Fountain was censored and rejected by contemporary connoisseurs of the arts and the public. Today it is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and an icon of the 20th century art.

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, paper collage, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins & elephant dung on linen.

  • He wanted to acknowledge both the sacred and secular, even sensual, beauty of the Virgin Mary.


Chris Ofili created a controversial work titled ‘the Holy Virgin Mary’. He collated images of women’s buttocks, glitter paint, and balls of elephant dung to create this work. Many in the public eye called it blasphemous. Ofili state he was trying to acknowledge both the sacred and secular beauty of the Virgin Mary. Elephant dung in Nigeria symbolized fertility and the power of the elephant.

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans 4, 1981, gelatin silver print.

  • Appropriation — taking existing objects or images and with little or no change to them using them in or as one’s own artwork.

Artists have always been inspired by the work of other artists. They borrowed compositional devices, adopted stylistic elements, or taken narrative details and incorporated these aspects into their own distinct works. Appropriation – taking an existing object or image and with little or no change using them in or as one’s own artwork. From 20th century till today appropriation has come to be considered a legitimate role for art & artists. The art is re-contextual iced. Allows commentary on original meaning and bringing new meaning to it. Sherrie Levine spent her career prompting viewers to ask questions about what changes take place when she reproduces or make slight alterations to well-known works of art. She freely acknowledged Evans as the artist but wanted viewers to look at the work without their historical, intellectual, and emotional significance. Questioned notions of ‘originality’, ‘creativity’, and ‘reproduction’.

Adnan Hajj, Beirut Photo, 2006, digital photograph

  • Cloning — photographic technique which indicates a digital effect that has been repeatedly duplicated.

Digital manipulation of photographs is common place today. It usually goes unnoticed. When photographs are manipulated with the aim of altering factual information an ethical line has been crossed. Adnan Hajj made changes to a photograph of smoke rising from a building in Beirut after an Israeli attack. The darker smoke of the image on the right shows telltale signs of cloning. This went outside the National Press Photographer’s Association Code of Ethics. “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images.”

Kevin Carter, Vulture, 1993, photograph.


“Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle. Afterward he sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried. “He was depressed afterward,” Silva recalls. “He kept saying he wanted to hug his daughter.””

The code of ethics is expected to be followed not just in manipulation of images but also in the acquisition of those images. A photojournalist is an observer of events whose role is to make a record of the events. Kevin Carter’s image Vulture raised questions on the ethics of taking photos. The NPPA – Code of Ethics states “While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to altar or influence events”. Carter gained bad publicity for this photo for not helping the child. His story was shared in Time magazine and this is the story behind the photo (Read above quote). Carter became very depressed because he could not do more to help the people of the area. In 1994 Carter took his own life.

Michelangelo, The Last Judgement, 1536-1541, fresco.

  • Censorship — ideas of suppressing explicit, offensive images and written material, perhaps of a sexual or political nature, or accounts of violence.

Michelangelo painted ‘The Last Judgement’ during the Protestant Reformation – which was a time of iconoclasm. He broke away from tradition to show dynamic groups of moving, gesturing, and emotion-filled angels, saints, blessed & damned. Upon completion it was a masterpiece but in following decades it came under criticism. The council of Trent designed to reform the Catholic Church.They did not think the work was profane and serving of House of God. Daniele da Volterra covered and altered some of this image in 1565 to help it meet the councils recommendations. It was restored in the late 20th century to Michelangelo’s version.

German loot stored at Schlosskirche Ellingen

  • Art is part of the cultural heritage and identity of the society in which it is made.

Art is part of the cultural heritage and identity of the society in which it is made. Because it is closely aligned with the history and values of the people in the society, individuals and governments alike take care to preserve and protect those treasures. Invaders often loot and confiscate or destroy works cherished by those they conquered. The Nazi party did this a lot, they sought to destroy art that Hitler did not agree with, especially avant-garde works. They also sold art works to purchase more traditional works for the leader’s Museum in Linz. It was never completed. Allied forces created an organization called Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives to prevent damage to historically and culturally significant monuments. These individuals were known as Monuments Men.

Monument Men


Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum, 1992, Maryland Historical Society.

  • Museums act as keepers of the public trust.

Museums act as keepers of the public trust to protect these parts of humanity and culture. Objects help preserve our memory and carry them into the future. One example is seen in the Mission of the Maryland Historical Society. The mission was to collect and preserve objects related to Maryland history. Fred Wilson created ‘Mining the Museum’ exhibition by exploring the artifacts stored within the museum. He pulled artifacts that were seldom displayed. He did this to bring light to these rarely seen objects and link them to the times of the past and society.


Lecture Video


Chapter Eleven: Art & Ethics Quiz