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Is Art Freed From Any Moral Rule?

The convergence of art and morality has been a source of fervent debate for thousands of years. For some people, the realm of art should operate within the confines of what the society defines as wrong or right. However, for a significant number of individuals, people who are engaged in art should be able to think freely without the restriction of morality; thus, the artist must never be subservient to the rules of morality in any given society. Nevertheless, at various periods, members of the public and other stakeholders have condemned art, perceiving it immoral and questioning its motives. Moreover, the characterization of art and morality makes it apparent that they both lie in two different spheres, with no direct subordination between them. This essay seeks to argue that while artists should conform to the basic norms of morality in the society, they should also have broad freedom to create art. Thus, art is not completely free from moral rules.

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Art and Morals

Art should conform to morals, as it should be the embodiment of what the society feels and wants. Since the artist only heeds the good of the work and rarely the good of humans, morality can be determined as the social glue of any society while art is extant. In this respect, the failure to have art that conforms to the moral expectations of the society can lead to encouraging some fringes of the society to engage in activities that go against the social norms. For instance, the Demoiselles d’Avignon, which Picasso did in 1907, caused much uproar in the society due to the artist’s display of prostitutes in a brothel. Many felt that, by introducing obscenity in art, he was normalizing prostitution in a society that was then immensely conservative. Considering that art and its creators have a certain influence on the way the society views issues, it seems justified to expect artists to conform to basic morality.

Art that does not conform to certain basic values also poses a question of safety and sanitation. An example is Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit. There is a social consensus that people do not display fecal matter in public for reasons of sanitation, safety, health, and due to the fact that most of the society finds it abhorrent. While many have disputed that the tins that the artist used for the exhibition in this particular case were fecal matter, there have been questions if it really was what would have been the health and safety ramifications, including unsanitary conditions and the potential spread of diseases. Consequently, in some cases, it is important to stay within the boundaries that the society has defined in relation art. 

While Demoiselles d’Avignon and Artist’s Shit drew much furor, My Bed by Tracy Emon also drew some condemnation from both art critics who questioned its quality as art and the public for its display of bed in its degraded state. This exposition was inspired by a depressive state in the artist, thus resulting in the vile mess that had accumulated in her room, including the bed sheets that seemed to have stains of the artist’s body secretions. Furthermore, the room was strewn with items people would consider personal and intimate such as condoms and underwear that had imprints of menstrual blood. Such manifest display goes against what the society defines as personal and intimate; hence, the encouragement of it in real life would lead to the blurring of the public and the private, what necessitates art not being free from moral norms.

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The contemporary artists have not escaped the public’s furor in relation to the blurring of the social norms and public morality. Another reason is that the lack of art conforming to the moral precepts as set by the society can lead to offending the feelings of other people unnecessarily.  Few have caused as much controversy as the sculpture of an American artist Paul McCarthy that, as some people alleged, resembled an anal plug in Paris while others saw it as an abstracted Christmas tree (Penketh 2014). With many people giving the sculpture a sexual meaning, some people interpreted it as breaching their social norms. It drew much condemnation in Paris, with some people saying that the artist had humiliated Paris (Penketh 2014). Consequently, art should conform to moral values so as not to offend the conscience of entire constituencies in a country, as the creative intuition should not make redundant the rules that the humanity lives by.

Another modern exhibition that has drawn much condemnation from the watchers and the public was Guillermo Vargas’ Exposition N°1 exhibited at the Gallery Codice in Nicaragua. In this case, the artist tied a dog to a wall at the exhibition site and burned 175 pieces of crack cocaine. He also burned an ounce of marijuana (Yanez 2010). To complete the exposition, he played the Sandinista anthem backward. There was also the phrase “You Are What You Eat” written on the wall using dog food (Yanez 2010). He also explained that there was an extra element in this exposition, the media. Certainly, the media picked up the issue with some people alleging that the dog that looked emaciated was getting starved. Online, there were accusations that the dog ultimately died from famishment as part of the exposition (Yanez 2010). This exposition by Vargas drew furor due to the alleged ill-treatment of the dog. Thus, if the dog had died, it would seem that the artist had gone too far as the modern society abhors the mistreatment of animals. In this case, exhibiting art that involved the suffering of animals appears to be the wrong thing to do. Consequently, in these circumstances, the artist should have conformed to what the society expected and refrained from abusing the dog as the exhibition of such art might encourage the abuse of animals.

On the other hand, the fact that art goes beyond the norms that the society has established has helped in confronting the issues that exist in the society, but which the latter finds hard to face. One of the principal aims of art is to expose the extrinsic truth to the society as it is apparent in many paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art (van Gerwen 2016). In this way, the very art that the community might find to be immoral will advance a Moral Good, as all aspects of the society should. For instance, the Guillermo Vargas exhibition of a dog, which some suspected to have died from starvation, forced people to confront the issue of cruelty towards animals. Moreover, in Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon’s, it is apparent that the issue of prostitution has always been a big problem in the society. In this regard, the expression of moral evil can constitute a virtue of art, as it is evident in this work by Picasso. Consequently, an artist’s work not only creates a new talking point for the society, but also the artistic good that helps in bringing the issue expressed in the art to the public consciousness; hence, in this respect, moral rules should not constrict art (van Gerwen 2016).  Therefore, the society has to acknowledge the fact that while the moral conscience calls for the art that does not go against the social norms, the artist’s conscience asks of the artist to portray reality in its artistic forms, and not as the moral conscience may demand. The creator cannot be a poor artist even at the expense of not pleasing the society, as this would spoil his art. 

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Another contemporary artist who has faced criticism in his work is Damien Hirst. Mother and Child Divided, one of his best-known works, costs two pairs of a cow and a calf cut symmetrical into two. The two are preserved in a tank that contains formaldehyde solution. The art seems unnecessarily morbid. While many artists have explored the issue of death in their art, Mother and Child Divided appears to go beyond the usual expectations of art. However, while many perceive this art as controversial, it is doubtful whether Hirst has broken any social conventions. In any case, if an artist was to contrive a beautiful piece of art, the fact that some people may consider it disgusting or wicked is of little relevance to art (van Gerwen 2016). In this regard, art makes one introspect about the issue of life and death, especially considering that the cows have retained their life forms and have not decomposed. In this case, while the art was certain to draw controversy, there was little need for it to conform to the moral expectations.

Furthermore, it is apparent that moral norms are relative and change depending on the society and the historical epoch. Thus, this raises the question to which the creator of art should conform (van Gerwen 2016).  Consequently, making artists conform to the moral boundaries of the society is likely to stifle their creative impulse. The repression of creative impulse would make art less instantaneous in the expression of the artistic opinion (van Gerwen 2016). Artists have always been idiosyncratic in the society, drawing furor and disgust at the same time. Among the reasons attributed to this state of affairs in society is that the moral good and the artist’s good are different values. In history, some of the most controversial works of art are the ones that are not celebrated now. It is also notable that a moral obligation depends on one’s vision of values; consequently, every individual can interpret his/her social norms to fit his/her circumstances and ideals. Following this, there should be no imposition of moral standards on the artist and he/she should be left to exercise his/her discretion and creative freedom.

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From the essay, it is apparent that while art should conform to some basic moral values, this should not be a restriction on the creativity of the artist and his/her ability to portray the society. This is evident in Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon which many might have considered to be morally questionable as it introduces the public to the realms of prostitution. However, in some cases, the controversy of art does not serve any apparent moral good. These examples, such as Exposition N°1 by Guillermo Vargas and Artist’s Shit by Piero Manzoni accompanied by such works as My Bed by Tracy Emon should only be judged in the context of the artist seeking what is best for art and not necessarily for morality. This happens because art and morality belong to two different realms.