Ethics of Art through Marina Abramovic and Bill Henson

by / 0 Comments / 575 View / May 19, 2014

Knowledge in Visual Art usually manifests itself in a visual representation of a social stigma or issue in order to communicate the absurdity of said issue or to propel through an existing boundary in society. However, these representations often have consequences and are deemed “unethical.”  The dichotomy between the ethical and open minded judgments of visual art was displayed through the methods of polarizing Visual Artists such as Marina Abramovic and Bill Henson. Their works utilize the uncomfortable in order to provide a commentary on social camaraderie.  But at what cost do visual artists break social boundaries? Here lies the heart of the issue; these “ethical judgments” hinder the methods in which visual art is produced.

An artist utilizes one key factor that transforms art from mediocre to profound: emotion. Different to what is suggested by James-Lange theory – where it is believed that your body conducts specific physical reactions to emotions before they have been reasoned out – human emotions are usually uncontrollable and although they can sometimes be masked, the root of the feeling will still exist. By creating art that is polarizing, the artist is simultaneously creating different perspectives to his or her art but also is emphasizing the symbolic and intrinsic meaning to it as well. Controversial topics such as nudity, or more so adolescent nudity, is explored through pieces done by Bill Henson in 2010. Henson created a series of photographs that were exhibited in Australia in 2010 that showcased nude images of children that were posing around various objects.  The public reaction was far from positive: the exhibit was quickly banned and raided by police. The incident forced Australia to revisit their child pornography laws and eventually strike artistic defense from its exceptions. Yet some critiques stayed to defend Henson: his exhibit was contended to be justified because Henson’s intention was to showcase innocence through the last years of adolescence.

The underlying backbone of the political consequences that followed Henson’s work is attributed to the current stigma surrounding nudity. There exists a general perception that nudity is immoral and scandalous.  This axiom comes with a double-headed complication: the media and negative social culture of contemporary nudists exists in stark contrast to the approving opinions regarding artists from the early Renaissance such as Botticelli.  In his piece, “The Birth of Venus,” 1486 one can observe the nonchalance about nudity.

Marina Abramovic is a renowned performance artist that is classified as a visual artist due to the environment in which she performs: an art gallery. In 2010 she held a collective exhibition at the MoMA in New York City in which one piece in particular stood out. Abramovic hired her apprentice performance artists to recreate an already existent piece of hers that involved them standing stark naked in a door way.  The only way a viewer could pass through would be to squeeze within the tiny space between the two performance artists. Similarly to Bill Henson, the ethical judgments placed on Abramovic centered round the concept of nudity. Abramovic’s piece dealt with predisposed discomfort and the re-creation of society’s comfort level with nudity and the human form. The main judgment in regards to ethics was the exploitation of the viewer. By making the viewer a part of the art, Abramovic was subjecting the viewer to an experience that they would usually be able to decline, however, because it was a doorway that needed to be crossed, they were left with no choice; if a viewer was emotionally unequipped to face such a high level of discomfort, the artist would be committing a form of harassment on the viewer. This shows that the context in which an action is followed transforms the meaning behind it.  Despite the negative implication of ethical judgments, by including the viewer in the piece itself and having the discomfort or ethical judgment be acknowledged at large, Abramovic conducted a social experiment through visual art and reiterated the point being made by the piece. This in turn represents the opposition to the negative impact ethical implications have on visual art, because where as it had limited Henson, it added to the success of Abramovic.