Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The ethics of art, the exploitation of others.

So we've talked about people using their own suffering for commercial gain, but what about all those people who were used by OTHERS for commercial gain? Art is not always a one-man-band. Being an artist is always used in the singular: 'I Am An Artist'. You never say, "I'm in a 'group' of artists". Yet that 'one artist' is not always the person who made the art. Hundreds of people have reaped the benefits of relatives, friends or spouses who were artists that died and left behind a tidy little windfall for them to collect. If Francesca Woodman for example had not sunk into deep depression and killed herself at 22, do you really think she would have become as celebrated as if she had not? And what about those people who exhibited her work after she died? Yes it was great for the world to see, but how do we know she would have wanted all that? I have no quams about questioning the moral backbone of those involved in the promotion of her work. Perhaps to them, art is purely a business and Woodman's photographs were a cash cow to be milked. That's not to say that her photos aren't amazing (because they are) but if she had not committed suicide, would her work really have ended up standing out from all the other thousands of depressive, teenage art students'? When you die young and tragically, you're martyred (look at Lennon), and, in some cases, those around you are right there to hit the jackpot on your last quarter.

And not just them, if we look back to the Prinzhorn Collection, by delving more deeply into the ethics of it, I begin to question if it was right that Prinzhorn should have laid bare all these mentally ill peoples' deepest emotions and expressions for the world to see. He collected over 5000 pieces from hundreds of mental patients. Do you really think he stopped to tap on the chicken wire glass of each padded cell to ask if they actually minded their work being exhibited like meat on a slab? Doubtful.

Just because he could make this collection, does it mean he should have? The works that were exhibited in the collection were incredibly personal and, to each patient, an expression of how they felt. Did Prinzhorn really have the right to use this work when it wasn't his own? It's a fine line between exhibition and exploitation. The art that was collected was originally intended to be used diagnostically to assist the doctors with their patients' cases; so surely the display of the collection is on a par with putting the image of a cancer victim's brain scan on a wall of a gallery, or a therapist publishing a patients free-association writing. It's morally skewed and even a little sick and distasteful.

Another side to this, possibly even more crass, is that many of the patients in Prinzhorn's Collection, may have not been drawing their 'sick', 'disturbed' and 'troubled' minds at all. They may have been perfectly happy and just drawn a random picture that happens to look like it's created from pain. If that was the case, it's even more twisted, as Prinzhorn will have been using their (what appeared to be) expressions of torment and misery, to tap into the public's morbid fascination. Because frankly, morbidity and anguish can at times appear fascinating in a voyeuristic way, and I've no doubt Prinzhorn was well aware of this when he was selecting his pieces... clever boy?

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