Ethics and Aesthetics
Fleur Cartwright

Key: SEA = Socially Engaged Art

Traditionally aesthetics can be defined as the outwardly positive appearance of an object.

In contrast, in the world of Socially Engaged Art several more powers are at play and the beauty of the artwork is almost irrelevant. There is a perception that community engagement requires a trade-off with aesthetic value. Art critics have struggled to evaluate SEA especially since the artwork is often an intangible form. Meaning an object has been replaced by a space. Furthermore, the artwork is so intertwined with the participants personal life that critiquing the work is similar to critiquing the minority groups it is intended to empower. The aesthetics of SEA is instead the action of harmonious collaborative work. Any artwork produced is of lesser or equal importance to the community engagement provoked. Therefore, Aesthetics in relation to SEA can be defined as a social aesthetic. In which, human interaction and the sense of pride instilled in the participants is more valuable than the physicality of the artwork.

An equally important consideration is the issue of ethics. Since its emergence following the second World War SEA has for the most part aimed to empower the voiceless. However, in the case of the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra he has often exploited societies disenfranchised. For Example, his 2000 work “160cm Line Tattooed on 4 people” in which he paid drug addicted prostitutes the price of a heroin shot to allow him to tattoo a line on their back in order to highlight the increasing commodification of our bodies. Sierra would justify his art as a means to denounce exploitation rather than a dehumanising unethical act. Sierra prioritises his ethical obligation to society over his ethical obligation to his participants. Whilst the system of economic exchange present in Sierras work is a vital element it pushes him and the art world that buys his work into ethically ambiguous territory. To ensure SEA is practiced ethically participants must be a creative agent rather than a spectacle.

Furthermore, artists must consider their ethical commitment to the planet in balance with the potential ameliorative effects in the community. For example, Olafur Ellasion installed twenty-four blocks of Arctic ice outside the Tate Modern in 2018 to bring the reality of climate change into focus. How does the artist balance the huge energy costs of air freighting ice blocks from Greenland to London against the valuable experience of interacting with the ice.
A further example, where the ethics of SEA have been tested is in the 2000 work ‘Please Love Austria’ by the provocative filmmaker Christoph Schlingenseif. In response to the election of a far right nationalist party Christoph erected a shipping container in Vienna mounted with a banner emblazoned with the phrase “Foreigners Out!”. A group of asylum seekers were moved from a detention centre to the shipping container. Their daily activities were broadcast on TV and a vote was held for the removal of their least favourite refugee. The ejected were deported whilst the winner was awarded a cash prize and Austrian Citizenship. The project understandably received colourful criticism from across the political spectrum. Despite the conspicuous abuse of the rights of vulnerable individuals, the project was intended as a critique of xenophobia.  And as a means to highlight the shocking fact that an artistic representation of detention creates more controversy than an actual centre of detention. Schliningenseif would counter ethical objections with the view that he is simply replicating the states actions and that his work serves as a reflection of a polarised society. Others may argue his disregard to ethics was tenable given the debates it activated across the country.

As an artist you tread a fine line between empowering and endangering your participants. In SEA the role of the artist is reversed, instead of being a producer they are now a consumer. The British artist Jeremy Deller stated that he “went from being an artist that makes things to being an artist that makes things happen”. Their role is to provide a non-mediated social space for challenging discourse. To ensure the artists ethical commitments are met contracts could be drawn up but this contradicts a defining characteristic of SEA which is to be created outside of institutional structures and ideals. Artists should build amicable relationships with participants and when the projects come to an end these ties should not be immediately severed ensuring SEA heals more wounds than it deepens. Unequivocally, a bottom-up collaborative approach is required to avoid an ‘exhibition of the exotic’. Therefore, ethics in relation to SEA can be defined as the balance between the welfare of the participants against the potential benefits for the society in which it exists.