A Question of Ethics

The question of ethics is not one that comes up very often in arts education except as regards plagiarism. However, there is the occasional consideration. A friend of mine who teaches visual and plastic arts sent me this problem recently. Although the case he presents here is hypothetical, I think he may have encountered a similar real-life situation:

A student in some one of the arts comes to his/her instructor with a project idea that is not only contrary to the instructor’s beliefs but would probably be offensive to a majority of society (hate speech, fringe group propaganda, pornography, advocating violence for some reason, advocating cultural or racial paranoia,). Which is the appropriate path for the instructor?

  1. A. Help the student incorporate the message into his/her art because art is about communication and the teacher’s job is to guide the student in achieving the student’s goal.
  2. Let the student know that what he/she is doing is inappropriate and a probable detriment to society, and counsel the student that art should be for the betterment of society.
  3. Considering the greater good for the community, discourage the student from completing the project, at least with its present direction.
  4. Some combination of A, B, and C
  5. Some other answer

Anyone thinking about the problem for more than a moment will realize that the choices are not all that simple. For example, if one were to choose 1, would the instructor then be an accessory to the production of questionable art, to the production of hate speech, porn, advocating violence or paranoia? Without instruction, the piece would probably be less effective and thus damage society less. Or is the instructor completely without responsibility in this situation?

In considering answer 2, one must ask oneself whether art really should be for the betterment of society. While that is the goal of a lot of art, I don’t know that it should be the goal of all art. Actually, I would be very hesitant to assign any one single goal to art. People make art for all sorts of reasons; some of them are political, and some, decidedly, are not.

The problem with 3 is that to advocate for the greater good, one would must know what the greater good is. And who is to say that the instructor’s view of the greater good is accurate? To the best of my knowledge, teaching in the arts does not entail any special insight into the needs of society, whether those needs be sociological, cultural, or political.

While not mutually exclusive, 1-3 are designed to be not easy to combine so 4 is difficult at best and adds unneeded complexity at worst.

My answer (5) combines 1 with a part of 2. The instructor’s job is, I believe, not to censor the student, but rather is to guide the student in developing the skills with to achieve his/her goal. However, that guidance must be more comprehensive than just advice on technique and methodology. Part of that guidance must be advising the student when he/she is doing something that is in bad taste and that might be a detriment to society. The student should understand what the impact of his/her work is likely to be and understand what reactions the work might receive.

What was your answer?

Date: Monday, 31. October 2016 0:48
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