Conference Ethics and Aesthetics 2003

Ethics and Aesthetics

Art Gallery of New South Wales

19-20 September 2003

View the program here.


Okwui Enwezor, Artistic Director of Documenta 11
Documentary/verite: photography, film, video, documentation or the figure of truth in contemporary art

The theme of my talk is wide ranging and draws mostly on the tension between objectivity and truth, ethics and aesthetics (a dichotomy I find tendentious), the other side of which has been rendered as politics and poetics in relation to the representation of the real in contemporary art. Two questions concern me here, the first is my response, after more than a year to the critical reception of Documenta11, much of which of which depended on the facile notion that many of the projects were documentary in mode or could be conceived as effecting their criticality through a strong focus on reality. Having engaged this debate, the second point is to ask: to what extent is the figure of the real to be found in the figure of truth which the documentary mode is said to merchandise. I shall look at this issue theoretically, firstly by showing the tension between the concept of documentary and that of verite, and secondly by engaging a number of wide ranging practices both in Documenta11 and other places to engage this tension (Richter’s atlas and the October 18 paintings are two examples, Boltanski’s work is another and so on).


1. Bioethics: Relation to Art of the Body

Plenary | Pathologising Masculinity: transdisciplinary images of health and deviance in the modern male body | Speaker, Professor Anthea Callen, University of Nottingham, UK

Criss-crossing the fluid disciplinary frontiers of art and science as did nineteenth-century anatomists, this paper explores the relationship between artistic and medical anatomy in constructing ideals of the modern male body. Considered in the contrasting light of Foucault’s theories of emergent medical authority, and of Bakhtin’s ideas on bodily excess, this paper looks at how – through anatomy and its sibling disciplines, especially anthropology – historical art and medicine visualised distinctions between the healthy and the pathological, or deviant, male body. Analysing the nineteenth-century obsession with photographing naked bodies, it considers the motive forces behind this visual taxonomy – which aimed at differencing and disciplining the male body to enforce social-Darwinist hierarchies of power. Within the homosocial world of the modern professions, were these images simply the research tools of art and medicine: or were they symptomatic of a new visual economy in which homoerotic desire could find expression?

Some of the paper’s key concepts and protagonists appear in Sallé’s Anatomy Class (1888, AGNSW) and Brouillet’s Charcot’s Tuesday Lecture (1886). The discussion then focuses on the work c.1880-1910 of French medical photographers (Albert Londe, Paul Richer, Etienne-Jules Marey) and their British and American counterparts capturing the male body in movement (Muybridge and Eakins). It concludes with contemporary art which revisits and questions the historical field of artistic anatomy. These include John Isaacs’s anatomical wax sculpture, A Necessary Change of Heart (2000), and the photographic work of Gerhard Lang, whose human physiognomic ‘types’ explore the nineteenth-century Galtonian/anthropological use of photographs as evidence of social and racial difference.

2. Institutional Ethics

Plenary – Mediator or cultural provocateur? Art museums and controversy | Speaker, Associate Professor Jenny Harper, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

While art museums generally see themselves as mediators between art –including the most difficult art – and the public, there are occasions also when museums and galleries deliberately court controversy.  How well they fare in the eyes of public when they show explicit, provocative and challenging art depends on how well they articulate their mission and how well their community understands and accepts their role.

My concern is with recent high-profile international exhibitions in Australia and New Zealand. Particular attention will be paid to those that occasioned serious calls for censorship or other legal threats to art institutions, or those that prompted the use of legal frameworks to test opinions of right and wrong. I am interested in the specifics of the roles of religious and political organisations as vehicles for action. While not taking a show is not necessarily censorship, what is excluded from programmes may be as interesting an indicator of policy as what is included, and – in that context – I also consider the debate surrounding the deletion of ‘Sensation’ from the programme of the National Gallery of Australia in 1999.

Interesting patterns emerge. Art controversies become occasions of sustained and divisive rhetoric as individuals are heroised or vilified. Other, sometimes tenuously related, battles are fought. However, there is an institutional cost to controversy. The democratisation of museums – a laudable trend in general terms, and one which returns museums to their earlier role of places of public ‘spectacle’ – has brought with it increasingly complex pressures. For as art museums compete for the leisure and tourist dollar, there appears to be more internal and external confusion about their role vis-à-vis debates about art. And there is evidence that gallery spokespeople are less prepared to articulate the relationship of art to social change and to defend an ethical role for art practice.

Art professionals need to talk more about the implications of what we do in this or that context and why. Are ethics little more than a matter of what we can get away with? A number of instances of art controversy in this part of the world give us plenty to consider. By looking at both ‘A history of Andres Serrano’ (open to the public for only two days in 1997 at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne) and ‘Pictura Britannica’ (shown for its full term amidst continuing public outcry at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in March 1998), as well as considering examples of successfully staged exhibitions of work, which were challenging at other times and were or might have been controversial in other places (such as ‘Robert Mapplethorpe’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and ‘Don’t leave me this way: art in the age of AIDS’ at the National Gallery of Art in Canberra), I indicate that museums are more likely to control the public outcomes if their programmes are aligned to their mission and are coherent with their historical practice. However, art museums need to be receptive to review and renewal from time-to-time and, like artists, attend to their role as cultural provocateur.

3. Ethics and Postcolonial Art

Plenary | Performativity and Recognition | Speaker, Dr Charles Merewether, Collections Curator, Getty Research Institute

The experience of art is itself an event. It is a matter of performativity that art practices as a means to create a rupture of evidence or breach with the logic and effects of exclusion, subordination and discrimination that our knowledges, our agreements and practices produce. Through a practice of re-elaboration, it seeks to do justice not simply to history but also to the imaginary as constitutive of an unfulfilled freedom. It is here that we find art’s desire.

It belongs to the moment of now, appearing by virtue of its belatedness to what has passed and a future that it envisages. In the context of the conference theme, what I am arguing for is an art practice that seeks completion through its audience, a form of dialogue in which the conditions of art’s emergence corresponds to the formation of the subject, that is, as fundamentally relational. This would be an ethical practice whose very condition is contingent on a participation in the construction of meaning and renewal of value that invents the possibility of recognition of both the difference and commonality between each other.

Politics and Ethics

Plenary -| Types of Politically Radical Art and their Prospects | Speaker, Julian Stallabrass, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

This paper will examine various types of politically active art that exist variously outside the contemporary art world, straddling its borders, or firmly inside it. The works to be examined are visual art of the Zapatistas, Sebastiao Salgado’s work for the Brazilian Landless Movement (MST), the online activism of Paul Garrin, Etoy and RTMark, and the photographic work of Allan Sekula. Sekula’s work exists as gallery installation and in book form; the online work exists mostly outside the gallery but has been the subject of attempted appropriation; Salgado’s work is shown in a number of forms and contexts which will be examined; the Zapatista work lives largely in their communities and on activist websites. The political and ethical dimensions of each will be examined, alongside an assessment of their political effectiveness. This will involve an exploration of the relations between ethics, politics and aesthetics in contemporary art. In particular, the recent claims of Virilio about the pitilessness of contemporary art will be examined, both against the specific examples given here, and the broader picture of a globalised art functioning in a largely neoliberal climate. The question of the use of art will be highlighted–particularly whether art which has a definite and functioning use has surrendered its claim to the title ‘art’, and the uses of art which claims more conventionally to be useless.