When Can Artists Bend Ethics for Art’s Sake?

Natasha Bell
Jul 20, 2018 5:32PM

Sophie Calle, Suite Vénitienne, 1980. “At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in the crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice. So I decided to follow him.” © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Perrotin.

What right does an artist have to use other people in their work—to invade their lives, violate their privacy, or cause them harm? What will we forgive in the name of art?

These are the questions I was asking a decade ago when, for a graduate performance art class taught by Tania Bruguera, I paid a classmate $1 to befriend my best friend Laura and write reports on how she thought Laura was coping after a recent break-up. At our final class, I passed around a folder containing these reports and a photocopy of the $1 check I’d written. The folder reached Laura last. I watched across the table as she read the document of my simultaneous care and betrayal.

I got an A for the class, but lost my friend. It was a horrible thing to do, but I was 21 and obsessed with Sophie Calle and the line between art and life. Since the 1970s, Calle has repeatedly invited us to question whether artists should be held to the same standards as other people. In viewing her work, we must ask whether invading someone’s privacy or betraying their trust is an acceptable emotional cost to art.

Sophie Calle, The Hotel, 1981. “On Monday February 16, 1981, I was hired as a temporary chambermaid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. I was assigned twelve bedrooms on the fourth floor. In the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed through details lives which remained unknown to me. On Friday March 6, the job came to an end.” © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Perrotin.


In 1979, Calle followed a man she’d met at an art opening in Paris to Venice, where she spent two weeks spying on and photographing him as he went about his business in the city. She presented the images alongside text detailing both her observations and emotions during the period, as Suite Vénitienne. This man, identified only as Henri B., was the first unwitting participant to Calle’s artistic game.

In 1983, she found a lost address book on the street and photocopied the contents before returning it. She then telephoned each of the contacts to question them on the identity of the owner, and published her findings as a series (“The Address Book”) in the French newspaper Libération. The owner, the documentary filmmaker Pierre Baudry, threatened to sue her, wrote open letters to Libération, and eventually sent the paper a nude photo of Calle that he demanded they publish as retaliation. This literal tit-for-tat response to her exposure of his identity did not perturb Calle; she ultimately incorporated it into the piece.

For The Hotel (1983), Calle worked as a chambermaid, exploring and documenting the private belongings and writings of hotel guests. Observing this piece, we experience both Calle’s curiosity and the unsettling thought that, at every hotel we have ever stayed in, our own possessions might have been subjected to similar scrutiny. What might someone like Calle have learned from our nightgowns and slippers, our diaries and postcards? How might she have misinterpreted us?

Sophie Calle, Suite Vénitienne, 1980. © Sophie Calle / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Perrotin.

A crucial element of these early pieces is Calle’s involvement of the viewer in her transgressions. By inviting us to immerse ourselves in the narratives of her observations, she makes us complicit in her voyeurism—even as we question it. It is not just Calle invading these strangers’ privacy and observing their lives without consent, but us, too. We may not agree with her methods, but by engaging with the work, we find ourselves tacitly condoning it.

Decades later, though, the question that still hangs over these pieces is whether or not they were ethical. Did Henri B., Pierre Baudry, or those hotel guests have a right to privacy? Can any of us expect to be protected from the artist’s gaze?

In 2013, Arne Svenson caused a Calle-like controversy for using a telephoto lens to take photos of his Manhattan neighbors, later exhibiting the work in a local gallery. Svenson was sued, but won the case based on his First Amendment rights, and “The Neighbors” went on to be exhibited across the country. Though the discussion continues as to whether Svenson’s photographs of families, children, pets, and intimate, private spaces is ethically acceptable, the judge’s ruling makes clear that legally, at least artists have a right to invade aspects of our privacy.

Santiago Sierra, 160 CM LINE TATTOOED ON 4 PEOPLE, El Gallo Arte Contemporaneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000, 2000. © Santiago Sierra. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Considered in conjunction with conversations about digital surveillance, data protection, and online privacy—not to mention random strangers who might be livetweeting intimate exchanges—this ruling might seem rather scary. Belgian artist Dries Depoorter uses digital technology to explore this fear. For Tinder In (2015), Depoorter traced women (and some men) who appeared on his Tinder app to their LinkedIn profiles, then displayed and published their profile pictures from each side by side, pointing out both the ease with which individuals can be traced, and the split-personalities of online identities.

The interesting thing about all of these pieces is that, while their controversy lies in the question of an individual’s right to privacy, the works themselves actually reveal very little about their subjects. In reading the texts accompanying Calle’s work, we learn much more about the stalker than the stalked. It’s easy to understand the sense of invasion felt by Henri B. and Pierre Baudry, as well as Svenson’s neighbors and Depoorter’s Tinder matches, but perhaps the true grievance is that the artists have used these strangers’ images and identities to create works that have nothing to do with them.

Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s use of anonymous individuals raises similar ethical questions, though rather than invading their privacy, he asks them to submit to him bodily. For 160cm Line Tattooed on 4 People (2000), he paid heroin-addicted prostitutes the price of a shot of the drug to allow him to tattoo them. For Group of Persons Facing a Wall (2002), he paid homeless women the price of a night in a hostel to stand facing a gallery wall. And for 10 People Paid to Masturbate (2000), he paid workers $20 to masturbate in front of a camera.

Santiago Sierra, 10 PEOPLE PAID TO MASTURBATE, Tejadillo Street, Havana, Cuba. November 2000, 2000. © Santiago Sierra. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Unlike Calle, Svenson, and Depoorter, Sierra does seek consent from his subjects, but the nature of this consent is highly questionable. These pieces draw attention to the exploitative, transactional nature of our society, pointing to the commodification of bodies and exposing the power structures that operate within our everyday lives. Conceptually and politically, the works might be seen as noble, but in actually using the bodies of vulnerable individuals, Sierra must enact the very exploitation and dehumanization he critiques. He forces us to ask if it is okay for an artist to use people. Can the end justify the means?

In 1992, Paul Auster based a character in his novel Leviathan on Sophie Calle, borrowing some of her works as well as inventing new ones. This depiction of Calle is heavily critiqued in Chris Kraus’s autofictional novel I Love Dick (1997); she claims Auster’s version of Calle is “a waif-like creature relieved of complications like ambition and career.” Ironically, this criticism—that using a real person as the subject for art strips that person of their individuality and complexities—can be levelled just as fairly at Suite Vénitienne, The Address Book, and The Hotel. Like Auster, Calle presents her subjects as simplified versions of themselves, and treats them like fictional characters in a narrative she remains in control of.

It is, I think, this relieving of complications that is most disturbing and, in the end, most painful. Should we find ourselves the subject of an artist’s gaze, most of us would like them to see the whole of us, to render us fairly and try to understand our complexities. Unfortunately, the artist’s motive is often more to do with projecting or reflecting a part of themselves rather than reaching an empathetic understanding of their subjects. What they were looking for, really, is a mirror.

Dries Depoorter, Tinder In, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

In the play between the private and the public, artists have both the ability and the right to provoke, shock, and disturb. What we often fail to recognize, however, is that by giving them a platform, it is us as viewers who have bestowed this position of power upon them. By consuming and applauding Calle’s early works, we effectively opened our own curtains to Svenson and gave our profile photos to Depoorter. Perhaps the question is not whether artists have the right to invade our privacy or cause us harm, but why we’ve allowed them to.

I’m not proud of what I did to Laura back in grad school. A decade later, I’m appalled by my callousness and can hardly remember my own justifications. But I do remember the surprise I felt at her anger. I remember expecting her to understand, wanting her to acknowledge my cleverness, to think about the nuances of privacy and trust, and sense as I did the precarious power wielded by the word “art.” I wonder if it is this kind of optimistic thinking that drives Calle and other artists. For those who have devoted their lives to their work, perhaps it doesn’t seem so extraordinary for them to imagine others should be willing to devote theirs, too.

Natasha Bell
Natasha Bell is an author living in London. Her debut novel “Exhibit Alexandra” is about love, loss, and art.