Ai Weiwei famously caused outrage earlier this year when he posed as a drowned Syrian infant on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos. Now the Migration Museum Project, which hopes to launch the first museum dedicated to exploring migration to and from the United Kingdom, will open an exhibition this June that highlights the plight of refugees, even incorporating work made by migrants living in the notorious Calais migrant camp that has been dubbed “the Jungle.” As the number of artistic projects devoted to Syria proliferates, it’s important to consider how art can best serve humanitarian issues.
Though there’s a clear distinction between these two projects (an artwork whose humanitarian concerns are superseded by the artist’s ego, as Ai’s image is, raises particularly complex ethical concerns), a good dose of circumspection is healthy for any artists or creatives dealing with topics such as poverty, social justice, and migration.
An art project currently taking place across the U.K. gives an example of how to get it right: Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima), a contemporary art gallery in one of England’s most deprived cities, is hosting the exhibition “the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise,” named after an art collective that collaborates with plantation workers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The show features the collective’s sculptures of art-world figures, first moulded in clay, then reproduced in chocolate. These are sold worldwide and the profits are sent back to the DRC to improve the plantation workers’ lives.
Installation view of “Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise.” Courtesy of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.
Both the Migration Museum and mima exhibition, whether or not they add significantly to artistic discourse, are successful on moral grounds, in that they prioritize humanitarian concerns. Both involve the direct participation of the subjects involved, and at least one will feed money back to those communities. Greater collaboration between creatives and their subjects goes some way to avoiding a “spectator economy” in which destitution is served for consumption to the lucky few without benefit to those subjects. But the fact that those behind these projects still stand to gain, whether in publicity or monetarily, continues to present a problem.
Politics can get in the way, too. This week, a scale model of a Palmyran arch destroyed by Islamic militants in Syria in October was erected in London. Though Syria’s director of antiquities was on hand to watch, and its organizers say the project involved the participation of the Syrian people, the number of Syrians granted asylum in the country since 2011 languishes at around 5,500, according to government figures. The project acts as a symbol, but without the government further opening its doors to refugees, it appears an empty gesture or PR strategy.
Olafur Eliasson’s recent “Green light” project in Vienna—where migrants collaborated with students to produce lights in a workshop—undoubtedly gave Eliasson publicity, and caused a similar media storm that surrounds celebrity artists like Ai. But it at least attempted to alleviate its own inescapable ethical problems of spectatorship and privilege by creating a community among those involved. The current pervasiveness of these kinds of projects marks a valuable waypoint in asking how many museums and galleries profiting from historical and contemporary destitution can say the same, and how complicit consumers are in profiting from that pain.
As observers of art, rather than lawmakers or philosophers—who might question the egoistic concerns of art in the first place—we should consider how morality interacts with aesthetics. In “Forbidden knowledge: the challenge of immoralism,” an essay in the book Art and Morality, the academic Matthew Kieran writes that “the moral character of a work is relevant to its value as art to the extent that it undermines or promotes the intelligibility and reward of the imaginative experience proffered.” In other words, the moral substance of a work is only relevant to how it affects a viewer’s experience of the art. Morality, when used effectively in a creative context, can be an effective tool for engaging viewers.
It can also cause problems. Susan Sontag, in her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, writes “it is felt that there is something morally wrong with the abstract of reality offered by photography; that one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power.” According to Sontag, it is impossible to escape this quandary: of seeing images of deprivation in places equivalent to today’s Calais, Syria, and the DRC—and not pay an ethical price for doing so. If we are given the luxury of looking on, then we will also feel guilt. Though such pictures might raise awareness of certain subjects, they are never unproblematic, especially in terms of the voyeurism they incite, and the feeling of impotence that often accompanies it.
As Sontag writes, “If one feels there is nothing ‘we’ can do, then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.” If compassion isn’t utilized, it dies. It is our responsibility as consumers, as much as the artists themselves, to take more action. While museums in Britain must serve the taxpayer by representing public interests, or issues of wider concern, there is no substantial or obvious ecology for the commercial gallery sector to act with the same sense of responsibility. Projects that donate money back or seek involvement may be difficult and creatively restrictive, but they come with an ethical incentive that deserves repeated and closer attention, involving as it does the subject, the artist, and also all of us.