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.