Art and Moral Imperative: entry-level thoughts


Heart Scarab of Hatnefer, Serpentinite, gold, ca. 1492–1473 B.C. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection.

Since about the end of March I have started aggressively question what is the point of all this fuss we (yes, I implicate myself) make about art. For all the talking I do about why critical art writing, curatoriality, and actually talking to artists matters, when I look around I still see a dearth of these very things that are, or at least should be, allegedly standards to uphold in our shared ecosystem.

I wonder if it is so easy to eschew these standards due to a lack of moral imperative. While I will always support art as one necessary facet of a core humanities and liberal arts education (formal or informal), and one of many useful ways of describing the world we inhabit. It does not (and has not to-date) resolved any of the most pressing human issues of our day: climate change, poverty, hunger, epidemic disease. It can be, and often is designed as, an educational tool that informs audiences about salient issues. That may present a fleeting opportunity to teach audiences a few key ideas associated with a given work that could potentially push them towards a moral imperative. The art work, though, could have the opposite effect depending on who is doing the looking.

I am also thinking about the ways in which art is separate from most other aspects of human life. Perhaps if art had not been separated from the rest of lived experience, and transformed into an endeavor with an output that is a consumer product and thus commodified, there may be less of a gap between it and moral imperative. I am thinking of what happened to societies that specialized in making certain kinds of objects - with both aesthetic and functional utility -  and the taking of those objects by settler colonialists to be fetishized and sold, oft multiple times for decades if not centuries. How has the removal of these objects halted the holistic development of societies where making wasn’t just about having a thing to look at, but rather about process, meaning, and utility throughout the course of lived experience?

Starting with the viewer and the experience of looking, when a person looks at art, where does the feeling hit the body first? Ok, yes, the eyes; however after that? Is it the brain or is it the heart. Many cultures place a high premium on understanding and experiencing with the brain. I’d suggest that perhaps it is [also] the heart that receives the initial emotional impulse. Maybe what we should be asking is not “what do you think about this art work?” rather “how does this art work make you feel?”. This is not fool proof. If people could get to how they feel, and how that feeling can be resolved for them, and for others who are similarly affected, we may somehow find an example of moral imperative that can be applied to issues of greater scale and magnitude.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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