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Do Artists Have an Ethical Responsibility to Society?

Writing by Elizabeth Armitage. Artwork by Berenika Murray.

I don’t think I am being controversial or radical when I say that art is very personal. As

somebody who managed a social media account for their own art for a while, I know

how damaging it can be to open up the relationship between you and your art to other

people. You become obsessed with likes, shares, and what your followers want to see,

instead of creating art for art’s sake. It was so emotionally draining when a piece I had

poured hours of work into would flop for reasons I couldn’t understand. I was left to

conclude that my art was objectively no good, permanently ruining my relationship with

the hobby. For this reason, I believe that a person’s art should seek to please

themselves first and foremost, because they’re more likely to enjoy creating art and

continue to develop as an artist, which can in turn garner more interest in what they do.

But what does this have to do with ethical responsibility? Well, if an artist is more

preoccupied with the impact they feel the responsibility to create than the subjects they

focus on, it can be self-destructive. In the same way I believe that acclaim can naturally

follow from producing something that you yourself like and are proud of, I think a

stronger positive ethical impact can be made by first being inspired by issues that speak

to you and following on from that. People can usually sense when somebody’s beliefs

are genuine, and are more likely to be open to new arguments and ideas when they’re

being explained by someone with an honest passion and understanding of the nuances.

To do otherwise has the potential to lead the way for performative activism - that is,

taking a stand on a particular topic because you feel it is expected of you without fully

understanding the implications of what you’re saying, not because you have something

meaningful to say about said topic. Artists with the best of intentions could risk

spreading misinformation and treating sensitive issues as tools to give their art more

exposure, only to move on from them when the trend has passed.

However, that is not to say that artists should be oblivious to the impact their art has.

Artists on social media have the potential to be just as influential as the average lifestyle

vlogger. Therefore, does the size of an artist’s following determine how vigilant they

should be in regard to their work’s ethical shortcomings? Is that fair when an artist can’t

control who does or doesn’t have access to their work? In my opinion, like with any

privilege, although it’s not chosen by the person who benefits, it’s still their ethical

responsibility to be educated on how to use it to help others. Or at the very least, not

make their lives worse. For example, providing trigger warnings before sharing works

related to sensitive topics, or perhaps considering whether they should be posted in the

first place. If we look at ethical impact as something that can be quantitatively

measured, the greater the number of people that can be affected by an artist, the

greater their responsibility is.

There is also an argument to be made that artists that work on commission have the

ethical responsibility to be selective on who they accept money from. If the money has

been obtained unethically, for example through exploitation of the working class, it

should be rejected on a matter of principle. However, doesn’t an artist also need to

make money from their work? This rejection has the potential to do nothing but leave

the artist worse off while the client, inconvenienced but ultimately unfazed, uses that

same ‘dirty’ money to pay for another artist’s services. This is yet another issue where

an artist’s power and influence comes into play. A well renowned artist with no shortage

of work is in the best position to turn down clients of questionable moral standing, as

they stand to lose very little, either in terms of reputation or financially. Being rejected by

a prominent artist might also have the knock on effect of causing a wider discussion

about this particular person’s ethics, leading to a chain of rejections or even boycotting

until they are forced to re-examine their practices.

A lot of my arguments have focused on art in an online context, but I think a similar logic

can be applied to different mediums. For example, there is a big difference between the

ethical impact of an independent fashion designer who produces their clothes on a

small scale versus an international brand. Even if they commit the same ethical

blunders, objectively the negative impact of the international brand is much larger. The

difference between one garment being produced from unethically sourced fur and tens

of thousands being produced from the same material is immense. But does that make it

ok for the independent designer to do such things? No, it still isn’t right, but it makes

sense to focus our protests on bigger corporations who are causing more damage and

making more profit off of the back of it.

So, in response to the question, I think artists have an ethical responsibility to society

only as much as any person does. They should use their better judgement to do right by

others as much as they’re able and treat sensitive topics with care, but they don’t have

any unique obligation to serve as beacons of morality for the general public. If that were

the case, I think we’d lose out on a lot of beautiful and thought provoking works.

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