James Harold: "Ethical Issues in Audience Engagement with Artworks"

The Higher Seminar in Aesthetics

James Harold, Mount Holyoke College: "Ethical Issues in Audience Engagement with Artworks"

What ethical responsibilities do audiences have in engaging with artworks? Certain ethical responsibilities seem quite plausible and are widely accepted: e.g., audiences should not vandalize or destroy artworks; they shouldn’t disrupt performances; they should respect the artistic rights of creators to control their works. Other ethical responsibilities are more contentious, and involve the idea that audiences as well as artists should take moral responsibility for the moral messages in art. For example, Adrian Piper has argued that audiences have a moral responsibility to educate themselves appropriately before engaging with certain political artworks.

In this paper, I argue for two claims: (1) in some cases, audiences should not be bound by these responsibilities – for example, sometimes it is morally permissible for audiences to interfere with artworks in ways that might be seen as disruptive; and (2) that audience adherence to these ethical responsibilities does not normally lead to greater aesthetic success – indeed, what improves matters morally might be harmful from other points of view.