Art & Ethics

Months ago, I found this gem of an interview by John Reed with Miguel Angel Hernández, author of “Escape Attempt”. It was refreshing to read an art critic speak so candidly and free of the mind-boggling jargon that easily find their way in many critics’ lexicon.

In the interview, Hernández talks of his fictional novel but also of his own views on art making, in particular, on its ethics and politics.

“As a critic, I have great difficulty looking at that kind of art; works that I consider good art but works I have problems with as a citizen. Sometimes you have to choose between art and life.”

Probably the first time I felt a rupture between art and life was around three years ago, while sitting in an academic forum about art in the university. One of the topics was a group of public outdoor art installation nearby that included a mirror installation by artist Reggie Yuson. The work was situated in the middle of a vast field– a vista reflected by the large mirrors. As such, according to the speaker in the forum, birds have accidentally flown into the mirror at high speeds, which I suppose have led to several deaths. Although accidental, I found it revolting. That moment ingrained in me the idea that art had its limits. Life, along with the dignity inherent in human and animal life, were more important.

“Jacobo Montes works to put injustice in the museum. In that sense he is the social artist of the hour, but his work is quite problematic — as political art often is, in the sense that art may not be the best way to speak to some issues. And that’s also my position; I don’t believe that art can show something that immediately changes our perception of the world. The audience that goes to a museum to see art about injustice usually agrees with the artist. That is to say, artists are confirming our vision, creating a space of consensus. That’s for me the liability of political art; you are not changing reality. Political art has to be a little bit more complex; when a work of art is about something it can’t change, it is just reproducing it.”

Some artworks are created for their shock value and political message; while consciously straddling ethical boundaries, or at the very least, creating that illusion. Take for example Guillermo (Habakkuk) Vargas’ works that supposedly involved tying up a dog in a gallery and leaving it to starve, or Axioma, which purportedly documented the daily physical deterioration of a different dog. The artist and gallery owners have denied that the dogs were abused, only that the work gave the illusion of such. (According to other news articles that were mostly in Spanish, in the former work, the dog was fed regularly and only tied up for the three hours when visitors were allowed to view the exhibition; and in the latter, the presentation of the pictures were apparently reversed to show the dog growing thinner overtime, when it was in fact the other way around.) Similarly another artwork, albeit a fictional one, that comes to mind is Carlton Bloom’s work in the first episode of the British series Black Mirror.

Visually, there is little that separates these works from the real life horrors that are documented and even uploaded online. The blurring of reality and the illusion of the work (as in Vargas’) lends the work its power and shocking reception. However, if the artwork, hoax or not, were to inspire real horrors, should the artist feel guilt or shame? Or would this further validate contemporary society’s frailties and inhumanity?

“Your first place of engagement has to be your medium. And this is also working for an artist. Imagine you are an artist making pictures of some sort of injustice. If you are not questioning your medium, your task, the memory of the tool you are using, the same idea of representation of injustice … if you are not doing that your art is futile. So our privilege is the capacity of actually transforming our medium. That’s for me the political engagement of art. Only then, after that, you can represent injustice. But this is a second step.”

These complexities however makes political works well-worth pursuing, in terms of both content and form. This is something that Hernández shares in his interview, along with how fiction writing, another form of art-making, has affected how he writes art criticism and his appreciation of visual art.

“My way of writing art criticism changed completely. After publishing the novel, I could not return to scholarly writing and the established formulas of criticism. For some months I felt blocked. And in the end I decided to write another novel — also close to art. My texts are now far from what you’d expect from an art critic. They are more like experiments, experiences, closer to narrative or even fiction. Curiously, I feel now that I understand art better than when I wrote traditional art criticism. And I must add that the experience of writing a novel changed my perception of art. It made me love the art more.”

In the end, the art critic extols the virtue of asking questions and the dangers of being convinced with answers, a sentiment poetically expressed in this online comic by Kostas Kiriakakis.

“A future of change is only possible if we have open questions. Answers are dangerous. I fear people with answers. I fear they might convince me.”


Image of the book “Escape Attempt” taken from



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