Social Responsibility and Art

PERHAPS it is unfortunate that the world of the artist must, inevitably, transcend the creative solitude of the studio and the somewhat rarefied, aesthetic ambience of the gallery and museum.  But, as our planet holds few corners in which to hide, even the remote beauty of Paul Gauguin's Tahiti and the austere sanctity of Georgia O'Keefe's desert hermitage are inevitably compromised by the social conflicts and contradictions which plague humanity.  So, if the place of artists in the world is to be more than a benign extravagance, they must, consequently, be prepared to abandon the pretense of aesthetic isolation and become socially responsible, that is, sensitive to the nature and consequences of human and cultural failings so as not to contribute, through their art, to their proliferation.

I will be concerned, in this essay, with that aspect of social responsibility which requires a recognition of, and adherence to, a principle of respect for persons, a principle which requires the avoidance of the abuse, exploitation, or oppression of individuals or groups.  For those of us yet undecided as to art's conceptual borders, it seems uncontroversial that at least some endeavors which may be interpreted as falling under the umbrella of art - - child pornography and snuff films, for example - - violate this principle.  Such forms of art I will term "socially irresponsible artistic endeavors." What seems less clear, however, is whether social responsibility requires that such endeavors be curtailed, that is, censored.

In what follows, I will argue that (1) all members of the human community - - including artists - - should strive to be socially responsible; (2) the lack of accepted standards of evaluation regarding what is exploitive, oppressive, and abusive - - rigid conceptual borders - - does not render the notion of social responsibility untenable; (3) artists must be educated to become active participants in the on-going dialogue aimed at seeking a consensus regarding these standards of evaluation; and (4) such a rational consensus should function as a moral and legal guideline for disentangling the legitimate concerns of social responsibility from the overly restrictive and artistically stifling demands of those advocating particular religious or ideological agendas.

Social Responsibility

My impetus for encouraging social responsibility hinges upon both a moral and a civil right to be respected as persons.

The Argument from Morality

A Kantian moral principle - -  respect for persons - - urges that all human beings be treated as ends in themselves, that is, as having intrinsic value, and not as a means to the ends of others - - as having instrumental value only. (Kant, 1986, p. 47).  Those artistic endeavors which exploit, oppress, and abuse human beings, which treat human beings as means rather than as ends, violate the moral right of persons to be treated with respect.  Such endeavors, then, are immoral. As social responsibility requires that one act morally, it necessarily entails avoiding at least some types of artistic endeavors.

Although a respect for persons does seem to be an intuition which most rational and sensitive people share, one may offer the objection that morality is subjective - - culturally or even individually relative - - and that one's moral code need not include this particular Kantian moral belief (or, even more radically, that one need not have a moral code at all).While it is outside the scope of this essay to dispute ethical relativism, although I think it can adequately be disputed, it is my contention that all members of the human community are moral beings and make moral judgments and, as such, have a moral code by which they live (or at least ought to live). Furthermore, I am convinced, with Robert Holmes, that

"any plausible moral theory must have at its center a concern for the lives and well-being of persons.  If we do not value persons, including ourselves, there can be no point to valuing other things - - not property, possessions, national boundaries, the flag or anything else." (Holmes, 1989, p. 24)

Nor, in this instance, can we value art. Artists, then, as socially responsible members of the human community, should strive - - have a moral duty - - to respect the moral rights of others and to avoid those artistic endeavors which exploit, oppress, and abuse human beings.

The Argument From Civil Rights

We are proud to live in a society which, paternalistically, guarantees protection from those who would use their power or position to exploit, oppress, and abuse others, proud to possess what I will term the civil right to be respected as persons. Substituting the concept of a civil right for that of a moral right establishes a civil basis for the artist's duty to strive to avoid engaging in those endeavors which disrespect persons.

It should be noted that rights sometimes conflict.  In such situations, it would be impossible for both sets of rights to be respected. Rights, therefore, are not absolute.  They are, rather, prima facie, that is, they may, sometimes, be overridden. When situations of conflicting rights occur, we must decide which prima facie civil right must be asserted and which can be overridden.

For example, we are guaranteed the civil right to free speech and expression by the First Amendment. But, as speech and other modes of expression - - including artistic - - can be used to abuse, exploit, and oppress, the civil right to free speech and expression can conflict with the civil right to be respected as persons. As the constitution does not guarantee the right to use speech and expression in such a manner, the right to free speech and expression may be overridden in favor of the right to be respected as persons - - which then becomes an actual right.

To be socially responsible, artists, like all other members of the human community, must strive to fulfill their civic duty to respectthe civil right of persons to be treated with respect.  If certain artistic endeavors violate a person's civil rights, the artist is civilly bound to avoid such endeavors, and an appeal to the First Amendment to justify these endeavors would be inappropriate and misguided.

Problems of Identification and Standards of Evaluation

Given that (1) the conceptual guidelines for determining what constitutes oppression, exploitation, and abuse are less than clearly defined; (2) the grounds for making such determinations are susceptible to individual interpretation; and (3) the variations in the levels of human sensitivity and imagination are significant, some thinkers have been led to conclude that any and all determinations of socially irresponsible artistic endeavors are purely subjective.  Consequently, such thinkers argue, because the identification of artistic endeavors as socially irresponsible lacks objectivity, any attempt to postulate moral or civil obligations regarding these endeavors - - now "capriciously" proclaimed to be immoral/illegal - - is misguided.

The eminent twentieth-century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1968), has pointed out that the lack of rigid conceptual borders or necessary conceptual criteria does not render a concept ineffectual. Wittgenstein noted that the concept of “game,” for example, is somewhat flexible, lacking a common characteristic - - necessary criterion - - which an activity must possess in order to be included within the set of games (what does the game of football, for example, have in common with the game of jacks, on the basis of which we call both endeavors "games"?).  Wittgenstein noted, further, that one would not conclude from this lack of rigid conceptual borders and the subsequent susceptibility of the concept to some individual variation in interpretations that the concept of game is meaningless or that judgments of value regarding it are misguided.  Wittgenstein's observations are relevant to our discussion: one need not conclude that, as a consequence of its lack of rigid conceptual borders, the concept of socially irresponsible artistic endeavors is meaningless or that judgments of value - - whether moral or civil - - are misguided.

Distinguishing Doing From Portraying

An objection which may be raised regarding my argument for artistic social responsibility has to do with the perceived existence of a distinction between actual exploitation, oppression, and abuse, and the portrayal of exploitation, oppression, and abuse through art.  Some would argue that, unlike the rapist or political tyrant, the artist is not engaged in exploitation, oppression, and abuse but is merely portraying and focusing attention upon significant social problems which need remedying. The move to quiet such voices, the argument continues, merely reflects the reluctance of those who advocate censorship to confront such disturbing social issues and a preference, instead, to maintain the illusion that all is well.

Such an objection hinges upon the acceptance of what I will term a "purist" view of art.  To argue that art merely portrays social problems implies the establishment of conceptual borders - - if an endeavor exploits, oppresses, and abuses human beings then it cannot, for that reason, be art.  Unfortunately, as evidenced by the myriad of endeavors which are claiming artistic freedom under the First Amendment - - claiming privilege under the art umbrella - - the narrow scope of art as advocated by the purist is not widely held.

Without such rigid conceptual borders, distinguishing between doing and portraying neither undermines the concept of socially irresponsible artistic endeavors nor does it remove the artist's moral and civic duty to avoid such endeavors.  Such a distinction would, however, serve to note the important difference between the endeavors of the artist and those of the rapist, and would have intra-art application.  It would distinguish those artistic endeavors which merely portray exploitation, oppression, and abuse from those artistic endeavors which actually exploit, oppress and abuse. The term "socially irresponsible artistic endeavor" applies only to the latter.  Those modes of expression which merely portray exploitation, oppression, and abuse should be appreciated and encouraged as positive forms of social criticism.

A socially irresponsible artistic endeavor, then, is not merely an artistic representation of an imperfect society, but is itself a contributor to just those sorts of exploitive, oppressive, and abusive activities which lead one to characterize society as imperfect. I caution, however, that one who attempts to walk the fine line between portrayal and actual abuse has embarked upon a difficult and morally perilous journey.

Social Responsibility and the Education of the Artist

I have, thus far, avoided characterizing socially irresponsible artistic endeavors as pornography. I have done so because I am more interested in whether artists should concern themselves with issues of social responsibility rather than with establishing the scope and parameters of what constitutes pornography.  I will, therefore, limit the scope of the concept of socially irresponsible artistic endeavors to those paradigm cases where it is apparent, to most rational observers, that human beings are clearly being exploited, oppressed, and/or abused through what may loosely be termed "art" - - child pornography, "snuff' films, etc.  While the goals of this essay are, therefore, quite modest, the consequences of such a position may extend well beyond my modest conclusions.

I have argued that artists should be socially responsible and strive to avoid endeavors which violate the moral and civil rights of others. Artists' voices, however, should be heard in the continuing dialogue regarding the identification of such right-violating endeavors. I would challenge artists, therefore, to become informed participants in the debate: to be aware both of the needs of other human beings and of the techniques of distortion or misrepresentation others may utilize in defining such endeavors within the parameters of their particular religious or ideological points of view. As awareness is not innate, it is imperative that the education of artists provide the foundations necessary for such social and political engagement, that the art curriculum encompass such areas of study as human behavior, social dynamics, the nature and the extent of moral and civil obligations, the techniques of argument and critical thinking, etc. Here, as elsewhere, knowledge is the prerequisite of empowerment and responsibility.


Unfortunately, with a recognition of socially irresponsible artistic endeavors looms the specter of a governmental bureaucracy imposing their standards of decency and, subsequently, censorship upon the artist. Such a fear is certainly understandable and has motivated artists and those concerned with free expression to oppose any and every artistic restraint - - even those which most morally sensitive human beings may support, such as child pornography and "snuff' films.  Certainly it is the case that restraint can and has been misused.  But eliminating abuse, oppression, and exploitation is a positive human goal and to abandon the attempt because of the possibility of misuse would be tragic. While I am certain that most artists, once they are aware of and sensitive to the needs of others, will avoid socially irresponsible artistic endeavors, it may be the case that others, whether motivated by greed or notoriety, will insist upon continuing to disrespect persons through their “art.”Such individuals must be educated regarding the inappropriateness of their socially irresponsible behavior and encouraged to fulfill their moral and civic duty to avoid those artistic endeavors which oppress, exploit, and abuse persons.

As noted above, those with radical religious or ideological agendas may join the debate over social responsibility and censorship in order to impose their particular beliefs or perspectives. Their participation in the dialogue, however, does not make it impossible to arrive at a reasoned consensus about what constitutes social responsibility, although it certainly may raise the volume of the dialogue.  What needs to be acknowledged in such a debate is (1) that the notion of social responsibility does not pose a real and serious threat to free speech and expression; (2) that human beings have intrinsic value and must be treated with respect; (3) that some endeavors deemed artistic may exploit, oppress, and abuse, and, as such, violate the moral and civil principle of respect for persons; (4) that, as socially responsible members of the human community, artists should strive to avoid such endeavors; (5) that the practical impossibility of achieving absolute standards of evaluation does not render the notion of social responsibility untenable; and (6) that those who would distort or misrepresent the nature or function of social responsibility must be confronted and enlightened about the unacceptability, in a pluralistic society, of their religious and/or political narrowness and intolerance.

All are welcome to participate in the dialogue and all points of view are valuable. We must not discourage, therefore, those diverse "voices in the wilderness" who, while outside the mainstream, may offer insights and observations that may benefit us all.  Hopefully, with continued dialogue, some consensus will emerge on the conceptual borders - - on what constitutes respect for persons on the one hand, and artistic endeavors that can be deemed exploitable, oppressive, and abusive, on the other - - an Aristotelian golden mean, if you will. And, while disagreement and grey areas will always remain, the fact that unanimity eludes us or that every pursuit or subject matter may not fit nicely into our conceptual framework, should not obviate the effort. Uncertainty merely speaks to the importance of flexibility, open-mindedness, and the continued willingness to foster growth in order to accommodate new forms of expression as well as changing mores, perspectives, and sensitivities.


1. I am grateful to the editors of Art & Academe for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this essay.

2. For a convincing argument against ethical relativism, see, among others, Nielsen's (I 989) Why Be Moral and Donagan's (I 977) The Theory of Morality.

3. For an insightful argument on the moral status of man, see, among others, Gert's (1988) Morality: A New Justification of the Moral Rules and Curtler's (1993)   Ethical Argument: Critical Thinking in Ethics.

4. The details of the argument is as follows.  As it is the case that at least some endeavors which may be interpreted as falling under the art umbrella exploit, oppress, and abuse persons, then, at least some artistic endeavors violate the civil right of persons to be treated with respect.  As social responsibility entails that one avoid such endeavors, social responsibility entails avoiding those artistic endeavors which disrespect, that is, exploit, oppress, and abuse persons.

5. For the classic and, perhaps, definitive work on actual and prima facie rights, see Ross's (1982) The Right and the Good.  For an interesting and insightful contemporary treatment, see Thomson's (1990) The Realm of Rights.

6. One may or may not, for example, deem Russian Roulette to be a game depending, perhaps, upon one's sensitivities, preference, or taste.

7. Dr. Robert Milgrom, Editor of Art & Academe and Co-Chair of the Humanities and Sciences Department at the School of Visual Arts, argued for such a position in a very valuable and helpful discussion we had regarding this paper.

8. I have avoided a discussion of whether other "forms" of art-those artistic endeavors which degrade, belittle, insult-should also be regarded as socially irresponsible.

9. While a determination of what is exploitive, oppressive, and abusive may, in some cases, rest upon consensus, the fact that exploitive, oppressive, and abusive behavior should be avoided, however, is not dependent upon such consensual agreement.

Originally published in: Art & Academe (ISSN: 1040-7812), Vol. 8, No. 1 [26-341.  Copyright C 1995 Visual Arts Press Ltd.

Copyright © Camillo Mac  Bica • All Rights Reserved

.Camillo Mac Bica, Ph.D. Philosopher, Author, Activist