Art education without ethics does students a disservice

Art education without ethics does students a disservice

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh was not pleased.

During the Antigravity Parade at Carnegie Mellon University this year, a student participated wearing a pontifical shaped crown and barely anything else. She was naked from the waist down.

Bishop Zubik told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, “This is an opportunity for all of us to be reminded that freedom of speech and freedom of expression do not constitute a freedom to dismiss or disrespect the beauty of anyone’s race, the sacredness of anyone’s religious belief or the uniqueness of anyone’s nationality.”

CMU President Jared Cohon agreed. In an open letter he reiterated the campus free speech policy: “The only limits on these freedoms are those dictated by law and those necessary to protect the rights of other members of the University community and to ensure the normal functioning of the University.”

Public nudity is against the law. Ms. O’Connor, the half-dressed pope, has been charged. But this case is important beyond freedom of expression and misdemeanor charges. It directly shows how college level art education often neglects basic ethical behavior in favor of sensationalism.

Further reporting found that O’Connor had “initially submitted a proposal for a humorous approach for her performance, but was encouraged to ‘develop a concept with a political edge,’ although court documents do not say by whom.”

There are two ethical problems with this case. The first is shame. Jewish law states that he who shames another person is responsible for paying damages. Can the bishop be understood to have felt shame? If so, the student may be


But more broadly, artists are often trained to “challenge the viewer.” Make it edgier. Upset someone. This is nothing new with respect to the avant-garde. Nor is it new that some artists and professors feel that a work has to disturb to be valuable.

But what of the students? They are advised to provoke but are not taught what might happen if they successfully raise the ire of the public. This puts them in harm’s way, something no professor should actively or passively promote. And this is the second ethical problem — nezikin (damages).

One category of damages involves unintentional injury. An example is that of a ladder with faulty rungs. If it was known to have faulty rungs, the owner of the ladder is liable for injuries acquired by the user. If an art professor encourages a student to make work that is clearly against the law, is he (or she) also liable for damages?

Art education has unfortunately focused heavily on political and social commentary to the expense of other media. Art programs include classes on drawing, painting and other materials. Then students are quickly shuttled off to higher-level seminars that encourage political edginess and social practice. But many programs do not recognize the benefits of sustained effort in one material.

Take drawing for example. Once basic proficiency is reached, other skills develop slowly such as objectivity and sharpened visual acuity. I am not arguing that every art program follow a traditional model similar to the French Academy in which students go from copying plaster casts of Greek statuary to drawing from a live model. However, sustained engagement with materials and their properties can teach skills far more versatile than ridicule.

Recently, it has been noted that education should focus on resilience and other character traits. The art education that I support begins with hours and hours of looking to develop hand-eye coordination. Ultimately, it also develops character. Not through long critique sessions that break a student down and then build him up, but through sustained effort. Looking at a subject for hours at a time, over several days leads to qualities that our hyper driven interactive world negates: perseverance, attentiveness and patience.

Even more important, these skills can serve other disciplines and occupations. Everyone must persevere in his or her chosen career. Attention and patience are critical for thoughtful problem solving. Social problems, academic disciplines and, I would say, most employers would benefit from having people like that. College is a time when skills, vision and character are built. Irony and satire are among the tools contemporary art uses, but easy derision and cynicism all too often take the place of thoughtful critique.

At Saint Vincent College’s Commencement this year, Cardinal Donold Wuerl said, “Science without ethics, art without spirituality, technology without human moral values, materiality without transcendence; they are all branches in search of a vine. All the branches have to be connected to the vine of truth, to the wisdom, the human experience of God’s word.” Wuerl spoke of the Catholic tradition. We too have our own traditions. Connecting that tradition, including legal thought such as nezikin to the arts is part of the challenge for today’s professors.  

(Ben Schachter is a professor of visual arts at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.)