Engaging Art as Ethics in the Making

In the past decade, policymakers, (local) governments, educational institutes and industries in affluent countries have all started to embrace art and artists as a way to deal with societal and economic concerns. This has fostered the development of all kinds of hybrid forms of engaged art, transgressing disciplines and boundaries between art, society, science and technology. While the expectations about art are growing, so is the critique of instrumentalizing art for other purposes than art itself. Debates about the potential relevance and value of art for local communities or creative industries remain characterized by a dualistic opposition: the celebration of the (Romantic) ideal of autonomy of the artist versus a perceived necessary societal or economic relevance of art. The question, often unaddressed (as Elephant in the room) yet central to this debate, is: What is actually good engaged art?

Instead of firmly positioning myself in debates on these normative issues beforehand, I take an empirical and critical stance to this question. In my research, I study how actors in the field (artists, teachers, curators, policymakers, entrepreneurs, etc.) enact, anticipate and negotiate different valuations of (good) engaged art. I do this not by theorizing about the (ethical) value of aesthetics, but by turning to the art practices themselves. How can we understand what (engaged) artists do? How do they make their art valuable? And what gets counted as good engaged art, and by whom? Based on empirical observations of three cases of engaged art in contexts of a particular concern (bioart, social design, and artistic research), I elaborate on art as a form of ethics in the making: a practice in which the artist attunes and calibrates herself as a sensitive and intervening ethical agent.

Explicating how contemporary artists in practice in juggle with and negotiate between different (and sometimes conflicting) expectations of what should constitute good (engaged) art, helps to better prepare young artists how to navigate and position themselves in a networked, experience-based society – without having to resort to or choose from predictable and unfruitful views of art as Romantic versus economic expression. Furthermore, in a society where continuous (technological) change is the imperative, and where ethical deliberation is no longer confined to academia, special committees, or religious fora (if it ever was), art has become an important channel for reflecting on what to do and how to live. The notion of art as ethical practice, as a form of encultured ethics, clarifies how artists can contribute to a better understanding of ethical life in our contemporary culture.


Ties van de Werff

Research Centre for Arts, Autonomy and the Public Sphere, Zuyd University of Applied Sciences, 2016-2018