Art Historical Ethics: From Professional Codes to Ai Weiwei

Posted in opinion pages, the 18th century in the news by Editor on May 23, 2011

Photo from the Hurford Humanities Center, which is collecting graphics related to Ai Weiwei's imprisonment

A recent Google search for / HECAA art / provided a link to a page on ‘Art Ethics’ hosted by the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The section on professional associations includes about a dozen organizations, most of which (including HECAA) don’t supply a code of ethics — as noted, rather curiously I think, at the site (the point seems less to direct users to codes of ethics than to imply that lots of organizations don’t think about these things).

The HECAA link is out of date in any case, but it did get me thinking about the place of ethics for an association like ours. Given that we’re an affiliate of the College Art Association, I think it’s safe to say that we’re covered by its work in this area. The most relevant document is presumably  “A Code of Ethics for Art Historians and Guidelines for the Professional Practice of Art History.” Probably more complicated than articulating an ethical code for Art History is doing so for museum practices. Here, too, CAA has certainly addressed the problem, though it seems that new dilemmas often call for new responses.

In considering one example of the challenges museum officials face, Mary Louise Schumacher offers this piece on the intersection of Chinese involvement in the eighteenth-century exhibition, The Emperor’s Private Paradise, which opens in Milwaukee in June, and China’s recent imprisonment of the contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei. -CH.

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Mary Louise Schumacher, “Should the Milwaukee Art Museum Protest Ai Weiwei’s Detention?,” Journal Sentinel, 20 May 2011.

. . . Because of this new level of cultural exchange, China’s Palace Museum has authorized, for the first time, a large-scale exhibition of its treasures to travel to the U.S. This art historically significant show of 18th-century art and decorative objects, The Emperor’s Private Paradise will make its final stop at the Milwaukee Art Museum this summer.

Meanwhile, China has also imprisoned its most famous living artist Ai Weiwei. Ai is one of dozens of artists, lawyers, activists and bloggers arrested or gone missing in recent months in one of the worst spikes in repression in more than a decade and a presumed attempt to prevent the kinds of uprisings that have taken place across the Middle East and Nortth Africa, according to Human Rights Watch. . . .

These contradictory narratives are about to intersect in a unique way here in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Art Museum is the only museum in the world about to open a major exhibition of Chinese art organized in direct cooperation with China.

On the one hand, it is a coup for MAM to snag this critically acclaimed show, fresh from a successful run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., which organized the show in cooperation with China’s Palace Museum. . . .

MAM is making this show, which has been in the works for many years, the centerpiece of its Summer of China, an entire slate of exhibits and events. Early on, the museum sought to include an outdoor installation by Ai Weiwei, but those plans fell through. The museum couldn’t identify an artwork that fit its plans and budgets, museum officials said.

The exhibit places MAM in an uneasy spot and raises ethical questions.

Should the museum join many of the world’s other cultural institutions in signing petitions and speaking publicly? Would China pull the show? And if they did, would MAM lose the exhibition fee, presumably in the millions?

If MAM is mum, however, will it run the risk of the appearance of appeasement? Does the museum have an obligation to educate its audience about the oppression of Ai Weiwei during its “Summer of China?”

Does this show provide an opportunity for dialogue or even diplomacy? And – a question for all art museums – will overt forms of protest be more effective than behind-the-scenes efforts in affecting Ai’s release . . .

The full article is available here»

3 Responses

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  1. Anthony Colantuono said, on May 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I think that the CAA and other ethics organizations need to get focused on the rampant corruption in the discipline. Many of us are aware of the massive conflicts of interest that develop when certain individuals simultaneously hold multiple positions of power and use their influence to favor themselves and their friends while injuring the reputations of their intellectual competitors. Yet the lack of a strong professional ethics organization leaves us no way to change this or even to defend ourselves. All that is needed is a safe, reliable clearing house to accept and review ethics complaints, especially where there is a pattern of complaints about a particular individual or group of individuals. As it stands, a handful of non-elected people hold (often as virtual lifetime appointments) all of the power in the discipline and can pretty much make or break competing scholars’ careers at will — denying or encouraging the denial of grant funding, engineering smear-job negative book reviews to undermine other people’s careers while building up their own, helping themselves to other people’s unpublished research and then preventing the originator of that material from ever publishing it, etc. — the list of dirty tactics goes on and on. We all know this stuff goes on and yet what can we do about it? If it’s not actually illegal but only unethical, victims have no recourse whatsoever. No one person should be allowed to have so much power without any input whatsoever from the art history community; and certainly no one should hold such powerful positions for more than a few years. How is intellectual freedom even possible in such an environment? The CAA needs to get some teeth into its ethics policies and stop people from so extensively gaming the system in their own favor!

  2. Editor said, on May 25, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks, Anthony, for the comment. I think I understand CAA’s “A Code of Ethics for Art Historians and Guidelines for the Professional Practice of Art History” to address primarily the ‘doing’ of art history as opposed to the organizations that facilitate such activity (including, of course, CAA itself). I don’t mean to suggest that the two aren’t related (they certainly are), but they don’t strike me as exactly the same thing. And presumably, ethics as applied to academic organizations would pertain from one academic discipline to another (at least broadly speaking, and especially within the humanities).

    In terms of your suggestion, I’m wondering who exactly would form this “safe, reliable clearing house to accept and review ethics complaints, especially where there is a pattern of complaints about a particular individual or group of individuals.” It seems to me that there would still be plenty of human judgment at work here, too. Are you envisioning a committee under CAA’s umbrella? And if not CAA, then what organization could matter enough in terms of the practice of art history (at least in the US)?

    One other line of questions: most of the scenarios you sketch depend upon malicious intent (i.e. ‘dirty tactics’ and ‘injuring competitors’). What if these individuals are attracted to positions similar to their own thinking simply because they think they’re right? I don’t mean to suggest that such judgments aren’t still frustrating (and potentially really bad for the discipline), but it’s easy to see how such a Complaint Board would pose its own challenges to academic freedom (if I really do think a book is terrible — and, not surprisingly, very different from a position I myself would take — am I still allowed to say so in a review, or would I risk being reported?).

    All very interesting.

  3. Editor said, on June 23, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    Ai Weiwei was released on bail on Wednesday, 22 June 2011. The BBC story is available here.

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