Risk to Life: The Ethics of Chris Burden’s ‘Shoot’

Chris Burden, Shoot (1971)
Chris Burden, Shoot (1971)

Chris Burden, Shoot (1971)

In this post, part two of a series on morality in art, we will move on to another of critic Robert Horvitz’ questions in his 1976 Artforum article: ‘To what extent are we justified in suspending our moral judgment when the material being worked is human?’

It will be useful to approach this question by looking at the performance artist Chris Burden’s most notorious performance piece, Shoot (1971). In Shoot, Burden had an assistant shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle. Burden announced the performance beforehand to the editors of the prominent avant-garde artists’ journal Avalanche (‘I will be shot with a rifle at 7:45 pm’)[1], held the performance at his own gallery space, and invited only a small group of friends to watch it. In addition, he purposely chose not to perform the piece on his university campus as part of a Marcel Duchamp festival, because he realised that if he performed it on campus, it would cause conflict with the campus police. Critic Kristine Stiles points to these facts as evidence that Burden ‘responsibly performed the piece’ under ‘ethical conditions’.

Burden did not intend severe physical harm to himself, and practised with his assistant for two weeks beforehand, to ensure that both he and his friend would feel comfortable. His friend was aware of the risks, and freely chose to participate, as did Burden’s audience, who had been warned of the content of the piece. Therefore, I agree with Kristine Stiles’ conclusion that Burden performed Shoot responsibly and ethically.

In this case, Burden’s audience trusted, based on previous experience with Burden, that he knew what he was doing, and that the risk of severe injury to himself (or themselves) was minimal – comparable to the risks a trained movie stuntman takes to create a film. Therefore, I judge that they were not morally obligated to stop the performance.

However, what if the situation was changed? What if Burden played Russian roulette with a loaded gun instead, as one of his students at the University of Los Angeles appeared to do in a classroom performance in 2004? (It was later discovered that the gun was a fake, but the instructor and other students believed it to be a real gun at the time.) The student appeared to be taking no safety measures, and had not warned his audience in advance about the content of his piece. He also intended them to believe that he was about to fire a potentially loaded gun at his head. If Shoot were performed under similar circumstances, it seems that the audience would have had the moral responsibility to cease relating to the performance as an artwork, and instead step outside of the performance frame to relate to the situation as that of a person risking suicide, and attempt to stop him.

This conclusion is based on two principles: 1) that the audience member’s responsibility to preserve life trumps his right to enjoy an artwork; and 2) that the artist’s responsibility to preserve life (including his own) trumps his right to free artistic creation.

Which leads to a few interesting questions: To what degree is risk to life and limb ever ethically allowable in the name of art? Is Burden’s original piece actually more unethical than his student’s, because only Burden’s piece actually risked death (since he, and not his student, used live ammunition)? If the responsibility to preserve life always trumps the right to free artistic creation, is it unethical, for example, to create or watch films with potentially dangerous stunts?



[1] Chris Burden, in a letter (not published) to the editors of Avalanche, quoted in Kristine Stiles, ‘Burden of Light’, Chris Burden, ed. Fred Hoffman et al. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007): 30.

Image credit: Documentary image of Shoot released by artist, re-printed at C4 Gallery. Fair use justification: the image is being used for scholarly discussion of the performance depicted.

6 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Cole, thanks for this very interesting post about Chris Burden. He is a great example of the Postmodern motif of the merging of art and life.

    I did have one question about the way you phrased something: “1) that the audience member’s responsibility to preserve life trumps his right to enjoy an artwork; and 2) that the artist’s responsibility to preserve life (including his own) trumps his right to free artistic creation.”

    The way you phrase this it sounds like our responsibility toward the good of another is different from our enjoyment of a work of art. Perhaps you are simply begging the question, but I wonder if it is better to say that one cannot enjoy a work of art unless one does so responsibly. In other words, responsibility is the mode in which we enjoy works of art. What do you think?

    • Cole Matson says:

      Jim,

      Thanks for the comment. Apologies for the delay in responding.

      I would agree that one cannot truly enjoy a work of art unless one does so responsibly, in that true joy is inseparable from ethical living. When one moves away from the Good, one moves away from Joy. However, that is not to say that one cannot feel like one is enjoying a work of art if one is enjoying it irresponsibly – people can “enjoy” movies by mocking them (MST3K), or enjoy being titillated by a prurient artwork. In the first case, the type of enjoyment experienced is accidental to the artwork, not an essential part of how it’s meant to be experienced. In the second case, if the artwork functions by arousing immoral responses, then it is best not to “enjoy” it at all.

      I would say that responsibility is a mode in which we act, and since enjoying a work of art is an action, we can enjoy it either responsibly or irresponsibly (and that “enjoying” an artwork irresponsibly actually leads one further away from real joy). But I wouldn’t say that responsibility is the mode in which we enjoy works of art. I’m worried that it reduces the many potential ways in which we can judge our responses to art to the single dimension of ethical behaviour. (For example, we may enjoy works of art inappropriately in other ways. For example, I might misinterpret a piece of art because of ignorance of its visual/verbal language, or historical context, and enjoy it as something other than what it is [e.g., I’m not doing anything unethical, but I’m “enjoying” an experience which is actually not how it is meant to be enjoyed].)

  • Ben says:

    This is definately not something I had considered before, so thank you for the article.

    I have one question about your comparission between the movie stuntman and Burden however. Certianly there is a fair amount of risk involved in the profession of movie stuntmen, but ultimately their goal is to remain unharmed while creating an illusion. Burden on the other hand goes to great lengthes to inform his audience, but his ultimate intent is physical harm. Should not the intended outcome of each act play a role in determining the ethical status of each event? An example of what I mean might be two men who go hunting, one accidentally shoots and kills a fellow hunter while the other intentionally goes out and shoots and kills another hunter. I know neither of the two cases are intending to create art, and that might play a role, but what I am really trying to poke at is intent. One peron intends harm, while another does not. How does that play into our ethical considerations, if it does at all? you may have already asked this question in the last paragraph of your post as a rhetorical question for further conversation.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Ben,

      Thanks for your comment, and apologies for the delay in responding.

      I think intent matters, and therefore there is a difference in judgement between someone who intends harm (to himself or others), and one who only risks it, while intending it not to happen. (I’ll note that I happily devour action movies, but I would never do a performance in which I used a live gun on myself or another person. I also love to throw punches in a stage combat situation, but only when both I and the other actor have practiced proper safety procedures.)

  • Carlos Monroy says:

    Dear Cole

    I’m researching about rehearsals or practices before performance art pieces become done and would like to know if there is Burden’s Statement or his friend’s, or whatever document, that affirm the fact that shoot was practiced for two weeks before hand to get confortable both of them to do it.

    I would appreciated the “quotation” or the source of this information, noting that the fact of been practiced ever take out the notion of reality of the action…

    Will be waiting your answer

    Thanks

    Carlos

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