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’), 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?
 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.