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SMCM Philosophy Club: Can a Bad Person be a Good Artist?

The St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) ethics bowl team hosted a philosophy club meeting on Nov. 9, at 8 pm in Margaret Brent Hall Classroom 109. The team, composed of Alexis Underwood, Vince Mogilnicki, Maddie Beller, Esteban Caballero and Lindsay Chiavacci also travelled to Poughkeepsie, NY to compete in the Northeast Regional Ethics bowl competition, competing against schools like UMD, Sacred Heart, Villanova, and Yale.

The team asked at their thursday night meeting whether a bad person could be a good artist, and subsequent questions like if aesthetic values can be or should be separated from moral values, and if museums and galleries exhibiting such artists should focus only on the aesthetic value.

Questions like these draw to mind many examples of morally corrupt artists- recent accusations against Kevin Spacey may have fans asking if House of Cards is still a good show, or if viewers themselves would be considered morally irresponsible for viewing the show.

The specific case covered in the meeting wasn’t that of Kevin Spacey, but rather of artist Eric Gill. Gill’s sculptures depict the abuse he enacted on his daughters and sister. Many of these pieces are on display in the Ditchling Museum of ART + CRAFT, in a show that opened on April 29 of this year. The museum not only displayed works depicting the sexual abuse of his daughters and sister, but included Gills “darker history” as part of the exhibition, which was titled “Not Turning a Blind Eye”.

One of the concerns raised about the exhibition is the triggering effect it may have on victims of sexual assault, or even the validating effect it may have on abusers. The SMCM ethics bowl team took the stance that displaying art made by an immoral artist is acceptable “if and only if there is a clear warning that the content may be triggering to some viewers.” They reached this decision using a Kantian Deontological framework to understand the functions of museums.

Mogilnicki explained that museums have a duty to start dialogue, and to display concepts that are not always comfortable.  He went on to say that “silence is complicit, not displaying issues we are uncomfortable with does not allow us to learn,” and that “presenting the work does not equate supporting the actions of the artists.”

Chiavacci explained that the Ethics Bowl team also needed to decide how art should be defined, and came to the conclusion that “art is art regardless of  if it’s evil or morally responsible.”

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