The Artistic Potential of Unethical Practices

There’s been a lot of discussion in class and on the blog about the ethics of something like The Push. I agree with most of the criticisms: The participants were placed in intentionally traumatic situations and subjected to intense public shaming once the special was released. But I’m also interested in considering the artistic potential of this kind of manipulation and deceit, and whether such practices can ever be artistically justified.

In considering this, I think it’s worthwhile to think about who the audience of The Push, or similarly manipulative works, is. Watching The Push, it feels obvious to view ourselves, the viewers, as the audience. But I think we can alternately frame the participants as the audience, with the manipulation itself, rather than the special created around it, being the art. Slater seems to take this approach in describing the Milgram experiment, which comes across in her writing almost like an immersive theater performance, intricately staged with a “ghoulish air” (44). The subjects, then, act as the unknowing audience. And even for those of us viewing The Push or the Milgram experiment as outsiders, part of the effect comes from putting ourselves in the place of the subjects. We don’t just experience the work as an impersonal experiment. We experience it as personal, and we are implicated in the actions of the participants.

I think art, in general, manipulates by design. It’s usually not so overt, but all art seeks to provoke us into thought or feeling. These works take that a step further, provoking their audiences into genuine belief in the falsehoods constructed, as well as provoking them into action. And while that inherently poses ethical questions, I also think there’s artistic potential in the ability to give people a completely novel and unique lived experience. It seems like a powerful way to communicate a message, or create an artistic sensation, is to make people live it, or even manipulate them into living it. And the knowledge that something is a fiction, or that it is, in fact, a game, can get in the way of that lived experience. While there are certainly ethical questions surrounding the Milgram experiment, I think it was absolutely artistically impactful for its subjects, seemingly making some of them reconsider their own obedience and actions. And I expect The Push was similarly impactful.

Of course, it was probably impactful in largely negative ways! So I wonder if there are ways for this artistic impact to be channeled in a more ethical manner, while keeping the intensity of experience. There a couple things that come to mind for me. The “this is not a game” aesthetic of ARGs definitely comes close. Hoaxes can also be similar, and I think some of the elaborate hoaxes created by the show Nathan For You are quite fascinating (I’ll probably talk more about that show in the context of performing the self). I do wonder, though, if there’s something artistically unique in pushing at ethical boundaries. The Push definitely crosses the line, for me at least, but I wonder if there’s value in nearing that line, and if the impacts of The Push could have been achieved in any other way.

One thought on “The Artistic Potential of Unethical Practices

  1. You brought up some very interesting points about art being meant to provoke the observer into feeling certain ways. Where I see the line being crossed from Derren Brown’s Push and art viewed from this perspective, is that with art, the observer has the volition to move past it and remove themselves from situations they feel uncomfortable with. Derren Brown is forcing his subjects to live this alternate reality knowing fully well that they are in distress and constantly battling with their inner selves. One possible solution to your question about how artistic experiences can be channeled ethically, can come from the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Using virtual reality for example, would allow users to be inserted themselves into an artistic experience. With technology these days including transcranial magnetic stimulation, EEGs, and VR headsets, virtual experiences are becoming more and more immersive. Most importantly, the users have full control over their experiences and can exit their VR experiences if they so choose.

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