When abstracted, even violent imagery can be beautiful. However, that leads to the controversy of whether or not violence in art is an ethical matter. Artists should be concerned with ethics when using violent images in art. There are many things to consider when portraying violence in art, such as the subject of the artwork and how the artist treats it, whether or not there is message behind the violence, and how violent artwork impacts an audience. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, as well as Brian Clark Howard and Gareth Harris’ articles help one better understand when the boundary of morality is crossed.

When choosing a subject for their art, an artist must make sure they don’t reach a point where their subjects are unintended victims. Use of violence should be precise, and if it isn’t, the provocative element will result in criticism from those claiming it went too far, especially when it includes harming a live or once-live subject. For this reason, Guillermo Vargas’ “starved dog” was considered infamous when people were led to believe the dog died from starvation, rather than escaping as it actually had. However, treatment of subjects who are already dead is far different. Sometimes, artists intend to showcase their subject as the victim of someone else’s doing, like the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, for instance. Artists including Jenny Saville, Yan Pei-Ming, and Luca del Baldo, took interest in showcasing his death because it was “a shocking and iconic image” ignored by the Western media who only covers the famous or the notorious. Saville’s great interest in the assassination came not from the violence itself, but rather from the audience, who was desensitized to it, using their phones as shields while recording the spectacle. In instances like these, violence in art is considered ethical because it wasn’t the artists themselves who partook in the violence, instead they showed it from their own perspective.

Violence must help the artist convey a significant message to their audience. Industrial band Skinny Puppy showcased the mutilation of stage props disguised as “real dogs” in an attempt to promote their anti-vivisectionist views. They exhibited unethical treatment of staged animals in order to inspire people to support movements against animal testing. When the message is unclear or not present, violent art can be considered far more provocative, which is why some pieces are more notorious than others. Adel Abdessemed’s “animal snuff film” caused controversy due to its failure to disclose that he did not take part in the slaughtering of animals that was considered standard on the Mexican farm where it was filmed. The acts of sensational violence would have happened regardless of his presence. Damien Hirst is infamous for his sculptures of animals preserved in formaldehyde, especially for the shark that he killed to replace the famous one that was breaking down. However, looking at his art one must ask themselves: Is slaying an animal to make a sculpture more effective than using any other material? Was it ethical despite its lack of a message? The problem is that it wasn’t. No live animal should be killed intentionally by an artist for the purpose of their artwork, especially when there are other means of preservation that don’t involve slaughter, including photography and film.

The final thing to take into consideration is the audience’s reaction to an artist’s violent art. Art is often times inspiring, and there has always been a question of to what extent it can inspire. Some may internalize the violence in art and change their own views on ethics. Others may be prone to think about committing the act of violence themselves after enough exposure. After viewing Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, the Watcher from Point Omega “imagined turning and pinning [Jessie] to the wall with the room emptied out […] motionless, watching the film over his shoulder.” Afterwards he imagined the guard shooting himself in the head, and admitted that he “is not responsible for these thoughts,” essentially pinning the blame and the root of the violence on the movie itself. Similarly, after watching Adel Abdessemed’s animal snuff film at the San Francisco Institute of the Art, “activists threatened to bludgeon to death the children of museum staff,” if the exhibition wasn’t closed. When thinking about ethics in violent art, an artist must partially be held accountable for the ideas they can inspire through their art.

Art is impactful, especially art that portrays violence. While society shouldn’t get rid of violent art as a whole, and wouldn’t be able to even if they tried, there must be consideration of ethics when creating an artwork that portrays violence. There is a point where it becomes too much and can no longer be justifiable. Intentional starvation and brutal treatment of animals for art should not be considered ethical, let alone praised. There has to be a clear purpose or message when creating a violent work of art because otherwise it can be perceived as assault protected by artistic liberty. Finally, if crossing ethical boundaries, one should take into account the possible effects this may have on members of the audience. If an artist abides by all of these, their work will face minimal criticism for portraying violent imagery.

Joshua Rhule’s critical essay “Violence in Art, an Ethical Matter” won third prize in the Fourth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. He is a freshman majoring in Fine Arts.