Art Ethics: We Are Not Bowls of Fruit

During his legendary questioning by Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial, Williams Jennings Bryan famously answered one of Darrow’s queries by saying, “I don’t think about things I don’t think about.” (Darrow’s rejoinder: “Do you think about the things you do think about?”)  One of the ethical issues I hadn’t thought about was whether an artist drawing a subject in public without his or her consent is being unethical. Thanks to a post by an inquiring artist on an art blog who heard the faint ringing of an ethics alarm in his head, I’m thinking about it now, and it is trickier than you might think.

Once the artist starts rolling, he has a lot of ethics questions:

“First off, when is it appropriate or inappropriate to draw someone? Do you need to have express consent? What if you’re not drawing their face? What if you’re not a good enough artist to create a likeness?

“What if you’re such a good artist you can look at a stranger once and then draw their likeness from memory? Does that count? What if there is simply no way they could know you were drawing them?

“Obviously drawing someone is different from taking a picture (and many of us are not at risk of drawing a convincing likeness) but regardless, there’s some aspects of it that are prey to the same issues of power dynamics and privacy that photography can be. For instance, is it okay to draw a homeless person without their consent? What about a stranger’s kid? Obviously you can’t stand at the edge of a schoolyard, that’s private space and you’d be pretty creepy. But what if there’s a group of kids in the park? What if that homeless person sat beside you on the bus? Okay, what if they were passed out on a park bench? Is a shopping mall private or public? What about the gym? What about a hospital waiting room?

“You see?”

Some of the artist commenters on the post show a near total lack of ethical sensitivity. Here, for example, are some of the “rules” devised by artist “Antonio”:

  • Never draw people who are sitting next to you or are nearer than 2 meters to you. The exception are people who are not facing you.”
  • “If you draw a guy that sits facing directly to you make sure he’s distracted somehow, by reading a book or using a laptop. If the person is looking around the room, chances to get caught are high.”
  • “If somebody catches you looking at him and moving your pencil around at the same time, stop drawing him and look for another subject. It’s not worth the sweat. You never know how they’ll react.”
  • “The best method is not looking like you draw at all. Don’t use paper that’s bigger than A4. Hold your pencil like you write stuff.”
  • “I often work at two subjects at once, so if one of them spot me I’ll continue with the other one, till the “alarm” is over.”
  • “Make sure you are sitting in a corner or place where nobody walks behind you. There’s nothing worse than people looking at the sketch and asking “are you drawing him?” while pointing with the finger at the subject….”

This artist’s only concern is not getting caught or arousing the ire of his unwitting subjects. The fact that those he draws might not like the idea if they knew about it doesn’t bother him at all, but it should. Why should we trust a stranger to use our personal images for his own purposes, amusement or profit? How do we know the artist won’t put us on a shirt, coffee mug, or a porno site?

Ethical treatment of art subjects is undoubtedly an ethical gray area, but a few things are clear:

  • Surreptitious drawing—that is, actively hiding it from the subject, is unethical.
  • Creating a likeness of a person (not a public figure) that could be recognized and making it public–as in selling it, publishing it, exhibiting it or posting it online is an unethical violation of the subject’s privacy, autonomy and dignity.
  • Presenting the individual to the public in an unattractive or mocking manner is cruel, disrespectful and unfair.

The key to the issue, I think, is to decide whether objectification of a human being is necessarily wrong in an art context. Absolutists believe it is always wrong to use a human being as a means to an end, but is condemning the use of a person who is voluntarily appearing in public as an inspiration for an artistic work a sensible application of  this principle? What is wrong, really, with an artist sketching a subject’s feet, for example, or his shadow?

The Golden Rule isn’t much help here either, except that if that if the artist would object to being drawn in public, he or she shouldn’t draw others without getting permission. The problem with declaring consent an ethics necessity in this setting is that it renders the reason for the request moot. Someone who knows they are being drawn is going to look and act differently than an un-self-conscious subject.

This is an area where ethical balancing is in order. Creating art (or training an artist) is a sufficient public and spiritual good to justify the minor infringement on privacy (in public, there isn’t much to infringe) that the art may require. Still, there are lots of fuzzy lines in this picture. For example, an artist called “blubberlubber” draws brilliant caricatures of people he sees during the day, sketching them from memory, and posting the drawings on his blog. I don’t know, but I suspect, that they could be recognized by anyone who knew his subjects. Is this ethical?

I tend to think not, but I’m not certain. After all, ethics is more of an art than a science.

5 thoughts on “Art Ethics: We Are Not Bowls of Fruit

  1. I agree with Ethics as more of an Art than a Science. I think I realize that someone might see me and be inspired to create works (though I believe that possibility to be very low.) I am okay with this because I don’t consider hand drawings or paintings to be an invasion of privacy.

    My standard (and others may differ in their standards) is that a painting is not “fact”. When you have a photograph (or at least used to) and it showed you, in a place, at a time – that was “fact”. But a drawing, just like a poorly photo-shopped image, doesn’t rise to the level of fact and certain identification.

    Now, if I’m in public reading a book and I become aware of the artist and it’s distracting me – I feel my privacy has been invaded and I will either move away, request the end of the drawing, or negotiate for the artwork (or copy).

    In the grand scheme of ethics I would propose that you can still make an ethical and unethical determination – but then you need to judge fairness, so here is my hypothesis:

    “It is not unethical to draw someone you have seen or continue to see in public, so long as you are fair to their dignity.”

    P.S. What about courtroom artists? Do they receive consent before they draw defendants on the stand?

    • Funny that you mention that. My sister once handled a high-profile case for the government, and the courtroom artist did several drawings of my sister at work, and made her look like a lizard-creature from some horror movie, green skin and all. My proud parents, to MY horror, actually framed the drawings and but them up in the living room, to my sister’s humiliation. (She does NOT look, and has never looked, like a lizard.)

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful feedback! I feel that most of the artists that took the time to comment felt obligated to defend their process and focused instead on technique and method and not on larger questions. Which is fair, because if you’re going to be an artist who works in realistic figures drawing, unwitting subjects is an integral part of your practice and your practise; and as such you are probably at a stage where you’ve already gotten through the big questions and instead are refining your craft.

    I appreciate that you also recognize the gray area. I suspect it is something every artist negotiates for themselves, maybe largely unconsciously, based upon their own ethical leanings. I was largely interested in seeing if anyone could share theirs with me while I’m developing my own stance.

  3. Initially I thought that I would have no problem with someone sketching me just for practice. The idea of being included in a published work-either online at deviantart or in a book form-did not sit well with me, however.
    I had to think about it, though. Why is practice fine without publishing? I think it has to do with my expectation of privacy and what I think is reasonable. It may be unreasonable for me to expect drawings of me not to appear online or in print for, but that is what I expect.
    If someone is practicing their craft, it seems reasonable to me that my permission is not needed. The picture will stay in your sketchbook (I understand other artists may see it to look at it critically and give feedback) and I see no problem.
    But taking my likeness and then publishing it without any communication crosses a line to me.

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