Philosophy of the Arts

new art forms

Biology and ethics

Wiener Aktionism, Biology and Ethics

Biology prescribes that humans strive for survival. It simply makes no sense for a person sustaining a life of his own, to do things which will threaten that project—ultimately it is the support of all his other projects, and dying marks the end of all of them.
Ethics presupposes biology, and tries to develop arguments to deal with actions whose nature it makes sense to have deliberations about. Whenever ethical considerations lead to issues of killing or ending life, biology steps in.

With this distinction in mind I return to my question whether Wiener Aktionism provides cases of Immoral Art or whether it is immoral in such measure as to fall outside the moral limitations of art practice.

Summarising the argument so far

I assume that art is a moral practice and that this means that nothing happening within art practice (which means: nothing happening in the name of art) can be immoral, or: if it is immoral it cannot—for that reason—be art. I use this supposition to argue that moral assessment of art is, by definition, a non-starter and that all assessment of art should be art-critical (i.e. answering to art-historically relevant, aesthetic considerations). We may assess moral aspects of works of art, such as whether a work endorses immoral stances, or whether it portrays immoral events, but these are art-internal assessments, and they should end in establishing whether or not the work has artistic merit in doing these things (i.e. endorsing immoral stances, or portraying immoral events).

By an elaborate argument still slightly under construction, I then defended the present rise of works with a clearly immoral aspect as the rise of a new art form—hence as art, and, hence, not as immoral in the normal sense of the word: Immoral Art. To put fish in a blender and provide an art audience with the opportunity to push the blender’s button and mash the fish (Marco Evaristti’s Helena), has an immoral aspect but is not in itself more immoral than having fishing trawlers lift millions of fish out of the water and have them suffocate on deck. (There are far more considerations in my argument, but this should suffice here).

Intermediate conclusion

The question I posed was whether Aktionists eating their own vomit, or bathing in the intestines of bovine slaughter meat, which clearly involves the transgression of taboos, should count as “works” with an immoral aspect or as works transgressing the biological framework of life. I suggest now that we argue that the taboos transgressed here are indeed biological, not ethical, and that therefore, they do not even enter the realm of a moral practice, let alone that of art practice.


–Gerwen, Rob van. 2004. “Ethical Autonomism. The Work of Art as a Moral Agent.” Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 2.
____________. 2010. “How the Present Rise of Immoral Art Helps Clarify Both the Definition and the Moral Autonomy of Art. A Post-Script to Ethical Autonomism.” ms.
____________. 2008. “Immorele kunst als paradox van haar autonomie.” In Kunst als morele vrijplaats, edited by Gert Peelen and Albert van der Schoot, 50–57. Arnhem: D’jonge hond, i.s.m. ArtEZ Press.

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