Some ethical dilemmas in curating

“Juan Luna was convicted of murdering his wife and mother-in-law.
Should his works be removed from public view?”

In preparation for the discussion, I skimmed the required readings to assess which ones can help me approach the prompt. I read Karen Ocampo Flores’s “Etiquette for Curators” and found it practical and instructive especially for someone who has not experienced curating yet. Looking back at my highlighted passages, the following apply to deciding whether to remove Juan Luna’s artworks from public view:

  • When you have a bright idea, do think again: What are your objectives? What specific problem does [it] solve?
  • Decide clearly and firmly about each object’s inclusion.
  • By all means, be clear with what you like or what you don’t like, but recognize the proper time and place to state your view.

To help further form my judgment, I went outside the recommended texts and looked for articles surrounding what actually happened in Juan Luna’s crime, the debate on separating the art from the artist, and ethics on curating in general.

Regarding the prompt, it’s interesting how we are now considering the background of the artist on whether to include them in curatorial works because, for me, this is the product of our society’s evolving consciousness and sensitivity to topics like this. The concept of the “death of the artist” have been propositioned by French literary theorist Roland Barthes when people started to seriously study English literature (see: New Criticism). In the curatorial context, however, I think that making decisions on whether to include a “problematic” artist should go beyond discussions surrounding the “death of the artist” because being a curator entails a different set of responsibilities compared to being just a viewer, a consumer of the work.

Coincidentally, the idea of looking deeper into curatorial ethics came about when I read this BBC article titled “Can you separate the artist from the art?” Unlike the usual examples on the topic by using famous actors or artists (e.g., Johnny Depp, Louis C.K.), writer Fisun Güner situated the argument around museums that displayed works from controversial artists, akin to the prompt for this lecture. One of the examples is how the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft handled the works of typeface designer and printmaker Eric Gill. In his biography, Gill was documented to be a serial sexual abuser. The book has been published in 1989, which means that the information has been public for a while now, and it was only in 2017 (almost three decades after) that the museum addressed his transgression. Güner writes:

The Ditchling museum itself has now had a radical rethink: central to their current exhibition, Eric Gill: The Body, is the question of how knowledge of Gill’s abusive behaviour affects our impressions of his work, some of which is sexually and anatomically explicit. When organising the exhibition, the museum took advice from several charities who work with sexual abuse survivors.

And of course, it’s never just about the work. What we do when we celebrate an artist is often to bolster the myth of their life.

The last sentence is noteworthy as it shows the power of curators in shaping and maintaining an artist’s image in history. Sasha Burkhanova-Khabadze acknowledges this conundrum in her paper “Curatorial Ethics and Indeterminacy of Practice” and offered a pragmatic line of questioning should a curator face it:

As she will be evaluating her own actions—as well as her fellow-curators—she would not ask: “What ought to be done?”. Rather, she will inquire: “what can be done next, at the very next moment, given the quantity of power I possess, taking into account my very affinities and desires?”

Going internal where a curator considers their own biases and beliefs reflects how there is no established guideline in the ethics of curating. During our paired discussion, my classmate proposed that maybe there is no standard because the arts – the nature of the works that curators handle – are dynamic and unpredictable. In addition, compared to doctors and lawyers with established ethical guidelines, it does not apply to curators because their responsibilities are ever-flexible. Meng-Shi Chen deconstructs this in “Ethics of Curating”:

To ask, “What is the ethics of curating?” is equivalent to ask “What is a curator?” or more bluntly and specifically, to ask “What is a curator beyond the professionalism of curating including the demands of art environment, communication with artists, negotiation with exhibition institutions, selection and classification of art works, art knowledge (art history, art theory, etc.), and of course, knowledge of funding?”

Burkhanova-Khabadze echoes this “indeterminancy” and suggests that rather than attempting to define it, it should “be recognised as the essence of acting and thinking curatorially—that is, always in connection and in response to the professional environment.”

Beyond my readings which I hopefully shared clearly with the class, I found that having someone to talk to about it was helpful because she also shared her perspectives. I personally think though that we could have benefited more from another participant because we are both inexperienced in the field. (Though I do not blame the other groupmate for not being able to come because she was swamped with her turnover tasks for work.)

After providing our group synthesis, I gained a new insight from my professor’s take on the prompt, something my classmate and I have not considered. Given that Luna is already embedded in the institution of Philippine art, his controversial background could be used as an entry point to look for counternarratives or hidden narratives that were not regarded because of the artist’s long-acknowledged history. As an aspiring curator, this prompt is a reminder that we should always carefully consider why we choose to present an artist and should also seek to know why not.

This was written for Issues and Perspectives in Curatorial Studies in the Philippines (Art Stud 281) course in UP Diliman, 1st Semester AY 22-23.