Art, Ethics, and the Power of a Good Story

Many interesting ethical issues arise across the photographic genres from the perspective of the photographer, their subjects, and their audience. This video on the broader subject of art and ethics, generally, presents a number of questions and thought experiments designed to get us thinking about the roles that art and ethics play in our lives.

The video was produced as part of the CrashCourse Philosophy series in partnership with PBS Digital Studios. The ethical issues the video raises point to a number of important questions about the role that art plays in society, the value it provides, and the tradeoffs that may (or may not be) worth making in the name of art from the perspective of both artists and their audiences.

One of the many interesting topics raised is the paradox of fiction. Why do we get “so emotionally invested in characters we know to be fictional”? Why are works of art, stories and imagery, able to generate such a depth of feeling within us?

What’s really cool to me — though they don’t mention it in the video — is that we’re getting to the point where we can begin to answer some of these philosophical questions scientifically. To borrow their example, think for a moment about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. It was so important, so effective at calling attention to the atrocities of slavery, because it changed the way people saw each other. But why was it able to do that?

Recent brain imaging studies have demonstrated why good stories can be so powerful. It turns out that they light up the same areas of the brain that would fire if we were actually experiencing the events ourselves. We feel (largely) the same sadness, the same triumph, the same fear as if the events were actually happening to us. We even have many of the same physiological responses, our pulses quicken, palms get sweaty; we might even realize we’ve been holding our breath. That ability to allow someone else to step so completely into another’s shoes breeds empathy. Empathy builds understanding, strengthens relationships, breeds stronger communities. This would have conferred a huge survival advantage on early social groups and the individuals that were well-integrated members of them. There’s also a survival benefit for individuals, themselves, in being able to learn — in this pseudo-first-hand way — from others’ experiences, to emotionally and physiologically ingest events as they would have had they undergone them themselves, but without the same risks or investment of time and energy.

As we each grow as photographers, I suspect we’ll want to learn to really say something with our work, maybe even affect some kind of change. Bearing in mind the power of a good story and the role that art can play in society can help get us headed in the right direction.

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3 Comments

Re.: "Monkey selfie":

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Brassau

But, sadly, the ensuing laugh was not loud enough to humble the art critics.
* * *

And there is also this thin line between being applauded as a genious treading new paths and having your head banged for being a fool to stick your neck out – unless you already have a “name”.

You have to love that one critic observed "only an ape could have done this."

I'll say Brassau is better than Rothko.