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CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Artists Working with Controversial Governments
Despite the controversies surrounding the Saudi Arabian government, Desert X founder and board president Susan Davis has repeatedly defended the partnership by stating that it is a chance to help create “a new dialogue, one that reaches across boundaries and borders.” The Saudi Arabian exhibit, which will be on view from January to March 2020, looks to “bring together artists from Saudi Arabia and the surrounding region with artists from around the world,” according to the Desert X website. This exhibit allows viewers and artists to explore various topics, such as feminism and the environment, which are typically off-limits topics in Saudi Arabia. According to Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield, none of the artists he has reached out to have declined due to political or ethical reasons; on the contrary, many have embraced the opportunity to work freely in an environment that has had many artistic restrictions in the past. According to multimedia artist Manal AlDowayan, no restrictions, as of yet, have been placed on what can be created for the exhibition
Many of the artists to be included in the exhibit, including Los Angeles based artist Lita Albuquerque, believe that art should be created free of political positioning. “I think art transcends a lot of political issues,” Albuquerque says of her involvement in the exhibit, “it’s about wanting to utilize art to make a statement and to help communicate” (Vankin, October 7, 2019). The exhibition is set to be co-curated by three individuals: Wakefield and two female Saudi artists, Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza. Farsi believes that this exhibit will not only provide a cultural diffusion between the two countries, but also allow for a special education opportunities for the students in Saudi Arabia. “It wasn’t part of our upbringing here to be exposed to all this art and culture,” says Farsi. Albuquerque, for example, is creating a form of land art that highlights a futuristic female astronaut teaching the Earth about the stars (Vankin, October 7, 2019).
Although there are many positive aspects to the exhibition, many believe that the exhibition involves too many compromises with a repressive regime. Three of the original fourteen members of Desert X’s board of directors have resigned following the announcement of the partnership between the organization and the Saudi Arabian government. The resignations came from to the members’ refusal to work with a government that has repeatedly been accused of human rights violations, discrimination toward the LGBTQ community, and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Former curator Yael Lipschutz, one of the three members to resign, said the decision to work with the Saudi Arabian government is “about striking a deal with a national government that has committed a horrific genocide in Yemen, that is completely undemocratic and that has an appalling record of discrimination against the LGBTQ community.” Lipschutz believes that the partnership is not about the potential to increase the dialogue between the two countries and to expand Saudi Arabia’s cultural practices, but rather, it’s about “receiving money from the Saudi royal family” (Vankin, October 7, 2019).
Shortly after the announcement, one Desert X donor withdrew funding while releasing a statement that they were “disappointed that Desert X has chosen this path.” While the act of accepting money from such a politically-polarizing country is one worrisome part of the partnership, some worry about the potential use of art as a cultural distraction to divert attention from the problems of the Saudi Arabian government. Artist Ed Ruscha, another former board member of Desert X, states that “I see Saudi Arabia as being in desperate need of cultural legitimacy, and this is a way to move the spotlight away from their other problems. It’s like inviting Hitler to a tea party in 1943 — I see a simile here” (Vankin, October 16, 2019).
This Desert X and Saudi Arabia partnership is just one example of what might happen when artists work with unethical or controversial figures. While some believe that art should be created independent of outside factors, many still believe that art can do some good in the messy and complex world of everyday life. Can the good effects of art be outweighed by the means and potentially worrisome partnerships that have to be used to do achieve them?
- What ethical conflicts drive the controversy over Desert X’s partnership with the Saudi government?
- Do you believe working with a controversial figure or government is unethical? Does it become more problematic if money is being exchanged?
- Do the potential positive impacts of the exhibition outweigh the negative consequences?
- What ethical guidelines might companies and artists follow in working with governments charged with repressive or reprehensible behavior?
Brian Blueskye, “Desert X collaborates with Saudi Arabia on exhibition at a UNESCO World Heritage site.” Desert Sun, October 8, 2019. Available at: https://www.desertsun.com/story/life/2019/10/07/desert-x-collaborates-exhibition-saudi-arabia/3901816002/
Deborah Vankin, “Desert X art exhibition heads to Saudi Arabia – and into contentious territory.” Los Angeles Times, October 7, 2019. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2019-10-07/desert-x-saudi-arabia-alula
Deborah Vankin, “Desert X show in Saudi Arabia brings more fallout: A donor pulls out.” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2019. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2019-10-16/desert-x-saudi-arabia-alula-donors
Ella Peek, “Ethical Criticism of Art.” Available at: https://www.iep.utm.edu/art-eth/
Jackie Northam, “Investors Are Back in Saudi Arabia a Year After Khashoggi’s Killing.” National Public Radio, October 2, 2019. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766494653/investors-are-back-in-saudi-arabia-a-year-after-khashoggis-killing
Draven Schoberg & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 11, 2019
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.
The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:
Weather Media in the Public Sphere
Dr. John Durham Peters
María Rosa Menocal Professor of English &
Professor of Film and Media Studies
May 2 (Thursday) ¦ 1:30-3:00PM ¦ BMC 5.208
On its face, weather sounds like the most banal and mundane thing possible. Ordinary people look down on talking about it and journalists often regard it as the lowest kind of news. This talk aims to show that the accusation that talking about the weather is intellectually empty is hardly the case in the age of climate change, and even dangerous. The rise of weather as a topic of conversation coincides with the rise of the bourgeois public sphere. More broadly, weather is a key part of media history. The history of human interaction with weather is also a history of cultural techniques and media technologies. Dramatists and divines have sought meaning from atmospheric events. Reading the skies is one paradigm case of human-nature interaction, and studying weather can stand in as part for whole as an inquiry into the environments humans have made or unmade. The history of modern weather forecasting is also a history of the militarization of the sky and oceans, and is co-extensive with the history of modern telecommunications, computation, and reporting. Weather raises two questions of profound interest to recent media theory: how mundane infrastructures are full of meaning and how vaporous or evanescent entities can be tracked, recorded, and programmed. Talking about the weather is not dumb; it may be essential.
Dr. John Durham Peters is a leading scholar in the area of media history, communication theory, and philosophy. He is the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and of Film & Media Studies at Yale University. Previously, Peters taught at the University of Iowa between 1986-2016. He is the author a range of books, including Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, and most recently, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. He has held fellowships with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Leverhulme Trust.
The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement on Facebook for more information.
Media Ethics Initiative events are free and open to the public.
CASE STUDY: The Ethical Challenges of CGI Actors in Films
Long-dead actors continue to achieve a sort of immortality in their films. A new controversy over dead actors is coming to life based upon new uses of visual effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI). Instead of simply using CGI to create stunning action sequences, gorgeous backdrops, and imaginary monsters, film makers have started to use its technological wonders to bring back actors from the grave. What ethical problems circle around the use of digital reincarnations in film making?
The use of CGI to change the look of actors is nothing new. For instance, many films have used such CGI methods to digitally de-age actors with striking results (like those found in the Marvel films), or to create spectacular creatures without much physical reality (such as “Golem” in The Lord of the Rings series). What happens when CGI places an actor into a film through the intervention of technology? A recent example of digital reincarnation in the film industry is found in Fast and Furious 7, where Paul Walker had to be digitally recreated due to his untimely death in the middle of the film’s production. Walker’s brothers had to step in to give a physical form for the visual effect artists to finish off Walker’s character in the movie, and the results brought about mixed reviews as some viewers thought it was “odd” that they were seeing a deceased actor on screen that was recreated digitally. However, many argue that this was the best course of action to take in order to complete film production and honor Paul Walker’s work and character.
Other recent films have continued to bet on using CGI to help recreate characters on the silver screen. For instance, 2016’s Rogue One: A Star War Story used advanced CGI techniques that hint at the ethical problems that lie ahead for film-makers. Peter Cushing was first featured in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope as Grand Moff Tarkin. In the Star Wars timeline, the events that take place in Rogue One lead directly into A New Hope, so the story writers behind the recent Rogue One felt inclined to include Grand Moff Tarkin as a key character in the events leading up to the next film. There was one problem, however: Peter Cushing died in 1994. The film producers were faced with an interesting problem and ultimately decided to use CGI to digitally resurrect Cushing from the grave to reprise his role as the Imperial officer. The result of this addition of Grand Moff Tarkin in the final cut of the film sent shockwaves across the Star Wars fandom, with some presenting arguments in defense of adding Cushing’s character into the film by claiming that “actors don’t own characters” (Tylt.com) and that the fact that the character looked the same over the course of the fictional timeline enhanced the aesthetic effects of the movies. Others, like Catherine Shoard, were more critical. She condemned the film’s risky choice saying, “though Cushing’s estate approved his use in Rogue One, I’m not convinced that if I had built up a formidable acting career, I’d then want to turn in a performance I had bupkis to do with.” Rich Haridy of New Atlas also expressed some criticism over the use of Peter Cushing in the recent Star Wars film by writing, “there is something inherently unnerving about watching such a perfect simulacrum of someone you know cannot exist.”
This use of CGI to bring back dead actors and place them into film raises troubling questions about consent. Assuming that actors should only appear in films that they choose to, how can we be assured that such post-mortem uses are consistent with the actor’s wishes? Is gaining permission from the relatives of the deceased enough to use an actor’s image or likeness? Additionally, the possibility is increased that CGI can be used to bring unwilling figures into a film. Many films have employed look-alikes to bring presidents or historical figures into a narrative; the possibility of using CGI to bring in exact versions of actors and celebrities into films does not seem that different from this tactic. This filmic use of CGI actors also extends our worries over “deepfakes” (AI-created fake videos) and falsified videos into the murkier realm of fictional products and narratives. While we like continuity in actors as a way to preserve our illusion of reality in films, what ethical pitfalls await us as we CGI the undead—or the unwilling—into our films or artworks?
- What values are in conflict when filmmakers want to use CGI to place a deceased actor into a film?
- What is different about placing a currently living actor into a film through the use of CGI? How does the use of CGI differ from using realistic “look-alike” actors?
- What sort of limits would you place on the use of CGI versions of deceased actors? How would you prevent unethical use of deceased actors?
- How should society balance concerns with an actor’s (or celebrity’s) public image with an artist’s need to be creative with the tools at their disposal?
- What ethical questions would be raised by using CGI to insert “extras,” and not central characters, into a film?
Haridy, R. (2016, December 19). “Star Wars: Rogue One and Hollywood’s trip through the uncanny valley.” Available at: https://newatlas.com/star-wars-rogue-one-uncanny-valley-hollywood/47008/
Langshaw, M. (2017, August 02). “8 Disturbing Times Actors Were Brought Back From The Dead By CGI.” Available at: http://whatculture.com/film/8-disturbing-times-actors-were-brought-back-from-the-dead-by-cgi
Shoard, C. (2016, December 21). “Peter Cushing is dead. Rogue One’s resurrection is a digital indignity“. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/21/peter-cushing-rogue-one-resurrection-cgi
The Tylt. Should Hollywood use CGI to replace dead actors in movies? Available at: https://thetylt.com/entertainment/should-hollywood-use-cgi-to-replace-dead-actors-in-movies
William Cuellar & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 12, 2019
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.