Beneficence and contemporary art: when aesthetic judgment meets ethical judgment

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Barbara Ruth Bolt


The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007) establishes a working set of guidelines for the ethical conduct for research within Australian Universities. One of the primary principles relates to questions of “public good.” The question of public good comes under the principle of beneficence. Beneficence involves an ethical judgment about whether “the likely benefits of the research must justify any risks of harm or discomfort to the participants, to the wider community, or to both.” (National Statement, p. 13). The question of minimizing risk and discomfort becomes a key point of tension when artists become engaged in artistic research and their ‘research’ become subject to the guidelines of The National Statement. Driven by the esthetics of the sublime, the avant-garde impetus demands that art produces discomfort and brings its audience into crisis. For artists this discomfort and crisis is precisely art’s benefit, whilst for an ethics committee such discomfort may be deemed an unacceptable risk. Here-in lies a conflict between the notions of beneficence as defined by the code and those recognized by the artistic community. It raises the question: What is the value of art to a society if it becomes so comfortable that it no longer provokes artistic shock? Through an examination of the work of socially engaged artists Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan, this paper examines how artists reconfigure the notion of beneficence as a principle that incorporates provocation and discomfort.

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How to Cite
Bolt, B. (2015). Beneficence and contemporary art: when aesthetic judgment meets ethical judgment. Visual Methodologies, 3(2), 53-66.
Author Biography

Barbara Ruth Bolt, University of Melbourne

A/Prof and A/Director Research and Research Training, the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, the University of Melbourne