The Turn to Ethics of C21st Art Institutions - Irene Campolmi


In recent years, art institutions have been quite active in reconceptualizing what ethics is and how it relates to art and curating. Ethics designates a discourse but also a practice shaping how we approach and relate to ‘what’s going on’[1] in politics, economics, culture and society at a certain moment of history. Ethics, in other words, is the way to approach what we call ‘the circumstances, which are nothing more than those events’ (supplements as French philosopher Alain Badiou names them[2]) which change the current state of things bringing something new that didn’t exist before. Circumstances mark a difference between what existed before they took place and what instead is left after them. Just for taking place, the circumstances – or the contingencies - name the void left behind them and have the power to compel individuals and collectivities to invent a new way of being and behaving according to them. Being faithful to the contingencies means inventing - or rather adjusting things to - a new established order. Since I work for, and in, museums where I research on exhibition display and curatorial practice, I would like to mention here an example that evidently shows how art institutional approaches can be influenced by the contingencies.

The 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers created a cultural, social and political atmosphere that impacted on the policy, the programming and the display of Islamic art and art from the Middle East in various European and non-European art museums. Renowned historical museums such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin rehang with a completely different narrative and display of their collections of Islamic art, possibly, to offer a less Western historical perspective on artistic forms that had been always labeled as ‘non-western’ or ‘non-European’, and consequently had been assigned a minor importance in the hierarchy of art historical researches. By modifying their displays, these art museums showed that art institutions own the responsibility to shape and influence cultural perspectives and to offer updated interpretations of art history.

Institutions can invent new ways of looking at things, and acknowledging the circumstances may help them in pursuing this task. In a note accompanying his solo site-specific installation titled Venezia, Venezia, displayed in the Chilean Pavilion during the Venice Biennale 2013, artist Alfredo Jaar wrote that ‘artists create models of thinking the world’, but he also concluded by asking why the world of culture was, anyway, constantly a mirror to reality?[3] It is true that the circumstances force individuals and collectivities to live by taking into consideration the fact that there is no other reality outside of those circumstances. When people and institutions acknowledge the circumstances, and change their ways of thinking, doing and behaving, they embrace ethics and behave in an ethical way. Acknowledging the circumstances means not just to behave ethically but to accept changes as inevitable, as artists Fischli and Weiss also remind us in the piece of art How to work better - a ten point list of things to do to improve your working method.[4] It assumes that ethics implies dealing with the immediate, the now, and the immanent as imposed by the circumstances.

Even though the term ethics is frequently conflated with morals, the first defines a behavior dictated by the circumstances, whereas the second is a set of rules and laws prescribing how one ought to live one’s life regardless of circumstance.[5] The turn to ethics of contemporary art institutions is therefore forced by the necessity of understanding how we could relate with the circumstances in order to cope with the changes and the consequences these might cause. Art institutions can survive and be sustainable (etymologically meaning to be able to sustain) only when they adapt to the immanency of the circumstances. In discussing what ethics is or not, philosopher Badiou suggests that ethics is just a way of regulating our commentary on historical situations (the ethics of human rights), technic-scientific innovations (medical ethics and bio-ethics), social issues (the ethics of being together), media events (the ethics of communication) and so on.[6] In this contribution, I argue that ethics is the approach through which we construct all the relationships with the outside world.

In the past, art history and art institutions have been accused to having been closed in the ivory tower of art historical and sociological theories – such as modernism, postmodernism, post-colonialism, but also structuralism and post-structuralism - which were thoroughly thought to explain but also justify the choices of presenting certain artworks rather than others. Since the late 1990s, art institutions have appeared to be living too far and distanced from the contemporary context and its circumstances, and that is why in the early 21st century, we have seen art institutions turning to ethics.

We could speculate whether it is positive or not that art institutions mirror and acknowledge the present circumstances when making exhibitions, presenting art, dealing with artists and planning public programmes. Certainly, the more art institutions know in which circumstances they are living, the better they can talk to their public and reach larger audiences, and the easier they can get funding from governments, private sponsorships or donors. Placing ethics in a central position of the institutional policy allows institutions to increase the impact of what they are doing both on society and the public opinion. Embracing ethics and adjusting to what the circumstances require is a simple but significant action that we all do in our daily life, and consists in rethinking the relationships that bind and connect us to something – whether this is an event, a person, a place, a feeling. This rethinking action makes us vulnerable and exposed at the mercy of many changes caused by the circumstances, but strengthens our ability to cope with all kinds of situations. Art institutions that can adapt to many contexts embrace a similar ethics of the circumstances. Rather than reading art according to accustomed art historical theories or curating exhibitions by following internationally recognized standard practices, displays and interpretative research methods, contemporary art institutions try to explore ethical approaches proposing alternative ways of looking and interpreting art according to the contingencies of their time. Just as Maria Lind affirms that exhibitions are one of the many existing formats through which art can be showed, I think art institutions, in the way we know them, are simply one of the many kinds of institutions we could achieve.[7] The turn to ethics made by contemporary art institutions suggests that it is up to the organizations to rethink, reimagine and reinvent the relationships between them, the art works, the history and the public in a more dynamic way. Ethics characterized not only art institutions, particularly those who were protagonists of the ‘New Institutionalism’,[8] has also affected museums in recent years. Museum scholars, directors and curators have reconceptualized the notion of ethics as a discourse shaped by - and touching upon - the circumstances moving beyond definitions of codes of ethics and prescribed behaviors. In a recently published essay, Janet Marstine, Jocelyn Dodd and Ceri Jones have suggested that ethics is a discourse through which achieving a dynamic ethics-based museum practice.[9]

To conclude, I would like to reflect whether the institutional turn to ethics is or is not a positive step to undertake. Acknowledging the circumstances is necessary to make meaningful political, cultural, and social claims and take a position in relations to these. However, why do so many art institutions still refrain from doing this, even though they are inevitably embedded in the political, economic, social and cultural issues of their territory? The turn to ethics is a strategic way through which art institutions can engage a larger public in understanding how art, the artists and art institutions can impact on the present and create platforms for collective making. The turn to ethics allows institutions to be culturally, politically and, above all, economically sustainable, i.e., able to receive funding and pursue activities, make exhibitions and publish catalogues, and propose a public programme that attract people. But being sustainable does not implicitly mean being perfect or good, and being tightened to reality (and, in a way, to financial constrains) may also limit ambitious projects with revolutionary or utopian potentiality. Certainly, the turn to ethics offers art institutions a possible viable option to step beyond the blind spots left by contemporary aesthetic theory which, according to Grant Kester, has neglected the studying of reception theory in art history and in research associated with contemporary art practice.[10]

Looking at the aesthetics of art through the lens of ethics allows art institutions to reflect on the aesthetics – etymologically meaning the appearance of things – of the relationships that connect individuals and collectivities with the circumstances. In such a way, art institutions dealing with aesthetics of ethics are more likely to describe the plurality of narratives, histories and representations inhabiting the world in the form of relationships.


Irene Campolmi is PhD fellow at Aarhus University (DK) and assistant curator and researcher at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humlebæk) since 2013, where she leads a research project called ‘The Art Museum of the 21st Century’. Irene is also an associated scholar to the Max-Planck-Research Group ‘Objects in the Contact Zone: The Cross-Cultural Life of Things’ and associate researcher to Kunsthal Aarhus. In 2014, she was visiting scholar at the School of Museum Studies at Leicester University under the mentorship of Dr. Janet Marstine, and in 2015 was J-1 visiting scholar at The Graduate Centre CUNY (New York) sponsored by Claire Bishop and the Mellon Foundation curatorial practicum course. Currently, she is organising the international conference ‘Between the Immersive and the Discursive: A Symposium on Research in the Art Museum’, 3-4 December 2015, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, in collaboration with Stedelijk Museum and Aarhus University.


[1] Walead Beshty, Ethics (London and Cambridge: MIT Press/Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art, 2015), 2.

[2] Alain Badiou, Ethics. An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London: Verso, 2011), 68.

[3] Alfredo Jaar, Notes on ‘Venezia, Venezia’, written to explain the artwork he chose to represent Chile in the 55th Venice Biennale 2013.

[4] Fischli and Weiss, How to Work Better (1991). The piece consists of a ten-point manifesto that the artists found, enlarged, and had painted on the side of a building in Zurich. Their instructions are meant as a self-motivating reminder and description of their own process as artists, but are also directed to the rest of the world as a propositional code of conduct or ethic of behavior. The list includes: do one thing at a time, know the problem, learn to listen, learn how to ask questions, distinguish sense from non-sense, accept change as inevitable, admit mistakes, say it simple, be calm, smile.

[5] Walead Beshty, Ethics, 4.

[6] Alain Badiou, Ethics, 58.

[7] Maria Lind, ‘Restaging the Institution’, in Tone Hansen, ed., (Re)-staging the Museum, Berlin: Revolver Publishing, 2011.

[8] Charles Esche, ‘We were learning by doing: an interview with Charles Esche by Lucie Kolb and Gabriel Flückiger’, in On Curating, Issue 21, December 2013.

[9] Janet Marstine, Jocelyn Dodd, and Ceri Jones, ‘Twenty-first century museum ethics: a view from the field’, in Conal McCarthy, ed., International Handbook of Museum Studies: Volume 4: Museum Practice: Critical Debates in the Museum Sector (Malden and Oxford:  Blackwell, expected 2015).

[10] Grant Kester, The One and the Many. Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 63.