Art, Ethics, and Harm

There has been some discussion lately (on my G+, and on +Vincent Baker's blog anyway) about artistic ethics. Primarily, in that sometimes, art hurts people and what does that mean for the ethics of the artist?

Obviously, we're speaking about games, specifically role-playing games, but I think that the point is probably more broadly applicable.

Artists don't have a Hippocratic Oath, and I think that this is true for a reason. Most art harms people, one way or another [1]. Games often harm their own audience, by giving them artificial desires and then frustrating those desires, or setting friends in competition against each other. These are important features of games! A game that doesn't have these features probably isn't a very good game [2].

So, do I think that games are evil? If I did, I wouldn't be doing them. I think games can bring us closer together, can give us things to strive for, can place us into different perspectives and experiences, and teach us about systems in an intuitive way that no other method can manage, and are just plain fun.

But, in the process of all of these, there's also harm.

And that's the ideal case. Also, in almost every situation, there will be people who will be harmed by your art who aren't even the beneficiaries of it at all. People who will be insulted by it, feel diminished or belittled or attacked, or who will reject its very existence as vile and profane. 

This isn't limited to works that are bad or wrong or lesser. Rite of Spring, a truly amazing work, incited a riot when it was first performed [3]. That was real harm that it did, to its audience and orchestra. They genuinely felt betrayed and belittled and incensed. But do I think that Stravinski should not have composed it, or Nijinsky choreographed it? Hell no. It's an amazing piece of art and its made humanity richer for it.

But, on the other hand, I'm not going to say "if you harm someone, it's good art." Plenty of art is just provocative trash. The question is how to tell which one you're making (or which one you're reading, or playing, or watching.)

That is an assessment we all have to make for ourselves, as artists, critics and audience. Some people consider who the art hurts ("punching up" vs "punching down.") Some consider how lasting the harm is, or how severe, or whether its balanced by benefit, or a thousand other ways we make these trade-offs in our life. Still other people consider the intentions and attitude of the artist, or the society that the art is produced in, or read in. Or whatever complicated mix.

I worry that this will be read as dismissing the issue, but it's not. There's no abstract, objective, or mathematical way of establishing whether a piece of art does unwarranted harm. But that doesn't mean its not an important question, and not something we should be considering how to handle in our own work, both artistic and critical.

[1] Most perfect summary of this: )
[2] Please feel free to prove me wrong on this point, ideally with some design work.
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