Symposium – Arts, Society and Ethics (The Mason Institute)


On Thursday, August 22nd, I attended a symposium on art, ethics and society, hosted by Edinburgh University’s Mason Institute. It’s difficult to capture in words the energy this in–depth discussion of bioethics, humanity and the role of art had. Novelists, directors, performers, visual artists gave their thoughts on the role of art as a medium for ethical issues, and the ethical responsibilities of artists.

The discussion ranged from the specific (should foetuses found to have achondroplasia be aborted) to the general (“As an artist, how do you stay safe?”). There were also moments of genuine disagreement, as a speaker from the floor argued that Sparkle and Dark’s acclaimed Killing Roger was a dangerous fantasy, since “people like that don’t seek assisted suicide”. The play’s author, Lawrence Illsley, strongly defended the autonomy of art, responding “of course it’s fantasy”.

This exchange summed up the major point to arise from the discussions – Is the artist’s role to accurately reflect a tightly defined concept of ‘evidence’ or to provide something which is viable as fiction? The question is obviously unanswerable, or at least has a different answer for each act of creation at each time. What is important, as The Fantasist director Ailin Conant emphasised, is that the ethical dimensions are recognised, and space always remains open for dialogue, for learning.

A selection of some of the comments which stuck with me will do more to give a sense of the range of the conversation than any more description from me (I can’t vouch for their accuracy, but the sense is true):

“Puppets struggle to live on stage, while actors struggle to die on stage” – Shelley Knowles-Dixon, Sparkle and Dark.

“What right do I have to address these issues?” – Knowles-Dixon.

“We need to engage both the brain and the heart [when addressing ethical issues in art]” – Hazel McHaffie (Author)

“Writing fiction gives space for the reader to follow, to think, to be stimulated” – Ann Lingard (Author)

“Ethics is about keeping people safe. Art, by definition, is unsafe” – Ailin Conant, Theatre Témoin

“Art can exploit the audacity of ignorance” – Simon Biggs, (Artist)

“[Artistic ethics are about] basic humanity, basic respect, basic love” – Ailin Conant.