James Abruzzo on Ethics and Art

James Abruzzo: So every profession has a code of ethics. Doctors have a code of ethics – the Hippocratic Oath - lawyers, accountants, journalists.  In fact part of a profession is that there is a code of ethics.  And museums and museum directors have an association and a code and that code says, among other things, that you can’t sell a work of art from your collection and use that money to do something else with it.  So, for example, right now the Detroit Institute of Art is battling the city, because the city wants to sell the art so that it can pay pensions.  How does the director defend himself?  How does he make a case for this not to happen and who protects him along with his Board? And that’s where a code of ethics comes in.  A code of ethics, that is, developed, worked on by a group of professionals changes overtime.

So now we turn to the performing arts and for me it was a big surprise, it was a shock actually to hear and to think about the fact that there really isn’t a code of ethics for the performing arts. Of course I did some research just to make sure.

Let me give you an example, and this is a mundane example, but being a former pianist it struck me. I was at a concert and a string quartet was playing a Schubert quartet.  And in the fourth movement the first violinist turned to the second violinist and gave a kind of a nod and the second violinist gave a kind of a nod to the cellist.  You get the idea.  And I was thinking to myself, “What are they doing?”  I couldn’t figure it out.  So they played the piece and what they did or what they didn’t do was they didn’t play the repeat of the first part of the Schubert quartet.  Now, the general audiencethey probably didn’t know.  As a musician I knew.  Is it a big deal?  It’s not what Schubert intended.

So is there some reason – is there something that we can use to guide, to help us understand what’s right and what’s not? Okay, that’s a mundane example and lots of people break that Abruzzo code of ethics about playing repeats.  When I play the piano now of course I play all the repeats that are necessary.  Take that a little further though into the realm of what does a producer do when thinking about what can be and what can’t be done?

A couple of years ago Diane Paulus, who is a wonderful director and producer in Boston, did a version of Porgy and Bess, one of the classic American operas.  Everybody knows Porgy and Bess and some of it is sad and some of it is, you know, to some people a little boring.  And Diane Paulus decided to do a completely different version of Porgy and Bess.

She decided to make it more modern which is fine. She decided to change the ending which is questionable. She decided to change some of the music. Now you know I’m a purist – this really bothered me of course. So the question is can Diane Paulus do that? Of course she can do it. But can she call it Porgy and Bess?  It’s now played on Broadway for a season.  There’s a cast recording.  And in the future will there be an understanding by a generation who think that this is what Porgy and Bess is?  Okay, so I don’t want to be pedantic about this, but my point is that over and over again there are questions that every profession has that the members of the profession have not discussed to say what’s right, what’s wrong and argue about, sure.  But there’s no basis. There’s no moral basis.

It gets a little more complicated.  There was a production in Berlin, in a Berlin opera house, of a Mozart opera called Idomeneo, and this producer/opera director in Berlin – and in Berlin you know they do kind of outlandish kinds of opera – decided to do a very outlandish production in which, among other things, Muhammad was inserted into the opera, wasn’t in the opera, and took the place of another character. And for some people, for some Muslims, it seemed like a sacrilegious thing to do. And there was a big protest. And the question is does the head of the opera company say the director has the right and the ethical right to do what he thinks is right or does that person give in to public appeal?

So the answer is who knows? And the answer is also we don’t know, because there isn’t this kind of set rule.  If a doctor is faced with an ethical choice they turn to their code of ethics.  If a museum director is faced with an ethical choice they turn to a code of ethics.  If a performing arts director or a string quartet leader or a producer on Broadway is faced with what might be considered by some an ethical choice, they have nothing to fall back on so to speak.  What we need are a group of professionals who are in the theater who can at least discuss it, who can set the beginnings of a fundamental of an ethical decision or an ethical philosophy.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Professor James Abruzzo discusses ethics as it relates to the world of art.

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