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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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.