The (Est)Ethicist (2001)

These series of texts, started in 2001, provided the grounding for the later book The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2005). Some of these texts can be found in the book Myways, edited by Rita McBride and David Gray (2006) (

Dear (Est)ethicist,

I am a museum guard. I have an irresistible urge to minimally scratch a
certain famous painting when I know no one is around.  The marks I make on
the artworks are always nearly invisible, so that the curators and
conservators will never notice the gradual alterations made from day to day.
I somehow dream that after a few years the painting will be as much my
creation as the artist who created it. Am I wrong?

Dear Museum guard,

Whether you are entitled to scratch a painting or not really depends on who
made that painting and what period it is from (which you didn’t specify). If
it is an old master piece, you should certainly be ashamed of yourself, resign
immediately, and bring the issue to the attention of the curators. However,
if it was something made after Duchamp, for instance, an Anselm Kiefer, it
shouldn’t really matter. If it is a piece from the sixties, you don*t even
have to hide your attempts to defface it * after all, artists like Fluxus
loved that kind of participation from the viewers.

Dear (Est)ethicist,

I am a prominent dealer in New York.  My partner, for many years, has
generously financed the operations of my gallery. It is really thanks to him
that I have managed to survive in this ruthless artworld, and even gain a powerful place in it. However, As my partner and I now have broken up, I am
,forced to close my gallery.  I am faced with the dilemma of either confessing
the truth (that my gallery never really made it financially on its own) or
that I have decided to quit the art world for a strange personal reason -like
religious or something. What is the right thing to do?

Dear Prominent Dealer,

Your situation is certainly difficult and not without risks. By confessing
the truth to the world you will not only reveal your true incompetence as a
businessman and power force behind the art world, but also you will spoil the
careers of all of those artists who you supported, who will become outcasts
by association.  And you know how the art world is: once they turn their back
to you, there is no turning around. There is only one honorable way out. I
suggest buddhism. New Yorkers do respect those kind of things.

Dear (Est)ethicist,

The other day I went to see a contemporary women artists show, full of very
political and angry work.  Despite that fact, I inexplicably was very amused,
to the point of laughing out loud. The people at the museum got very upset at
me and asked me to leave.  Where they right in disapproving of my freedom to
express myself? I still don*t  know why it all seemed so funny.

Dear Free Expresser,

It is not really an issue of ethics on whether you can laugh at an artists*
work or not. The question really is on whether you understood what you were
laughing about. Critics, for instance, have the right to cry or laugh freely
at any work, because they are secure about their thoughts, even if they are
wrong. To be an audience member who uses museums as simple strolling paths
where you laugh and cry as you please is kind of amateurish and not very thoughtful on your part.

Dear (Est)ethicist,

I am an artist who somehow could never manage to get a show anywhere. I
decided to seduce a dealer and engage sexually with her just for the sole
purpose of getting my show.  The relationship actually became pretty serious
and now we ended up as a steady, public couple. But now, paradoxically, it
seems that I will have no credibility by exhibiting at the gallery of my now
partner. What did I do wrong?

Dear Inexperienced Artist,

Evidently  you started well,  but you made a serious miscalculation in the
execution of your plan.  You should have instead seduced a close friend of
the dealer, then convince him/her to seduce the dealer for you, then have the
show through your connections, and then dump both the dealer and his/her
friend to move onto the next gig.

Dear (Est)ethicist,

My son is very intelligent and talented, but he insists on going to art
school to become a famous artist. I keep telling him that you don*t learn
anything in art school, that it would be more useful for him to go into business or law school.  Am I wrong?

Dear Worried Mother,

You are absolutely right. In order to foster your son’s interest in art,
you need to make him do a triple
major of  business, law, and industrial engineering in order to know how to
be the good politician, salesperson, self-promotor, product designer and ruthless entrepeneur
that every artist needs to be.

Dear (Est)ethicist,

I am a senior salesperson at the old master paintings department in
Christie’s.  A few years ago, I inherited a not very valuable collection of
miniatures by an obscure -and pretty awful-  XVIIth century Dutch artist.  I
started convincing various curators throughout the world to get the works
exhibited through fictional lender names.  After years of doing this, now
this artists’ reputation has grown immensely and the miniatures are worth a
fortune. But if I try to sell the works no one will believe that they always
belonged to me in the first place. I am stuck.

Dear Senior  Expert,

I think you really have done a very un(est)ethical thing indeed. You should have
never altered the obscure place in history that this Dutch artist rightfully
deserved. At any rate: I suggest that you have someone
sell the paintings as cheap reproductions in the black market, then buy them
back in the market still as reproductions, and then demonstrate that these
pieces are in fact the originals- your fortune made from them will finally be

Dear (Est)ethicist,

I love going to museums, and I have a lot of respect for every single artwork
in them. In fact, I have always maintained that I would always see every
single piece of art in every exhibition I attend, and give each piece equal
amount of my time.  However, I don*t know what to do with video
installations. Sometimes those videos last forever.  What is the right thing
to do?

Dear Faithful Viewer,

I admire your dedication to experiencing art.  However, there is an uspoken
code about video art that I am willing to disclose to you in this case, for
your sake and the rest of our readers. If the piece lasts only one minute,
you have the obligation to watch it, even if it is intolerable. If it lasts
around five minutes,  you can leave in the middle, provided that there is no
one around. If it is longer than that, you can leave whenever, but if there
are other people watching there, you should leave by casually saying
something like “I love this piece, I come see it all the time,”  therefore
eliminating the suspicion that you aren’t staying to experience it from
beginning to end.

Dear (Est)ethicist,

As a curator from a well-known alternative space in New York, artists pester
me day and night. I have become pretty rude through the years, but tend to be
specially harsh towards young clueless artists. It makes me feel guilty
sometimes, but I think that its better for me to tell them right off the bat
that they are mediocre instead of giving them false hopes.  Don’t you think?

Dear Alternative Curator,

Your logic is crystal clear: why keep bringing bad artists into this art
world, which already has an excess of bad art? However, in the future you
should be a bit more careful only to protect yourself. What if one of these
clueless artists ends up becoming the next Basquiat? The truth would
eventually emerge and you would be immediately discredited and kicked out of the art world’s elite circles. Never say
anything bad to anybody. If you don’t like their art, just refer them to
exhibit at the Soho boutiques – that is always an elegant way out.

Dear (Est)ethicist,

I am an art critic who is always pretty much on the mark. However, the other
day, it all coincided  that I was hung-over, my dog had died that morning,
and my boyfriend had broken up with me. I was on a deadline and had to go
review a show that same day. I hated it and wrote one of the most insanely
poisonous pieces I have ever written. I felt so good afterwards. Should I
feel guilty?

Dear Art Critic,

Absolutely not. You simply made a good use of your creative fuel. And after
all, if artists exorcize their feelings of frustration and depression through
their artwork, why wouldn’t a critic do the same?

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