Since 2008, Company of Ideas Forums have explored the biggest issues in art. Each annual event tackles a major philosophical question about the meaning, function and value of visual art in a debate format. Speakers are drawn from all corners of intellectual and creative life. Art historians, philosophers, political and literary theorists, novelists, musicians, artists and environmentalists are asked to deliver intelligent and accessible papers that present clear positions. Students and other delegates are given formal space to engage with these big ideas, leading to interdisciplinary and inter-generational debate about matters of profound and enduring importance.

2019 Company of Ideas Forum

Art and Moral Conscience

Art and Moral Conscience The Company of Ideas was established by Jeffrey Rubinoff in 2008 to discuss major issues relating to art and society. Of Rubinoff’s many concerns, the most fundamental related to morality and conscience. Rubinoff believed that a ‘mature individual conscience’ was not only the basis for original art but also for sustained social engagement. He was convinced that serious artists were obliged to address the biggest issues of their time, which in his view were the ‘existential threats’ of nuclear weapons and human genetic engineering. In doing so, they could influence their audience’s thinking and contribute to historical change.

Rubinoff, of course, was not alone. The moral duties of artists have been debated since antiquity, and amid the unprecedented violence of the twentieth century those roles became more necessary than ever. From Otto Dix’s eviscerating critiques of World War One to the anti-Vietnam protests by the Fluxus Group, modern artists consistently took a stand against the politics of their time. This moral positioning is now a dominant feature of contemporary art, with artists tackling issues like the refugee crisis (e.g. Ai Weiwei), environmental degradation (e.g. Agnes Denes), and social justice (e.g. Jeremy Deller).

At this year’s Forum, we explore the relationship between art and moral conscience. Over the course of two days, academics and students will interrogate a cluster of questions that were of fundamental importance to Jeffrey Rubinoff. These include, but are not limited to:

  • To what extent are artists able to follow their own moral consciences?
  • Are artists obliged to hold up a mirror to their society?
  • Can art address social issues without being representational?
  • What audiences can the morally committed artist hope to reach?
  • How effective can artistic protests be?
  • Can a moral or political agenda compromise artistic quality?

Student Speakers

Educational Program for Students

Student sessions will take place at the conclusion of each day’s proceedings, in the early afternoon. Participating students are required to prepare a ten-minute presentation. Student presentations will be followed by questions and group discussion. Students can talk about any topic they choose, but are required to address the larger issues of the Forum. They may wish to address one or more of the following questions:

  • To what extent is it appropriate to describe artists as following their own moral conscience, as opposed to the demands of their society?
  • Is it the role of artists to hold up a mirror to their society?
  • Can art criticize or comment on society without being representational?
  • Given the status of artworks as commodities on the art market, how can art fulfill its function as critically thinking about the society?

2019 Forum Information

Proceedings of past Forums

Basis for Forum Themes

Rubinoff ‘Insights’ statement is a record of how he understood his art to be as an act of will in accord with his conscience. They form the basis for the themes addressed by the Company of Ideas Forum.

2019 Forum Speakers bios & Presentations


Dr Vid Simoniti, University of Liverpool
Artist’s conscience, art’s tendency, and the “hard problem” of beauty

Sarah Hegenbart, Technical University of Munich
Art and its Freedom to Be Political

Prof. Nick Riggle, University of San Diego
Ethics and Style

Prof. Mark Antliff, Duke University
Romanticism, Responsibility, Disobedience: Pacifist Aesthetics in Britain during World War Two

Prof. Patricia Leighten, Duke University
Politics and ‘The Decisive Moment’: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Ethical Anarchism

Prof. Allan Antliff, University of Victoria
Pedagogical Subversion