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The Art of Ethics

USC College's Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics' public art exhibit at the Social Sciences Building (SOS) lawn is on view through Friday.

Lyn Boyd Judson, director of the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics, housed in USC College, contemplates the sculpture, "Life," created by Junxian Poon. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.
Lyn Boyd Judson, director of the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics, housed in USC College, contemplates the sculpture, "Life," created by Junxian Poon. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.

Go ahead, gripe. It's not against the law or anything. But have you considered your negativity's impact on others?

Constant exposure to a Debbie Downer or Bob Bummer can be like inhaling second hand smoke. It's repugnant, but doesn't come with a musical "wah-wah."

Junxian Poon, an undergraduate in the USC Roski School of Fine Arts, molded a sculpture expressing how people perpetually unleashing negative emotions may prevent others happiness. His sculpture is included in this week’s exhibition, “It May be Legal, But is it Right?”

USC College’s Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics, in collaboration with the Roski School, organized the exhibit, on display at the Social Sciences Building (SOS) lawn through 4 p.m., Friday. Students from Roski’s course, “New Genres: Experimental Practices in Contemporary Art,” led by Robby Herbst, created the works that include several photographic projects.

Lyn Boyd Judson, institute director, said she wanted the university at large to enjoy the art while pondering the larger questions of ethics and values. The institute coordinates exhibitions, lectures, seminars, panel discussions and multimedia presentations aimed at helping students understand the value of moral discernment and consider what it means to be human.

Each student produced a piece of public art with an ethical statement.

“The question, ‘It may be legal, but is it right?’ ” Boyd Judson began. “What does that mean to an engineer, a teaching assistant, a pre-law student, a member of the Greek system here at USC?  Public art seemed a terrific way to get students thinking about the question as open-ended and provocative.”

For example, Poon’s clay sculpture, “Life,” depicts a forlorn man slumped on his knees with a metal cord and pipe connected to his spinal column.

“Life is full of agony,” Poon said. “Nobody can fulfill all of their desires because of different reasons: family, social norms, peer pressure. Is it right to ruin the happiness of others by showing our negative emotion, even though we’re legally able?”

Heber Rodriguez’s project, “The Uniforms of USC,” explores affirmative action. Rodriguez compiled photographs of people on campus with their faces and rest of their skin blanked out to remove racial identifiers. The people in uniform— a gardener, painter, basketball and football players, for instance — are meant to show how vastly different groups, laborers and athletes, come together to form one university.

“As a minority student, I can’t help but observe the roles of minorities on campus,” Rodriguez said. “The fact is the job market is still very segregated.”


Photographic montage "Operations," by Imran Shafi. The project is included in Levan Institute's exhibition, "It May Be Legal, But is it Right?"

Another photographic montage, “Operations,” by Imran Shafi is a giant poster depicting military soldiers in fatigues, some pouring out plastic containers of milk and cooking oil. In it are also photos of a woman wearing a heavy black burqa. At one point, she is cradling an American flag.

“Whether we’re lawmakers in Washington, migrant workers from a neighboring country, soldiers in Baghdad, or part of the entertainment industry in L.A.,” Shafi said, “the question of ‘It may be legal, but is it right?’ has a striking impact. How does our own ideas of what is right fit into the vast spectrum of what happens around us?”

Boyd Judson encourages all to visit the exhibit.

“We hope people walking by will pause, reflect on the artists’ works and contemplate what the question means to them,” she said, “personally and professionally.”