In 1970, Allen Jones exhibited Hatstand, Table, and Chair: three sculptures of women wearing fetish clothing, posed as pieces of furniture. The sculptures were met with protests and stink-bomb attacks, particularly from feminists, who argued that the works objectified women. Despite the artist’s intentions for this piece – he has since identified as a feminist – the installation became part of an artistic narrative that has, historically, reduced women to passive objects in painting and sculpture.
In 2014, Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B (2012) was shut down at the Barbican in London after protests caused ‘security concerns’. The installation, based on 19th- and early 20th-century ‘human zoos’, showed Black people on display, chained and restrained. Even though the artist – a white South African man – intended the work to expose historic racist and imperialist violence, protesters implored the gallery to censor it: ‘Caged Black People Is Not Art’ read one banner.
And in 2019, an exhibition of Gauguin’s portraits opened at the National Gallery in London with a public debate to address ethical concerns about the artist and his work. Paul Gauguin was a sexual predator, and when in the South Pacific – where he created some of his best-known paintings – he used his colonial and patriarchal privilege to sexually abuse girls as young as 13, knowingly infecting them with syphilis. Indeed, many of us struggle to reconcile an artist’s appalling behaviour with their art: Pablo Picasso was, like Gaugin, a sexual predator, and a misogynist; Leni Riefenstahl was a Nazi and exploited Romani people in her filmmaking; and the sculptor Eric Gill was a paedophile. Often, we can sense the artist’s moral character in their works: Picasso’s views about women, for example, can be detected in many of his late portraits due to his manner of depiction.
These cases, among many more, show that, far from being innocuous objects hidden away in museums and white cubes, artworks are historically informed objects that do things and say things. Artworks are created by people in particular times, responding to specific events and ideals. In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), the philosopher Arthur Danto observed this with his thought experiment: a series of indiscernible red canvases could conceivably constitute completely different artworks, depending on their title, context of presentation, and so on. There is more to a painting or sculpture than its aesthetic forms of colour, line and shape. External properties, such as the artist’s identity and relevant events during the work’s creation, must be considered to fully understand the work. Just how much the artist’s intentions for their art determine that artwork’s meaning is a deep question – one that I can’t answer here. But, in general, most philosophers agree that an artwork can admit of many interpretations, and its meaning often diverges from what the artist intended. Crucially, artworks are communicative objects, the messages of which are partly determined by the surrounding context and are sometimes different to what the artist had in mind.
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In particular, artworks can express sentiments, including moral ones, through their contextual and visual handling of subject matter. Note how the composition of Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559-62) – painted in a time when sexual violence was often eroticised in art – blurs the lines between refusal and consent. The depicted abduction before the impending sex shows Europa in a precarious – non-consensual – posture. Her erogenous zones are foregrounded, and the event is surrounded with sensuous textures: soft flesh, wet clothing, frothing foam. As the philosopher A W Eaton argues, this painting eroticises the rape it depicts, glamorising an uneven power dynamic that peddles the myth that rape is erotically charged. Indeed, Titian intended his painting to be erotic, outlining in a letter his goal for it to have erotic appeal for the male viewer.
Relatedly, it’s been argued that artworks – particularly pictorial ones – can be the equivalent of ‘speech acts’ – that is, they can be used to do things, such as protest or endorse something. Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which depicts the Luftwaffe air raid that destroyed the town in the Spanish Civil War, has been described as a desolate ‘protest-painting’ and a ‘powerful antiwar statement’. Such actions – protesting, stating – are things we normally do with words. When we speak, we don’t merely express meanings; our words also have what J L Austin in 1955 called ‘illocutionary force’. When an officer shouts to her troops: ‘Open fire!’, she’s ordering them to shoot. But for an utterance to have a particular force, it needs to satisfy certain conditions. To order her troops to fire, the officer must have authority, and she must use words her troops can understand.
While Austin was mainly concerned with linguistic speech acts, he noted how they can also be nonverbally performed: consider silent protests or greeting another person by smiling. Such gestures must still be understood and recognised – what Austin called ‘conventional’. There are conventional gestures within artmaking and curatorial display, too. Recognisable methods of depiction with particular use of perspective and light, visual metaphors, iconographic symbols and curatorial conventions governing display will facilitate a work’s performance of speech acts.
If artworks can be speech acts or, at least, can express meanings with certain forces such as assertion and protest (a claim that requires further defence than I can give here), then presumably they can be harmful acts too, such as in straightforward hate speech – in racist, misogynistic or homophobic language. Hate speech constitutes and sometimes incites violence towards its target group. The utterance of ‘Blacks are not permitted to vote’ by a legislator during apartheid subordinates Black people; it ranks them as inferior, legitimates discrimination, and deprives them of important powers.
In parallel to this are the statues of slave traders and white supremacists. These public memorials don’t just represent a particular person – they literally put them on a pedestal. Through various aesthetic conventions, statues commemorate and glamorise the person and their actions and, in doing this, they rank people of colour as inferior, legitimising racial hatred. As the mayor of London Sadiq Khan said after a monument to the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol in June 2020: ‘Imagine what it’s like as a Black person to walk past a statue of somebody who enslaved your ancestors. And we are commemorating them – celebrating them – as icons…’ And look again at Jones’s sculptures. The male artist depicted women as furniture within a society where women are still treated as secondary citizens. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, it’s thus plausible to interpret the work as amounting to a kind of sexist speech: it subordinates women by depicting us as household objects, ranking us as inferior and legitimising misogynistic attitudes.
Artworks speak, act and have concrete consequences for people’s lives. Recognising artistic speech or expression reveals a distinctive potential harm towards marginalised groups. So how should we manage it?
Link to the rest at Aeon
PG notes that nobody was raped to create Titian’s painting. Nobody was enslaved to create the statues of slave traders and white supremacists.
“Speech acts” are a contradiction in terms. Speech is speech and acts are acts. Anyone can speak without acting or act without speaking about it first.
Under English Common Law (and that Common Law as incorporated in the legal systems of many states in the US), very few types of speech are inherently punishable. One of the main exceptions is speech that incites, or is likely to lead to, violence or illegal actions. There has to be a close relationship between such speech and the harmful actions it incites.
In a hundred-year-old US Supreme Court case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote: “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” Holmes cited the example of a person who falsely shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, causing a panic.
The fire-in-a-crowded-theater statement of Justice Holmes was not particularly on point for most types of disagreeable speech that some authorities attempted to ban. In Hess v. Indiana (1973), the Court provided a more useful test in holding that before an individual’s speech could fall under the unprotected category of incitement to imminent lawless action, the speech must lead to “imminent disorder.”
To be frank, PG must admit that (in his loudly humble opinion) the courts still have some work to do to perfect a clear standard between speech that a government entity can prohibit and speech which it cannot.
However, PG is quite comfortable that speech which does not have a clear causal connection to some sort of illegal action on the part of those to perceive the speech is not something that anyone should try to prevent on a general basis, with or without government assistance.
Bringing this back to Titian, PG is not aware of anyone who has seriously argued that his painting was ever an incitement to an actual sexual assault. He is also not aware of any serious argument that a statue of a slave trader ever caused someone to enslave someone else.
PG suggests that the argument that an artistic expression in whatever form should be officially suppressed because it might make someone feel bad is the slipperiest of slippery slopes.
In order to justify any sort of public action to remove the art object, the relevant government authorities have to assign a higher value to one person’s or one group’s reaction to the object than is assigned to the value of the responses of others who aren’t bothered by the object or simply ignore it because it’s unimportant to them.
PG is not necessarily opposed to a referendum in which the majority of the relevant residents of a community vote to remove a statue which is in general public view in the community and which is owned by the community.
He is concerned when a small group of people with sensibilities that are not shared by the larger mass of those who view an object create some artificial and abstract construct like a “speech act” as a basis for destroying or removing an object that is enjoyed or regarded as harmless by a much larger group of people. For him, there is always a whiff of dictatorship floating around the activities of such groups that is profoundly disturbing.
For authors, is to write about a slaver the equivalent of promoting slavery or to depict powerful sexual arousal on the part of a woman when she encounters a highly-attractive man (or woman) the equivalent of illegal or punishable actions on the part of the individual who writes such descriptions?
As usual, PG is happy to have any shortcomings in his blathering pointed out. He does hope that his blathering is not regarded as the equivalent of any sort of act on his part.