Art in the Frame: Spiritual America and the Ethics of Images

Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology 2 (2):143-170 (2015)
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The recent removal of the Richard Prince’s artwork Spiritual America from the Tate Modern’s “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” exhibition is the most recent and high-profile case of a work of art being withdrawn from a gallery in the UK on the grounds that it has allegedly breached legislation concerning indecent images of children. Surprisingly, the issue has been hardly considered by academics from law departments and is almost entirely ignored by philosophers specializing in aesthetics and ethics. This essay considers the ethics of images of children by drawing from continental ethics and aesthetics, and by engaging with the only significant treatment of the subject undertaken by a philosopher, namely Peter J. King’s “No Plaything.” This paper shows that a continental perspective can open up positions that King’s ‘objectivist utilitarianism’ is oblivious of. In particular, the essay draws from Derrida’s reading of Kant’s Third Critique and the former’s quasi-conception of “the frame” in The Truth in Painting and “droit de regard” in Right of Inspection. In distinction to King, this paper engages with the actual existing reality of currently enacted laws and their application in particular cases such as in Spiritual America. I will begin with art ‘in the frame’ as the colloquial expression has it, art wrongfully and unjustly accused by the police. I will proceed via an examination of the question of the frame in Kant and Derrida, to demonstrate a need to reclaim the ethical status of works of art. The core procedure of my paper will be a ‘rediscovery’ of Spiritual America as the Kantian example that allows us to find the law. My argument will be that no work of art or image can of itself be decent or indecent.



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Rogues: Two Essays on Reason.Jacques Derrida - 2005 - Stanford University Press.
Kant.Paul Guyer - 2006 - New York: Routledge.
Kant.Paul Guyer - 2007 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 69 (4):767-767.
The Truth in Painting.Jacques Derrida - 1987 - University of Chicago Press.

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