Liberty or Licence: Tolerating Art in a Liberal Society
This paper examines the relation between contemporary visual art and ethics and considers the role played by toleration on the part of audiences who choose to participate in art spaces. A range of recent art works are examined that have challenged US and British audiences and curators and have provoked debate over the ethical limits of art on a range of different grounds. The paper discusses John Latham’s God is Great, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, and works by Carolee Schneemann and Eric Fishl that use or refer to images of the attack on New York’s World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. I test the distinction between censorship and an audience’s right, if any, to demand liberal restraint on the part of artists: artistic liberty is contrasted with artistic license. Whether or not an audience has the right to demand restraint on the part of artists is, in turn, questioned and placed in historical context by considering John Stuart Mill’s ‘offence’/‘harm’ distinction. The extent to which participation in an art audience requires the toleration of offence is considered in light of avant-garde strategies specifically employed by artists in order to shock all or part of a specific social community. Tensions between the need for spaces of artistic freedom are set against the requirement for, and limitations of, toleration in cases of ethical disagreement over the content of visual art in a liberal society.
Keywords: Censorship, Ethics, Toleration, Offence, Liberalism
Dr Kathryn Brown
Research Fellow, School of Drama, Film and Visual Art, University of Kent