Liberty or Licence: Tolerating Art in a Liberal Society

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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
Stream: Arts Theory and Criticism
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: , Tolerating Art in a Liberal Society

Dr Kathryn Brown

Research Fellow, School of Drama, Film and Visual Art, University of Kent
Canterbury, Kent, UK

Kathryn Brown holds doctorates in French (University of Oxford) and in Art History (University of London) and is currently a Research Fellow in the School of Drama, Film and Visual Art at the University of Kent (Canterbury, United Kingdom). Her principal research area is nineteenth-century French art and literature and she is currently working on the themes of privacy, concealment and the role of the spectator in the works of Manet and Degas. She has presented papers on her research at the British Architectural Association (London), at the Society of Dix-neuviémistes (University of Edinburgh), and at the Nineteenth-Century Studies Association annual conference (Miami) and The International Conference on the Inclusive Museum (Leiden). She has published papers on nineteenth-century philosophy and literature. Her most recent research is forthcoming in Intimate Metropolis: Constructing Public and Private in the Modern City (Routledge) and in The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum. She is co-chair of a session on convergences between aesthetics and art history at the annual conference of the Association of Art Historians taking place in Manchester in 2009. Prior to taking up her current post she was a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia.

Ref: A09P0024