Dislocationary Art

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, January 6, 1992 | Go to article overview

Dislocationary Art


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Dislocationary Art

Philosophers, jurists and civil libertarians alike have been intrigued by an argument made by Catharine MacKinnon in the so-called Minneapolis Ordinance, which attempted to treat certain representations as being in violation of the civil rights of women. The ordinance spoke of the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through images or words. It is not only that images that depict women in sadistic fantasies may have as consequences the actual subordination of women because they inspired sadists to realize such fantasies. Rather, the images themselves, whatever their consequences, subordinate women through their content. That images have the power to subordinate in this sense is widely conceded: When someone depicted the former Mayor of Chicago as in drag, wearing frilly underthings, the black community felt that to be a degradation, an unacceptable picture, and undertook to remove it from the wall. Subordination, thus, is one of the "powers of images," to borrow the expression David Freedberg uses for the title of a book that treats the phenomenon of empowered images throughout history. Freedberg's thesis is that treating images as possessing a wide range of powers is at once ancient and universal, and that the attitude persists in many of the ways in which we respond to and think about images: Think of the toppled statues of Lenin throughout Eastern Europe, or the way images are prayed to, injured, kissed or treated as uncanny throughout the world. Freedberg believes, I dare say rightly, that art historians have neglected these powers, and that in consequence there are entire empires of art to which the formalistic and iconographic modes of analysis they (and most art critics) favor have no application. They do not touch that which in images verges on their presumed magical and moral force. The testimony of the "experts" in the famous trial in Cincinnati over whether Robert Mapplethorpe's images are "obscene" is a case in point: The experts claimed that they saw the work only as "figure studies," as "classical proportions," as "symmetrical," virtually denying the almost shattering sexual energy of those morally challenging photographs.

Even so, a distinction must be drawn between the power of images and what one might call the power of art, where the effect of experiencing a work of art can be tantamount to a conversion, a transformation of the viewer's world. Ruskin, for example, underwent just such a transformative experience with Tintoretto's stupendous paintings in the Scuola San Rocco in Venice: "I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today before Tintoret," he wrote his father in September 1845: "As for painting, I think I didn't know what it meant till today." Some years later, Ruskin sustained what he termed an "unconversion" inspired by Veronese's Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in Turin. He had just suffered through a dispiriting sermon on the vanity of life, and seeing the great painting against this bleak characterization of the world, he asked, "Can it be possible that all this power and beauty is adverse to the honour of the Maker of it?" His wonderful letter, again to his father, continues:

Has God made faces beautiful and

limbs strong, and created these strange,

fiery, fantastic energies, and created the

splendour of substance and the love of

it; created gold, and pearls, and crystal,

and the sun that makes them gorgeous;

and filled human fancy with all splendid

thoughts; and given to the human

touch its power of placing and brightening

and perfecting, only that all these

things may lead His creatures away

from Him?

Ruskin's very language belongs to the world it describes, and to which Veronese's painting reconciled him. He was converted from a kind of evangelism to a redemptive form of humanism. …

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