At the very heart of The Life and Death of Images is a discussion of Kant’s stipulation that all value judgments on art must be disinterested. From the title of this collection, one might construe an attitude tending towards that desired indifference. Art has lived, art has died, and the task for the philosophers whose essays appear in the collection is to distill an impersonal meaning.
Of course, philosophy (and all academia) is always personal, and frequently lines get especially blurry when the tasks of art critic and philosopher blend into one. Remarkably, Life and Death rarely runs into the muck that way; though passionate, the essayists are rational, succinct, movingly honest and to the point.
The book comprises a series of talks presented at the Tate Modern in which philosophers were given the chance to speak in pairs; each speaker presented his or her own paper, and engaged in dialogue with the other. What was no doubt a dynamic and charged event has translated remarkably well into its book form. Each section begins with an essay. The next speaker gives a short response, which is transcribed directly from the talks. The second essay is then presented, and the section concludes with a short response from the first speaker. This format serves both to recreate the environment of discourse, and provide the reader with a true narrative. There is a story about art and about philosophy in each of the sections, and the structure allows it to be easily absorbed by even those who lack an in-depth background in the subject.
Still, there are instances when the essays go deep into the marrow of aesthetic inquiry, and these are times when the average reader may be lost in the text. But there are enough relevant, living examples in each presentation to keep the reader afloat. And it should be noted that the target audience for this text is somewhat ambiguous. Is it for academics or laypeople? Artists or audiences? Critics or philosophers? The book is co-edited by a philosopher (Costello) and a museum (curator.) Right off the bat we’re faced with those aforementioned blurry lines.
But those ambiguities may be at the heart of the project’s intent. Indeed, some of the book is an exploration of how criticism helps and hurts art, the study of aesthetics in a post-post-modern era, and whether art has doomed or saved itself by seeking isolation from other fields.
Noel Carroll argues in “Art and Alienation” that art sequestered itself so as not to fall short when compared with other more scientific and exacting practices. But art inevitably has a relationship with ethics — and discovering the nature of it is the ultimate task of the volume. Carroll urges that art ought not to be limited to just social criticism, and asserts, “Ambitious art also needs to get back into the activity of articulating, transmitting and celebrating that which is positive in the ethos of its audience.”
Unsurprisingly, Carroll’s essay is the one that seems capable of reaching the broadest audience. He speaks/writes with a convincing clarity, and manages to call into question our mode of operating with solemn exactitude. We have come to think that social criticism is participation; that is it political and that it carries ethical import. But purely positive, “good role model” type art is not something anyone growing up in the latest generation has experienced. Carroll asks us to rethink our definition of art’s powers and duties, and the ensuing essays beg the question of how (if at all) we can evaluate each piece’s moral prowess.
Of course, in unique ways, each essay tackles the epic question: do we need art, and if so, in what ways? Those may be questions philosophers have been asking for thousands of years, but the role of art has changed drastically in the last 50. Thus, this collection is as much retrospective as line of philosophical inquiry. What makes the book stand out is that in addition to a reasonably strict adherence to the analytic restrictions of philosophical inquiry, the speakers seem to be on a subtextual quest to save art. Thierry de Duve questions “Do Artists Speak of Behalf of All of Us” and ultimately seeks to empower his audience. As thinking, feeling people, we have a responsibility to assert and advertise our opinions about art. Then, in his response essay, “The Destruction of Art”, Howard Caygill, says that we must acknowledge the potential loss of art to appreciate it.
In both cases, and throughout the collection, the call to arms is for greater engagement by both artists and audiences in the ethics of aesthetics.
Given the way aesthetics have infiltrated our daily lives, Carroll might not even be correct in describing the alienation of art. The final message of the book seems to be one about the strength and ultimate durability of art, even in the face of creative destruction. It is everywhere: in the media, on the streets and on the Internet, and it is our duty to know and cultivate its powers. If images must indeed live and die, it is incumbent on us to label what we see as it passes by.