Photographic Index, the Spiritual in Art, and the Ethics of “Downcast Eyes”

Just recently published: “Photographic Index, the “Spiritual in Art,” and the Ethics of “Downcast Eyes” in Philosophy Today, 55(4), 348-360, Winter 2011. ISSN 0031-8256

 A special dedicated to the memory of Edith Wyschogrod (z”l). Edited by Elliot Wolfson, it includes essays by Wolfson, Elias Bongmba, Virginia Burrus, Jean-Joseph Goux, Martin Kavka, Karmen MacKendrick , Dan Price, and Jules Simon,  


In this essay, I attempt to make sense of a query posed by Edith Wyschogrod (“Is enthusiasm still a condition of possible aesthetic experience” in a postmodern age?). I identify two strands in her work that slants her own answer towards the negative conclusion that she herself wants to resist. One strand is composed by the legacy in twentieth century French philosophy of an irredeemably anti-ocular habit of thought. The other strand of her reflections on the relation between ethics and aesthetics is the idea of the critique of images in Hebrew monotheism. In this paper, the alternative approach to Wyschogrod’s question about aesthetic enthusiasm and postmodernism brackets the twentieth century preoccupation with Cartesian rationalism as well as philosophical claims regarding aniconic Judaism. The line of thought pursued in this essay is to gauge theorists (Roland Barthes, Rosalind Krauss, Michael Fried) deeply invested in visual experience writing about photography and photographic images in order to consider critically the combination of enthusiasm and cynicism at the interface between postmodern aesthetics and ethics.

 I wrote as follows re: Edith and the two pictures by Clemente:

“At the visual level in this evocation of the face is the problem of aesthetics and ethics caught up in the tension between abstraction and figuration. The parsing of Levinas [by Wyschogrod] evokes abstract art, the dazzling apotheosis of painting, the final sublation-negation of physical objects and realist metaphysics. Many readers of both Levinas and Maimonides will find this both familiar and highly satisfying –philosophically, theologically, and aesthetically. It recalls the excellence of color in any one of Mark Rothko’s paintings.  Less familiar to those very same readers is the image by neoexpressionist painter Francesco Clemente, Self-Portrait: Inside Outside, with which Wyschogrod closes the essay “Intending Transcendence.” In this version, the frontal figure of the naked painter, viewed from the torso up, caught behind green bars, reaches for the hand of an otherwise invisible figure reaching towards him from outside the picture frame. For Wyschogrod, this is the “gesture of primordial generosity.” It is unclear if the more or less invisible other will draw the painter out of the picture frame or if the painter will draw the other in.

I have no idea if Wyschogrod knew about another version of Inside Outside, which is just as emblematic of Wyschogrod’s late thought on aesthetics, ethics, and corporeality. In this version, two naked figures appear in a bifurcated picture frame overlaid by a grid. The profile of one figure and the backdrop he inhabits are presented in full “primitive” color; the other, whitewashed outline suggests an enlightenment era line drawing (we see more of this figure’s back and his bottom than his face). Their arms circling around each other, each seeks to draw the other over into his world on his side of the picture plane. The arm of the figure in color loops under, about to poke his companion in the anus, while the more ghostly figure in washed-out white sticks the other in the eye with his finger. In this playful but less than generous image, we find the phenomena of corporeality, chiasmic touching, and blindness that are so central to an entire range of essays about aesthetics, ethics, and religion included in Crossover Queries.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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