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Ethics of Alterity

Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th- to 21st-Century British Arts


Edited by Jean-Michel Ganteau and Christine Reynier


Collection Horizons Anglophones

Montpellier: Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2015

Paperback, 286 pp. 12 illustrations, 10 in colour. ISBN 978-2367811765. €24.00


Reviewed by Laurent Bury

Université Lumière – Lyon 2


Coming after a first volume devoted to the same subject in 19th- to 21st-century British literature, this new collection of essays shows how difficult it is for academics to really discuss art as distinct from literature, since some of the papers tackle the subject in such a very oblique way that they should probably have been included in the first rather than the second volume. For instance, Ben Hutchinson’s discussion of “Stone, Style and Sculpture in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill” has almost nothing to do with art, apart from a brief reference to “the unfinished statues of Michelangelo” [194]. Another problem is the notion itself of “19th- to 21st-Century British Arts”, since the temporal and spatial boundaries defined in the title of the collection are neither strictly respected nor fully explored. Most of the works of art commented were created in the late 20th century, and none dates back from before the First World War. True, Dickens and Melville are mentioned, but only through modern works inspired by their writings (and their work had nothing to do with “painting, cinema, sculpture, photography, performance and visual art”, in the first place), and the editors themselves felt the need to correct what was promised in the title by specifying that the volume “addresses the British arts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” [9]. One might also question the notion of Britishness, since some of the artists discussed are only tangentially British: it is the case of the German writer W.G. Sebald, who started teaching in England in the sixties, but wrote all his books in his native tongue, of American-born Lee Miller, even though she spent most of her life in Europe and married Roland Penrose, or of South-African photographer Kevin Carter, about whom one might even wonder whether photojournalism actually belongs in the arts. The latter question might also be asked about “Mass-Observation”, a sociological movement of the 1930s which may have been influenced by the art of its time (Virginia Woolf’s and T.S. Eliot’s writing, cinematographic “city-symphonies” by Dziga Vertov or Jean Vigo) rather than it influenced it.

Finally, one may also have qualms about the very idea of “ethics of alterity”: “the question of the artists’s behaviour towards the other and the relation of his/her art to the other (…) The originality of the essays collected here is to connect the arts, interarticity and intermediality with ethical issues – confrontation, responsibility, testimony – opening onto forms of liminality, commitment and (dis)-enablement” [9]. Of course, as usual in such collections, all the possible meanings of the word “alterity” are exploited, and quite legitimately so: influence and originality, dependence and autonomy, hybridising the genres, while the notion of “ethics” may be interpreted as feeling responsible or guilty, bearing witness and memorialising events, or deliberate dispossession through the creation of a relational subject.

Because of the emphasis on late twentieth and early twenty-first century creation, the most traditional forms of art get rather short shrift, as opposed to photography and cinema which are more abundantly treated, on a par with (post-) modern practices like installation, video or performance. Painting is represented by Liliane Louvel’s reflexion on “Stanley Spencer’s Personal Ethics and ‘creative probity’”, which devotes several paragraphs to the question of foreign influences, concluding that the British painter’s “ethics of alterity did not mean a departure from his heritage in terms of painting but meant assuming his singularity by being faithful to his own code of ethics” [113]. In that paper, a curious mistake mixes Spencer’s works with that of French artists who influenced him, so that instead of “Traces (…) of Gauguin’s Apple Gatherers and Joachim Among the Shepherds, of Le Douanier Rousseau’s Zaccharias, can be found in Spencer’s early work” [101], one should read something like “Traces of Gauguin can be found in Spencer’s Apple Gatherers and Joachim Among the Shepherds, of Douanier Rousseau in his Zaccharias”. Printmaking during World War I is the object of Sophie Aymes’s paper, the conflict being taken as “sheer otherness” that “defied representation” [39, 37]. If one agrees with the suggestion that printmaking could be “an oblique critique of the means and ends of mechanised war”, it seems far less easy to see in what it was “a distinctively modern artistic practice” [44], precisely because it could be opposed to photography and industrial standardisation. Sculpture is hinted at through a study of the relation between Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, but the sculptor’s Vorticist writings are the object of focus rather than his three-dimensional work.

Musical theatre is present through one paper, which may also have more to do with literature since it focuses on the libretto of Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, as adapted by E.M. Foster (and Eric Crozier) after Herman Melville’s novella. Premiered in Covent Garden in 1951, and later revised and shortened, the opera is “an investigation of memory and ethical contradiction” [25], according to Catherine Lanone, who does also pay attention to the score and perceives in the work a questioning of law and power: “Searching for an ethics of care that may reach beyond all laws, the opera locks the spectator, like Vere, in the eternal spiral of the sensation of error” [36].

Apart from the above-mentioned Lee Miller and Kevin Carter, Martin Parr’s documentary photography is here defined as “distorting a superficial reality and projecting the self through an ideal identity so as to reconcile the Western subject with him-/herself and have him/her interact with the others in a universe gaining in consistency” [152].

Cinema is discussed in Luc Bouvard’s paper on film adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities, but here again one might object that Jack Conway’s classic Hollywood version is part of the history of American movies. With his work 24 Hour Psycho, Scottish multi-media artist Douglas Gordon at least appropriated – by slowing it down – an American film by (British-born) Alfred Hitchcock, as described in Linda S. Kauffman very self-centred paper: “I saw 24 Hour Psycho at the Hirshhorn Museum (…) While watching, I had no choice but (…) I thought about (…) I couldn’t help but think (…)” [239]. In his reflexion on Ian McEwan’s screenplays and film adaptations of his novels, Laurent Mellet shows that for the British writer, fiction is one of the best forms of empathy, as it allows the reader to experience alterity by “entering the mind of another” [223].

Alterity in contemporary art is the subject of the last two papers in the volume. Valérie Morisson focuses on Kira O’Reilly and her inter-species performances. By lying naked in a room and fondling the body of a dead pig, the artist’s aim is “to stimulate a dialogue about humanness and the way we view our relationship to animals” [250]. It might have been a good idea for the author to check the spelling of the author of the French novel Truismes, which is not “Marie Darriesque” [258] but Darrieussecq. Finally, Catherine Bernard studies art as a source of “alternative modes of political engagement with the other and the overlooked” [265], when artists like Mark Wallinger, Gillian Wearing or Jeremy Weller force us to look at those form of otherness which we would rather forget about, so as to “re-establish contact with the other” [276].


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