One very intriguing direction in which we can continue to think about ethics in art is through considering the “first philosophy” of ethics, developed in the twentieth century by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. I am going to look at some of his ideas, and then see how we can deepen our understanding by relating them to a contemporary artwork by the Assemble collective.
Levinas took our encounters with another person to be the primary way in which we structure our existence. In the moment of encounter with “the Other”, there is a recognition that we face something that is both unknowable, and the same as ourselves. Levinas was a phenomenologist, he was interested in the unconscious mind and in pre-cognitive structures, things that happen before conscious thought. He argues that the encounter with “the Other” unfolds as a sense of responsibility. The feeling of responsibility is not a matter of choice, but is pre-conscious, it is something which “arises as if elicited, before we begin to think about it, by the approach of the other person.” (see Bergo, 2019)
Chris Thompson discusses Levinas’s work in ‘Felt: Fluxus, Joseph Beuys, and the Dalai Lama‘ (2011), a book which looks at art by Fluxus artists and Joseph Beuys, and explores questions about how ethics intersects with art and spirituality. After introducing Levinas’s ideas, Chris Thompson goes on to make an illuminating link with the work of the art historian Leo Bronstein. Chris Thompson begins by quoting Leo Bronstein as saying this : “space in art is a moral space”. He goes on to make his own assertion that ethics is inextricable and fundamental to the work that an artist of any kind is doing:
“It is not … that art is always aesthetic and sometimes ethical; it is as ethics first and foremost that art is intelligible, and this is at the root of any aesthetics.”Chris Thompson, 2011, p.7
Chris Thompson explains that in saying “space in art is a moral space”, Leo Bronstein is talking about our experiences when we encounter the actual physical (or geometric) space in artworks, and that he is relating those experiences of space to considerations about the ethics of “otherness”.
In terms of what the spaces in art feel like, or how they can be described, he says that Leo Bronstein drew a distinction between convex (outward curving) spaces that extend towards the person interacting with the art, and place the person in a position of “judgement”; and concave (inward curving) spaces that surround the person, and are “participatory”. He then returns us to Levinas, who had also used convex and concave spaces as a metaphor to explain why it is that he has argued that the core of the encounter with “the Other” is responsibility. Thompson explains that the ethical encounter occurs when “the other” is identified as being the same as “I”, and that the spatial metaphor for this is the moment of shift between convex space and concave space. The encounter
“unfolds as the I beholds the “logical sphere” that is exposed to its gaze and, by means of this gaze, organizes this sphere into a totality. There is then, according to Levinas, a movement of reversion – a “reversion, so to speak, of convexivity into concavity” – a kind of buckling in the “curvature of [intersubjective] space.”(Thompson, 2011, p17-18)
At this moment of buckling, or convex-concave reversion, “interiority” is made, and Thompson says that it is this which gives meaning to the person’s encounter with “exteriority”. So the space made in art, is here understood to be the same as “intersubjective space”; which is
“that continuum in which the I is able to recognize itself as the other’s other and thus able to inaugurate a properly ethical sociality.”Thompson, 2011, p.18
In order to ground what seems a difficult and abstract discussion about ethics and the “moral space” of art, let us now consider the physical space and “moral space” in a specific work of art.
In 2015, the interdisciplinary architecture collective Assemble had been working closely with residents and grass-roots community organisations in Granby, Liverpool; getting close enough to listen to their needs and aspirations, and supporting and empowering them through the work. In a film about the collaboration, residents describe the damage that had been inflicted on their community in the years leading up to that time, concentrating on questions of value (or in other words, on ethical questions of what is “good”). One person clearly states their objections to being subjected to people and organisations talking about and describing their communities in ways which had had the effect of limiting the kind of value that could be talked about to monetary value alone:
when these houses were scheduled for demolition, what the council did was strip out everything inside so its just a shell, and once they’d done that, they’d put a big sticker on the doors which says ‘nothing of value’. And there’s something about that whole process which is truly enraging, because its systematically taking away what has value, families, history, and then stamps it as worthless.Assemble, 2019
The aim of Assemble’s Granby projects can be broadly understood as supporting the restoration of a sense of value; through renovating, greening up and refurbishing infrastructure in what had become a degraded and devalued urban area, such that people could inhabit the place in dignity and connection with one another.
The Granby Winter Garden shows us what happens when value is restored. Condemned and gutted terraced houses were transformed into a sheltered and covered garden, the physical space of which helps us to understand Thompson’s discussion about moral space in art and the ethical encounter.
Here, the insides of the houses have become ambiguous outside-inside spaces, “concave”, but with “outside” characteristics of soil and plants. Private house has become public garden; enclosed has opened to the sky. Houses and enclosed gardens are, I would say, both powerful symbols for the human spirit. The moment of entering the unexpectedly re-configured space allows a freshness where a person can experience the “buckling” of space in all architecture; a moment which mirrors the moment of ethical encounter described by Levinas, in which the sameness of oneself and “other” can be felt, and responsibility for others is felt as foundational.
Community members explain the experience of the winter garden in both practical and ethical terms. That is, they describe it as a community resource, “a place for people to meet, to socialise, to plan, to plot, to do small workshops, to do creative work”; and as a place that allows people to come into proper understanding of themselves, and proper relationship with one another:
People need to be welcomed and they need to know that they are part of this community and their bit is as important as everybody else’s bit, and that their life is as important as everybody else’s life […] because that is what a community is about isn’t it? Just helping each other out and just, you know, being there for one another.Assemble, 2019
Sources & resources for further research and reading:
Assemble (2019) Granby Winter Garden 360°. Available at: https://vimeo.com/335837379
Assemble, Granby Winter Garden 2019. Available at: https://www.assemblestudio.co.uk/projects/granby-winter-gardens
Bettina Bergo, “Emmanuel Levinas”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition). Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/levinas/
Chris Thompson, (2011) Felt: Fluxus, Joseph Beuys and the Dalai Lama. Minneapolis : University of Minesota.