An Interview with Alison Young

Things you might think about when observing an image:
Is this art?
Is this at all criminal?
How might the aesthetic and criminal aspects overlap?
How might they influence each other?
Is this person talking to me part of the exhibit?

An Interview with Alison Young

Things you might think about when observing an image:
Is this art?
Is this at all criminal?
How might the aesthetic and criminal aspects overlap?
How might they influence each other?
Is this person talking to me part of the exhibit?

An Interview with Alison Young

Jill Stauffer
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Since we live in an age saturated with images, and images—whether we notice this or not—participate in producing our ideas of order and legitimacy, it makes sense that someone would want to study not only how law governs art, but how art governs law. Alison Young, Professor of Criminology at the University of Melbourne in Australia, has done just that for a number of years now. With interests ranging from the legitimacy of graffiti as an art form and how art gets regulated legally and socially to why some artworks provoke viewers to violence and how courts of law rule on politically charged artworks, Young has interrogated our responses to images with a rare combination of sensitivity and candor. Her basic assertion is that spectators are engaged in a process of judgment in relation to images—not only aesthetic judgment, but the type of judgment one finds in a courtroom. As such, spectators are involved in an ethics of witnessing, whether they like it or not.

In her recent book Judging the Image: Art, Value, Law (Routledge, 2005), Young helps us think about and see law’s complex relation to images by means of a series of meditations on the relationship between judgment and aesthetics. Topics she considers include art about HIV, performance art that involves or invokes violence, and plans for rebuilding at Ground Zero after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Young earned an LL.B (that’s a bachelor of law degree in the U.K.) from Edinburgh University and a Masters and Ph.D. in Criminology from Cambridge University. She writes widely about criminology, sexual violence, law and aesthetics, and feminist theory. She is currently working on a study of cinematic and literary representations of crime, and an examination of graffiti writers’ narratives of cultural belonging. This interview took place initially in person, and later over email.

—Jill Stauffer


THE BELIEVER: Can an artwork move someone to violence? How or why?

ALISON YOUNG: Well, there are a lot of instances of spectators moved to violence by an artwork, if you define violence as throwing things at the artwork, or attempting to destroy it. I would certainly consider those reactions as violent ones. The exhibition of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ in Melbourne in 1997 led to two young boys smuggling a sledgehammer into the National Gallery of Victoria and smashing the image. The Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 saw an elderly man smear white paint on Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary. When that exhibit was in London two years previously, a different artwork was attacked: Marcus Harvey’s Myra had eggs thrown at it by one man, and ink by another. And it’s not just contemporary art that provokes these responses: in London in 1914, the canvas of Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus was slashed by a suffragette.

BLVR: Do these cases of violence toward art share anything?

AY: Well, my reading is that artworks that get attacked in these ways are experienced by their attackers as too proximate to them. Normally, when viewing an image in a gallery, a spectator is able to retain the awareness that “it’s only an image.” Something about these “objectionable” artworks dissolve that comforting sense that this is only an image: in some way, the artwork, with its discomfiting imagery, or media, or narrative, is brought right up next to the spectator, so there’s no interim space in which it can be said “it’s only an image.” Serrano’s work featured a crucifix submerged in his own urine; Ofili’s canvas of the Virgin Mary rested on balls of elephant dung; Harvey’s Myra used children’s handprints to make a reproduction of the police mugshot of a convicted child murderer, Myra Hindley. Each of those works featured things which should be kept separate (religious icons and waste products, children and child murderer) being placed right next to each other. In viewing the unexpected proximity of things which are normally rigidly separate, the viewer experiences a loss of certainty, a plunge into an aesthetic vertigo, which enables her or him to take a kind of revenge on the troubling image, and attack it.

BLVR: Should artworks like Piss Christ be protected from censorship and public outrage? If so, why?

AY: I don’t think protection against “public outrage” is a good idea. First of all, it seems to predict controversy, by saying here we have an artwork which is bound to be trouble. Or it gives more weight to a certain kind of tub-thumping media coverage than it deserves. It also seems to preempt the moment of judgment by the spectator: if you walk into a gallery and there’s an artwork like Piss Christ with a security guard next to it, doesn’t that simply say to spectators, “Here’s something you might want to dislike”?

I also don’t like the idea of giving some artworks “protected” status for the difficulty of who would make that decision: the exhibit’s curator, the gallery directors, art critics? I think an artwork simply has to be exhibited, and then we deal with the responses. If there’s a move to prevent exhibition of the artwork (as with Mayor Giuliani’s suit against the Brooklyn Museum, or Archbishop Pell’s suit against the National Gallery of Victoria for displaying Piss Christ) that’s a moment when the institution of the church or local government has laid itself bare, shown its hand, if you will. And those moments are so valuable, when we see dominant social institutions revealing their passions, their anxieties.

BLVR: Is there a “correct” response to an artwork? Is there an incorrect response?

AY: I wouldn’t want to think there should be a correct one. I would want to think that attacking the image is not a correct response, but even there I don’t know that I’d want to legislate against it. I certainly feel sympathy for artists whose works are damaged or destroyed by angry spectators, but those instances are also incredibly illuminating about the nature of the spectatorial experience.


BLVR: We’re talking about art, but your job description says that you are a criminologist. First of all, what does it mean to be a criminologist? Is that like a biologist, or a sexologist?

AY: Well, a criminologist is someone who studies crime. That incredibly wide brief is matched by an incredibly wide range of ways of doing so, and there’s also a wide range of subheadings that fall under the general heading “crime.” Some criminologists have a background in sociology, others in psychology—some, like me, come from law and legal studies. Studying “crime” can mean looking at why people commit crimes, or the relationship between crime and social factors such as poverty, upbringing, opportunity and so on. Or it can mean investigating how the criminal justice system responds to crime—from police investigation to sentencing and punishment. As you can see, there’s not much space in there for something like “art.” Criminology, traditionally, is quite social-scientific in its ambit, and the kind of work I do is definitely unusual for the discipline. Given the social-science orientation, which I’m not very comfortable with or competent at, I tend to be uneasy with the term “criminologist” and when I meet people I say things like “Hi, I’m in a criminology department, but that doesn’t define me, I’m a legal theorist interested in cultural studies issues” and watch their eyes glaze over. Anyway, I wish there were another term: maybe “criminosopher” would fit better.

BLVR: Why would a criminosopher write a book about art? How did this all begin?

AY: Some years ago, I wrote a book called Imagining Crime. In that book, I was thinking through some issues to do with media representations of crime and criminals. Most of it concerned the print media, and it wasn’t until the final chapters that I spent any time looking at images. After a number of years interrogating words, I was really struck by the impact of the visual image, and found the experience of trying to read and analyze the visual image to be very challenging and powerful. I started thinking about images of crime and criminals, or images which deal in some way with “deviance,” and I became fascinated with the image-crime nexus. At first I wanted to pursue that in a really literal way—it was graffiti that first attracted me as a subject, graffiti as an example of an image that was almost always illegal. From that point it expanded to include what you might call “controversial” artworks, the ones that challenge accepted ways of making art in some way—artworks by criminals and so on. However, I was worried that this would be a ghettoizing move: to be writing about “outlaw” artists. Instead, I decided to think about structures and relations of legitimation and “othering” in connection with art more generally. Sure, graffiti art and some of the famed controversial artworks of recent years are still in Judging the Image, but I think the fact that my reading of them is not confined to or defined by their “outlaw” status means that it’s possible to think more usefully about spectatorship, legitimacy, and the image.

BLVR: How do images, or the human response to images, relate to law and/or crime?

AY: I think it depends upon semantic processes which work in a very similar way to law. All images are metaphorical—not in the sense that they are allegories for something or other (like when a painting of a child works as an allegory of “innocence” or “mischief” or something), but rather that every image as it is produced is not something else. The art practice which preceded the image has excluded other ways of representing the subject.

BLVR: A decision has been made.

AY: Yes—my sense is that spectators, when viewing an image, know this very well. An artwork is viewed by the spectator as a product of an artistic process, which implicitly asserts the right of the image to look the way it does. The spectator’s knowledge is generated sometimes from media discussions of the artwork (such as happens in the case of notoriously controversial artworks, like Piss Christ, or some of Mapplethorpe’s works), sometimes from the gallery’s provision of information about the media used, and sometimes simply from the way the image looks. Viewing the artwork then generates a sense of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the image: the spectator’s responses are often versions of a simple judgment about the image’s rightness (that looks nice, that’s beautiful, that’s interesting, that’s challenging, and so on) or wrongness (yuck, that’s hideous, that’s gross, that’s blasphemous, that’s pornographic, and so on). To that extent, spectators are engaged in a process of judgment in relation to the image. I don’t mean simply “judgment” in the sense of exercising their discrimination and their tastes, but rather in a sense which is more profoundly analogous to a courtroom, where legitimacy or illegitimacy is conferred by the judge or jury upon the plaintiff or the accused. I’m very interested in teasing out the complications in this dynamic of judgment between spectator and image.


BLVR: Since I’m the judge now, whenever I look at things, does that make me responsible? Should this responsibility make me change the way I look at art, or how I think about what I see, and how I react to what I see? For instance, are those who smash or deface artworks acting as judges? Or is something else going on?

AY: Yes, those who smash and deface are judges. I think it’s really important to shift the idea of judging art away from the realms of the traditional legal arena or the traditional forums of art criticism. Someone who throws paint at an artwork is certainly judging it. But I think that “judgment” has to be conjoined to responsibility. Those violent responses are still judgments, and the “judge” should acknowledge responsibility for them. I would argue that’s the case for all images, including legal images—that is, when a judge makes a finding about a case involving a gay man who is HIV-positive, the judge must take responsibility for her or his judgment of the image of the gay man that has just been forged or endorsed in the courtroom.

BLVR: Does it matter how an artwork came to be, as opposed to what it is as a finished product?

AY: Yes and no. Piss Christ is such a great example here. The finished product achieves great beauty, thanks to the red and orange colors, the proportions of the crucifix within the space, the trail of bubbles… Looked at without the title, it appears as a deeply religious image. The title kicks things into a different sphere, one where religiosity may no longer apply. “Piss Christ”: Does that mean “piss on Christ”? Does it mean “Christ is piss”? A little background knowledge—which might be provided by reading newspaper accounts or reading the museum catalogue—would inform the viewer that the image is a photograph of a crucifix immersed in a vat of the artist’s own urine. The image, then, is showing us “piss on Christ,” either as an instruction or as a description. For many viewers, that completely undercuts any sense of beauty or reverence obtained through looking at the image alone.

It’s also interesting to think about whether it would matter if the image looks the way it does, and has the title that it has, but had in fact been created differently. That is, what if Piss Christ was not in fact a photograph of a crucifix immersed in a vat of the artist’s own urine, but rather showed a crucifix immersed in a vat of tea, or beer. The title would still annoy many, but it would be rendered more of an irritation than a sacrilege. The juxtaposition of the waste fluid and the object is crucial to the meaning of the artwork for us as viewers. And when I put this question to Serrano himself—would it matter if the image were a photograph of a crucifix immersed in a vat of some other liquid—he was quite clear that it would matter to him enormously: the juxtaposition of the waste fluid and the object was crucial to the meaning of the artwork for him as the artist.

BLVR: Law has a power over art, for better and for worse. Does art have a power over law?

AY: Yes, absolutely. Law works through images. There is an image of a courtroom, and a judge, and a prison, and a judgment. The sovereign power of the law—that the hand of the judge can move to rule, that the mouth of the judge can open and issue a judgment—works through icons and images. Authority is a visual product, as much as any intrinsic feature of a statute or verdict. Hence the persistence and power of devices such as wigs (still worn in many jurisdictions), archaic language (asking “how do you plead?” rather than saying “did you do it or not?” to an accused person), ritual (bowing to the judge), insignia (such as coats of arms). It is not possible for judgment in law to obtain the authority it has in a courtroom if proceedings were moved to, say, the judge’s backyard, or to a corporate office. To that extent, law is dependent on the image, and images have a certain power over law.


BLVR: Is graffiti art? Or is it crime?

AY: Neither. Or both at once. It’s a false and unhelpful dichotomy, which allows the persistence of conflations such as “graffiti vandalism” or “aerosol art.” Graffiti is an increasingly difficult term in itself, because there are so many different activities and results covered by this one term. For example, things written on toilet walls or on school desks are graffiti, while the stencils sprayed onto walls in the Lower East Side of New York City are also graffiti, as are tags and large-scale murals. For many people, the visual effect (and affect) of latrinalia (toilet graffiti) and tagging could never be “art.” They then become uncomfortable with suggestions that some graffiti is art. Reluctance to admit that some graffiti (like stencils or murals) has artistic value results in a lowest-common-denominator response which says “all graffiti is a crime” (with a concomitant knee-jerk opposition from some which says “all graffiti is art, just in places that people don’t like”).

BLVR: And what do you think?

AY: My own view, for what it’s worth, is that since graffiti usually involves putting an image on property without permission it is therefore a crime. But that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t art. I would like to see an acknowledgment that an activity can have both aesthetic and criminal qualities.

BLVR: So… what is graffiti? What does it do?

AY: Hard to answer this, because there are answers at so many levels. “Graffiti” refers to the making of particular kinds of marks in public space or on private property, usually without the consent of the property owner. Graffiti is a form of damage to property under the criminal law. However, it’s utterly distinct from other forms of property damage (such as slashing seats on trains or breaking windows) because it involves the activity of making a mark in public space, a mark which is explicitly intended to be an image. It is a crime that centers on image-making. Whether it involves simply drawing a line along a fence (one of the most basic versions of graffiti), or etching a tag onto a train window, or spraying a stencil onto a wall, or executing a “piece” (a mural), graffiti is about making an image in public space.

As for what graffiti does, some graffiti writers want to signal their presence in an area, or to display their prowess at writing their tag. Some want to colonize space by tagging as many sites around the city as possible (“bombing”). Some want to give name-checks (“shoutouts”) to friends by citing their friends’ tag names in a piece (much in the same way that academics often cite their friends’ work in their own articles). Others want to make people smile or feel amused (especially stencillers, who often select amusing images). Others want to communicate a political message: slogan writers sometimes broadcast information about upcoming political demonstrations or comment on recent political events.

What graffiti also does is have powerful effects on the viewing audience. Some graffiti makes people feel afraid; they think they are likely to be the victim of a violent crime (an emotional response which conflates the graffiti writer and the mugger or drug dealer or rapist). To others it is annoying because it looks unsightly; they fear it represents an area in social decline. Some people love seeing it because it seems like an antidote to the overload of corporate, licensed imagery which saturates the social field. And for the graffiti writer herself, when she sees her work or the work of others in public space, it confirms the identity of graffiti writers within a community or network of belonging entirely distinct from conventional social networks.

BLVR: I like the idea of a community of belonging coming together outside of societal convention, and I’m interested in what you say about something being both art and crime. What would enable us to view graffiti as art rather than as crime or visual pollution, or as art and crime at the same time without being visual pollution?

AY: My sense is that there’s a dynamic going on which arises out of the fact that for most people, graffiti simply appears on a wall; they rarely, if ever, see the graffiti writer putting it there. Hence the graffiti writer is invisible to them, the graffiti is an object which can be derided, painted over, cleaned off. Once objectified, the graffiti enables those who dislike it to transfer that dislike onto the individual who wrote it (because although graffiti is an image without a writer, people obviously know that it didn’t just “appear”; it was written by someone) and to call for punishment of that writer as someone who has committed a crime or created visual pollution rather than an image.

If you imagine instead the writer and his or her experience of writing (with all the motivations, fears, pleasures, intensities, and affects that that involves) then you can start to see graffiti as something which is part of city space, something you can have an aesthetic opinion on (because this doesn’t mean one has to like the way it looks), but something which is there because this is city space, filled with surfaces which sometimes include graffiti.

BLVR: This would legitimate the graffiti artist’s voice or craft, even if her activity remained illegal and thus “illegitimate.”

AY: Absolutely. I think graffiti should help us acknowledge the fact that there is more than one city within every city, that the presence of graffiti confirms the existence of an anterior urban geography which values train tunnels and disused buildings. We should celebrate the fact that graffiti tells us about the ability of people to form networks around the making of images.

BLVR: So we should see art when we see an illegally placed street mural. Or we should at least be ready to see more than crime. Furthermore, we should see that street art is the product of an artist’s labor. Should graffiti be legal? All graffiti?

AY: I don’t think graffiti should be legalized. I think providing some legal outlets and venues is important, partly because that allows younger writers to practice skills and strengthen their networks within graffiti culture, without the pressures of arrest and prosecution. However, if graffiti were to be legalized it would domesticate the activity. It would render it unattractive to many writers, for whom the illegality really is part of the culture. I think that’s important, not just because it reveals that many writers are attracted to the adrenaline thrill of illicit writing but because it tells us that in order to get the high-quality, astonishing graffiti which appears overnight and is breathtaking for its skills, colors, placement, or content, we have to be prepared to put up with some of the less impressive works.

My ideal would be for writers to exercise “considered placement,” whereby they think a little bit about where they put up their work (avoiding people’s homes, small businesses, churches, gravestones, cars, and so on), and for municipal authorities and police to exercise “considered regulation” (not cleaning off murals, using cautions rather than arrest, and so on).


BLVR: Does the spectator always have to be responsible? Can’t I just look at pretty things sometimes and avoid ugly things sometimes? Or is there an ethical command upon me constantly simply because I own eyes? And if so, isn’t that too much to ask of me?

AY: It’s great to look at pretty things, to look upon beauty, to look without a sense of self-conscious looking. I totally agree. But does that mean that on those occasions there is no ethical obligation upon us? I don’t think so. I think the ethics of looking always require our attention. Fortunately, I think we’re often unaware of them (and I mean “unaware” in a good w

AY: “unaware” as in we simply exercise an ethics of looking without being self-conscious). For example, if I look at my cat, I get great pleasure from that, because he’s a cute cat. But somewhere, in addition to the simple pleasure of “just looking,” I look in a manner that doesn’t construct him as an object to be mistreated, or to be eaten, or to be abandoned, and so on. Even “just looking” responds to the ethical command. And one of the ideas animating Judging the Image is that “just looking” is about the ethics that underlie spectatorship, a prior, usually unheralded relation to the artwork which might enable “looking” to be “just.” Of course, much of the book deals with instances when the ethical command was ignored or overridden in some way, but that, if you like, confirms the priority of ethics: the ethical is there, and it must be responded to in some way.

BLVR: Are there some kinds of art or certain situations or moods that make the spectator more aware of his or her participation as spectator?

AY: Certainly. I think performance art often tries to do this. I’m thinking of Annie Sprinkle, whose performances sometimes involve, for example, inviting members of the audience to look at her cervix through a speculum, in order to elicit an intense spectatorial relation with the audience, which she then undermines and flips back upon the audience by ending her show, having removed her makeup onstage, sitting silent and naked, simply gazing at the audience as they leave the theater.

Artists such as Chris Burden or Marina Abramovic, who have subjected themselves to injury in front of an audience, also make spectators aware of what it is spectators do. It’s easy to forget about the ethics of looking when one is gazing upon beauty (a sunset, a Rodin sculpture, a Rothko painting), but when one is gazing at someone who is crawling over broken glass or who has had himself crucified on a Volkswagen, that jolts the spectator into a very present tense, and one which explicitly reminds the spectator that she is looking at someone in pain, “just looking” (this time in the sense of looking without acting) without doing anything to stop the pain or help the person.

BLVR: Do our different responses to these forms of spectator-provoking art say something about us as persons?

AY: I think so. If we smash or slash an artwork, if we call for it to be removed from display or for a performance to be closed down, this seems to bespeak a will to domination that won’t admit alternative voices or marginal bodies. If we struggle with its affects, if we recall its address to us in dreams, if we engage in its conversation, that seems to essay from a much more humane, ethical subject.


BLVR: In Judging the Image, you tell a moving anecdote about a Holocaust survivor at the Simon Wiesenthal Center who approached you and said, “I am a survivor of Auschwitz. Is there anything you want to ask me?” You said you backed away from him, sad, horrified at the obligation that had been constructed for him. What was that obligation, how was it constructed, and what made it horrifying to you?

AY: This encounter took place in the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, a museum which aims to give very interactive, participatory experiences for the visitor. It was the culmination of a series of dioramas about the Holocaust, which had taken about forty minutes to view. At the outset, the visitor is given a copy of a child’s passport—you are told that at the end of the exhibit you will learn what happened to the child during the Shoah.

And the exhibit itself ends in a replica of a gas chamber—you are literally in the gas chamber. You are at that point approached by a survivor who invites your questions. My horror at the situation arose out of the combination of devices deployed by the museum to create the visitor’s experience: you are standing in a gas chamber, actually in there with the survivor, who of course was never actually in there, in such a chamber— impossible to be “a survivor” and to have been in such a chamber.

As both Giorgio Agamben and Primo Levi tell us, the survivors made “imperfect” witnesses (and they were painfully aware of this, as survivors and witnesses) because of their survivorship, because they could not testify to the most common experience within the camp, which was death. Somehow putting me—the visitor—in the chamber seemed abominable. I understand why the chamber should function as the culminating moment in the exhibit, and I understand that it has a huge impact on the visitor. But to stand there, as a visitor, in a replica, with a survivor—it was a collision, in some way, a decision, made by the curatorial staff perhaps, with a view to visceral impact on the visitor rather than to the ethics of survivor testimony. To put that man in a replica gas chamber and to make that the place where he could be questioned about “life in Auschwitz”—it seemed to be for the visitor’s affective or visceral experience rather than an ethical location where such a man might speak, and it seemed to rob his testimony of some dignity.

BLVR: I’ve been to that museum, and through that simulation. I felt manipulated. Though I also saw some of the pedagogical decision-making behind the installation. Also, I made a mad dash out of the gas chamber when a survivor approached someone else in there with me. And I felt guilty for doing so. I must admit, however, that I still have firmly in my mind the photo from the girl’s passport. The virtue of the installation was that it personalized a history that was made possible by the human ability to depersonalize others. However, I agree with you that there was something not quite right about it, too. I’m grateful to you for the way you thought this through.

AY: Yes, you’re right, there was, and is, a definite pedagogy underlying the exhibit. But I’d want to hope that the pedagogical imperative can be met through more subtle means—or at least less directly manipulative ones. I think, for example, that Jenny Holzer’s artwork, Lustmord, has an extremely strong pedagogical potential, given that it deals with the rape of women in Bosnia and focuses on the narrations of perpetrator, victim, and the somewhat shadowy figure of a bystander or spectator or observer (who may be a journalist or a UN observer or a neighbor). That artwork asks us to think directly about issues of war, gender, and violence, and about our relationship to sexual violence as spectators or bystanders. Yet even though it asks this directly— through the inclusion of first-person narration, for example—it generates an indirection, a space in which Lustmord’s spectator is both indicted by the artwork and also able to respond ethically to it, by recognizing its charge and answering it.

BLVR: A final question: what does art make us see that we might otherwise miss?

AY: Well, I have two answers, I think. One is to s

AY: everything. Were it not for the image, for the art of the image, we might miss everything—and by “miss” I mean both “overlook” and also “lose” or “yearn for.” Art makes visible our objects of desire. And the other answer is less general, more modest. Art makes us see the everyday, and see it differently. It points us to the commonplace surfaces of the world, and transforms them.

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