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Philosophy of the Arts

new art forms

Joel-Peter Witkin

…Could he be tried for staging a corpse?…

What we see on the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin is, for instance, a corpse, beheaded, sitting on a chair, in “Man without a Head”, 1993; a head that is apparently lying on a plate, in “Head of a Dead Man”, Mexico 1990. Several questions are bound to be raised by viewers when they see these photographs.

“Did Witkin stage these scenes? If so, that means that he has been rumbling around with corpses.” The thing with the photographs seems to be this: because they are photographs they record a scene in the world (or so we standardly and centrally—and mostly rightly—assume).

“Did the photographer find this scene, or did he add to it, and, if the latter: what did he add?” (For instance, the white drapes in the background of “Man without a Head”: who put them there—it is obvious they weren’t there when the man was decapitated, as they don’t show any blood spattering? The left hand, who put it like this?)

Next, we can’t establish from looking at the photograph itself whether Witkin Photoshopped the photograph, or whether he staged the corpse.
When the first, then Witkin created disturbing images with the epistemological force of photographs; when the latter, then his actions seem to be immoral (you ought not to stage corpses for the sake of taking interesting photographs).
We can only decide after establishing the relevant facts about the making of the photographs.
But is that really decisive? (Of course, it is for certain –legal– questions; but is it for the art?)

As I see it, however this moral/legal search turns out, the photographs have this effect of making the viewer wonder about these things, and this, I submit, confirms their high artistic merit. So let us take it from there.

Now, what if he did stage the corpses? As, he assured me, he actually did:
The model for that photograph was a [...] man beaten to death by the Mexican police. The head of this man looks cut off. However, this visual effect was accomplished by propping up the dead man and cutting a plate to fit around his neck so that the dead man looked as though his head was cut off.
How immoral is it to prop up a corpse and put a plate around his neck—the man is dead after all, and certainly, in the morgue things like that happen all the time?
Put differently: how strong are our moral intuitions? Could one be tried for doing such things to a corpse? Possibly it all depends on the context, and then the next question becomes: what sort of context is art practice?

Asking these latter questions is typical of Immoral Art. I develop the notion of this new art form of Immoral Art in a different place. But I am not implying that Witkin is anything other than a photographer—but he could be, depending on answers to the above questions

Online catalogue of Witkin’s photographs.

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