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Images and shadows: Levinas and the ambiguity of the aesthetic

Institute of Art History, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic
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  • Literature
  • Medicine
  • Philosophy


Levinas's comments on art appear contradictory. On the one hand, he criticizes art as being disengaged from ethical concerns and constituting a possibility of moral evasion; on the other hand, he engages quite closely and in a supportive fashion with some art, such as Paul Celan's poetry. Interpreters commonly argue that only one of Levinas's conceptions of art, either the affirmative or the negative, represents his true attitude towards art. In this article the author seeks to make both statements compatible with each other and thus relevant to Levinas's conception of art. She focuses on his essay `Reality and Its Shadow¿, where art is diagnosed as an ambiguous phenomenon. She argues that full understanding of the ambiguity of art demands that Levinas's different statements about art are considered together; only thus can the complete picture of the ambiguity emerge. Furthermore, it turns out that the very same feature which makes art open to misunderstanding - namely, its precarious materiality - also allows an artwork to sustain itself and to be revived. Art reveals a shadow, withdrawal, or resistance that belongs to reality itself.

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