In Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection. Cambridge University Press (1999)

Lynne Tirrell
University of Connecticut
Derogatory terms (racist, sexist, ethnic epithets) have long played various roles and achieved diverse ends in works of art. Focusing on basic aspects of an aesthetic object or work, this article examines the interpretive relation between point of view and content, asking how aesthetic contextualization shapes the impact of such terms. Can context, particularly aesthetic contexts, detach the derogatory force from powerful epithets and racist and sexist images? What would it be about aesthetic contexts that would make this possible? The article puts into aesthetic contexts both Absolutist and Reclaimer views about the power of derogatory terms, applying an inferential role semantics, developed for language, to both words and images. The Reclaimer’s position, that derogation is a matter of pragmatics, of use, emphasizes the context-sensitivity of the term, that is matters who says it, to whom, when, where, and why. Understanding derogatory terms used as hate speech helps to make this position clear. The Absolutist’s position, that no contextual variations can detach the derogation from these deeply derogatory terms, is developed here through attention to subordinating images in pornography. The article argues that art may be able to achieve the deviant interpretations that the Reclaimer needs to undermine the derogations while maintaining sensitivity and awareness of the history of oppression.
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