UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Transgressing words and silence : aesthetics, ethics and education MacLeod, Kathryn Dawn


This thesis explores the relationship between ethics, aesthetics and education, using the limit case of art created in response to the Holocaust, and argues that art is not autonomous: The theme of the Holocaust speaks directly to the question of art’s relationship to moral, political and educational purpose. Guided by the philosophy of Maxine Greene, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Immanuel Kant, this thesis focuses on three works by artists who have addressed the Holocaust in their work: writer Primo Levi, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, and sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Lyotard’s aesthetic and political theories, based on his reading of Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, link the practice of contemporary art to a postmodern ethics; his key concepts of the différend, the event and the sublime provide a basis for my analysis of how the each of these artworks works. Art that attempts to explore the aporia of the Holocaust faces specific issues: the role of beauty and redemption; the relationship between art and the real; the impact of trauma on memory and representation; and the nature of testimony. Each of the artworks addresses these challenges: Whiteread’s sculpture explores the reality and materiality of absence; Lyotard’s film reveals the traces and gaps in memory and history; and Levi’s memoir highlights the power and frailty of art and communication. Understanding the nature of contemporary art provides insight into art’s value and purpose. Art’s ethical obligation lies in its relationship to the real: If art can address the aporia of the Holocaust, then it is valuable, necessary and important in our culture. Art creates new ways of seeing and responding to the world, and has the ability to transform. At the same time, art’s distance from the real always limits its efficacy. Art educates not merely through formal means uncovered in the classroom, but because it engages its audience in reflective judgment, in making meaning while at the same time questioning the ability to do so.

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