Banning art

Banning art on textbook covers, that is.  Would you refuse to have a picture on a book on social or political grounds? let’s suppose it really does count as art, is not outre, and in fact has a very traditional and even beloved subject matter?

What about this one?


what do you think?


Thanks, jc

45 thoughts on “Banning art

  1. La Vérité!

    But what do you mean — if it were my book, would I refuse to have that picture? Or if I were teaching, would I decide not to use the book because of the picture? Or what?

    (I don’t have a problem with this particular picture, but I’m wondering what the more general question is supposed to be.)

  2. It would be interesting to know whether Cappelen and Hawthorne chose the art, or if it was chosen for them.

    Either way, I am not sure anything morally wrong has been done. But if they in fact actively chose the art (rather than merely having it be suggested by a graphic designer) then they are, at best, demonstrating a pretty shocking lack of sensitivity to the current state of gender issues in philosophy (and elsewhere, for that matter) After all, there are literally hundreds of thematically similar pieces of art that they could have chosen that don’t involve the classical version of full-frontal pin-up art. I can easily imagine undergraduate students (of both genders) being uncomfortable having to carry this text around campus or take it out in class (actually, I can easily imagine quite worse reactions). I certainly would not have chosen this art, and would have vetoed it had it been suggested to me.

  3. Let’s consider the context. Women are vastly underrepresented in philosophy. One of the disturbingly prominent problems is sexual harassment of female students. Sexual harassment is enabled when women are presented as sex objects.

    And here we have a book cover that presents two men (whose names, rather than bodies, are prominently featured) as the thinkers philosophizing about truth, and a nude female body as a decorative object to beautify the book. This sends a message to students about who is a philosopher and who is a sexualized object. Among faculty, it reinforces the established schema about the maleness of philosophy.

    My own inclination isn’t to think of this issue as one of *banning* the use of an image. I’d think of it more in terms of the need for basic good judgment on the part of everyone involved in selecting and using cover images, especially those who are aware, or ought to be aware, of problems related to underrepresentation of women in philosophy. (Is the fact that the image was presumably selected in 2008 any kind of defense, given that discussion of these issues has intensified in the last few years?) When poor judgment is exercised, one may wish to protest it through a boycott, and also contact the press to raise the editor’s awareness.

    Regardless of how we assess the 2008 choice to use this image, I would never assign a book thus illustrated in a course, because it sends all the wrong messages about the role of women in philosophy.

  4. JJ, the question is about the cover for a textbook. I think there are interesting questions about the relation between whether you’d approve something for a particular function and whether you’d use it for that function, but I’m not sure they really come apart in this relatively simple case. Perhaps I’m wrong here, but this strikes as like “i’d love to have that car, but I wouldn’t drive it.” There are background stories that make sense of this – e.g., perhaps it’s a stunning Bentley which you’d love to show off in your driveway, but you know it has a flaw that means it could burst into flames – but don’t we need a reason to decouple approving of something for a function and not approving for your use? That suggest that approving it for a function is in some way close to approving for one’s self.

    I don’t know what the closeness is (implicates? Gives a reason for? Etc) and there are myriad ways to break the tie (e.g., that’s a fabulous coat, but it’s for a 3 year old, not me). But I don’t think they are merely separate issues.

  5. As Sherri notes, this isn’t an issue of ‘banning’. Hawthorne and Cappelen (and OUP) are free to put whatever art they want on their book – after all, it’s their book. But of course, we are free to complain about the inappropriateness of the image, its harmful effects, the message it sends, etc., and we are also free to not purchase or not assign the book for these reasons. Further, since presumably the primary goal shared by Hawthorne, Cappelen, and OUP in this case is to get people to purchase and read the book, it is in their interest to listen.

    As Sherri also notes, context in these cases is important. If this were a book on the depiction of sexuality in classical art, then the image would perhaps be both appropriate and unobjectionable. But the text is a technical essay on truth and relativism, and I fail to see any substantial connection between these topics and the art. So presumably the art is only there to look good, so to speak. There are plenty of other, less ‘loaded’ images that could have played that role equally well.

  6. Sherri Irwin, “ban” was really to provoke, but also to help sharpen the discussion a bit.

    On the other hand, if I were to go through publisher’s stock of images, I might do something like ban the use of ones that undercut inclusivity, insult members of some groups, etc.

  7. RTC, nice point about the subject matter. I’m not sure, though, I’d even use it for a relevant course textbook. One’s textbooks can be such public objects in coffee shops and so on.

  8. Anne,

    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that I would in fact use the image (or one like it) if I were to write a book on sexuality in classical art. In fact I wouldn’t (for reasons already made clear by myself and others above). My point was merely that such cases are more difficult to judge (but, then again, returning to the point about common sense, maybe they aren’t: maybe we ought to just be careful about not using images that send unintentional negative messages, even when the intended message is benign or appropriate).

  9. The reason I don’t have a big problem with this particular image is that the woman on the cover is Truth. Her nudity isn’t titillating but classically beautiful, and she is nude because the naked truth is beautiful. (Well, I don’t endorse that claim, but that’s the idea!)

    Anne, I think they are very different questions. There are many pictures I would not even consider for a book of mine because they send a slightly wrong political message, could be misinterpreted, etc., but which would not at all prevent me from adopting the book. This is one of those cases. Choosing the picture is endorsing it, after all, whereas adopting the book is only tolerating the picture.

  10. I think that the point articulated by Sherri Irvin stands even if we accept jj’s claim that the woman on the cover is not a sexual object but the personification of truth. Including women as icons is not that much better in this context than including them as sex objects–in neither case are they treated as real participants in philosophical dialogue or even as *people*. I personally find the use of that image on the cover incredibly alienating. That I the woman in the painting is–on my interpretation–a (classically beautiful) sex object in addition to being a symbol of truth is just frosting on the big othering cake.

  11. Kenneth Clark maintained that all nudes are erotic. I puzzled over this statement for some time until I realized the voice of cultural authority in my culture was gendered. But I do find any conviction that nudes can be desexualized questionable. Perhaps Picasso or L. Freud manage this, but most others don’t.

    I think it would be a serious mistake to use this as a textbook. Given all the hostility woman in our profession face, it seems asking for trouble for female students.

    JJ, there may be a difference between “i wouldn’t have that on my textbook, but i’d still use my book if it were,” and “I would pick it for my textbook, but then I wouldn’t use the book.” I’m not sure.

  12. Would I ever refuse to have art on one of my books on “social and political grounds”? Yes.

    Do I think there’s anything wrong with Cappelen and Hawthorne’s cover? No. In fact I think it’s quite lovely, and certainly a lot better than the garbage that’s put on most our books.

    I do, however, take issue with OUP’s description of the book, which is really quite bizarre. OUP claims, first, that the book’s subject matter is “currently the hottest topic in philosophy”. Nope, not even close; I actually don’t have any idea what they’re talking about in this book. Second, that it is “written by two of today’s leading young philosophers”. Hawthorne got his PhD 23 years ago.

  13. I’m not sure how far the idea that the figure is a personification of truth, and “she is nude because the naked truth is beautiful” goes.

    First off, Jules Joseph Lefebvre painted this in about 1870, pretty much about the same time women were beginning to see early, small victories (e.g. voting, etc.) in the fight for equality. So we can’t really use the whole “well he painted this in a time when issues of equality, etc., weren’t really something people were aware of” line, or the “well it isn’t erotic, it means something different” line based on the tradition in which the painter worked. Lefebvre worked in a context where this would have been (and was) taken to be quite erotic and sexualized. Interestingly, it has been suggested that the reason Lefebvre’s nudes didn’t attract the scandal that, say, Manet’s did was that he (Lefebvre) emphasized the beauty, passivity, and submissiveness of the subject rather than addressing more realistic themes. This is part of the content of the work, so it’s relevant to determining whether it is appropriate for the cover of an academic text.

    Further, the whole “naked truth” thing doesn’t really sit right with me with respect to Lefebvre’s work – he was best known for paintings of single women, more often than not nude, and usually quite erotic (regardless of whether the nudity or the eroticism was appropriate to the situation). His style and approach somewhat similar to some mid-twentieth century pin-up art, actually – the Alberto Vargas of 1870. Nothing wrong with this in and of itself, perhaps, but the reality of Lefebvre’s oeuvre puts some strain on attributing a deep thematic significance to the nudity in this painting, since the women in his paintings were nude more often than not.

    As a result I think this choice of art was a really bad decision. Yeah, the painting is a depiction of truth, and the book is about truth. But the painting isn’t merely a painting of truth – there is much more to it, and the decision to use the art should have taken some of this into consideration.

    [Obviously I’ve some research since the earlier post where I embarassingly didn’t see the connection between content of book and content of painting! Apologies for the resulting long-windedness.]

  14. The Lefebvre is certainly not an illustration I would have chosen, for the reasons given as well as some others. (I think the occurrence of a relevant nude on the cover of a book about art history or, for that matter, philosophical aesthetics would be a different matter entirely.) But I don’t think that one’s duty to read and engage intellectually with important books about topics that one is studying can ever be overridden by a content-extrinsic factor such as a cover illustration; thus I couldn’t, in good conscience, refrain from telling students to read the book if I thought it important to their work. (Incidentally, I have to admit that I find the choice of Raphael’s St George for Field’s book brilliantly audacious.)

  15. I didn’t mean to say that the nude woman is not at all sexualized — you’re obviously right, Anne, that pretty nearly any depicted nude is going to be somewhat sexualized in our culture. And now that I’ve read all the other comments, I suppose there is a “Look, this isn’t a hot chick, it’s Truth, so no problem here!” aspect to the choice of picture. Maybe in the end it’s visceral: the picture just doesn’t strike me as objectifying.

    HappyPhilosopher, I think it’s quite fair to say that truth relativism is one of the hottest topics in philosophy. Am I just years behind? :-)

  16. In response to Derek Bowman @18: I’d say the use of the Gauguin on the cover of Morgan is in some ways worse. All 17 contributions in the Morgan book are by white men. An image of several mostly nude Polynesian women, painted by a white man who clearly did sexualize them in both his art and his life, is used as decoration. (I would argue, with reference to both the poses and the gazes, that they are specifically sexualized within this image as well.) Gauguin’s approach to his subject is colonial, primitivist and exoticizing. I’m not going to recapitulate the arguments for this.

    The book presents white men as those who have done all the important thinking, and both women and people of color as those suited only to decorate. Moreover, this image is on the cover of a textbook, published in 2011, that is clearly intended for the undergraduate classroom.

  17. I love femalephilstudent’s expression @10 “frosting on the othering cake.” I think we could say something similar about the use of the Gauguin on the cover of the Morgan: the fact that the subjects are sexualized, on top of being used (by way of a white, European male gaze) to decorate a work from which they are otherwise excluded, is frosting on the othering cake.

    I agree with Roy’s take on things, and I especially like his @14.

    Dave Ripley @13 mentions the use of Raphael’s St. George and the Dragon on the cover of Hartry Field’s (2008) Saving Truth from Paradox. It shows a woman decorating the background in an inefficacious pose while the man in the foreground slays the dragon. It’s another nice example of what not to do in a context where you shouldn’t be sending the message that active participation is gendered male.

  18. I really do appreciate all the theorizing, truly. But it seems to me that some decisions don’t need to go so deep–common sense and sensitivity do just as well. Would I assign this as a class text? My typical upper-level classes include me (the female professor), 2 or 3 female students, and about 30 men. Discussion topics, examples, and distractions (e.g. side conversations about what happens on the weekend) come up often enough to make the women uncomfortable and self-conscious without my adding one more such distraction to the mix. I would never assign this as a class text, no matter how perfect I thought the subject matter would be for the syllabus.

    Moreover, if one of my male colleagues did–I might raise my eyebrows and start paying attention.

  19. It’s also worth noting that on the linked Oxford page, the book description begins with “Currently the hottest topic in philosophy.” I’ll say!

  20. I find a couple of claims that have been made on this thread perplexing. jj @17 suggests that the Lefebvre image on the cover of Cappelen and Hawthorne is not objectifying. To my mind, the painting functions principally by presenting a nude female body, alluringly posed, for delectation by the viewer – especially the heterosexual male viewer. The response it centrally calls for is contemplation not of abstract ideals of truth or of the female subject’s character, actions or state of mind, but of her nude body. It focuses the attention on her thighs, not her mind.

    HappyPhilosopher @12 seems to imply that as long as the image is “lovely,” there is no more to be said and all is fine. I’d return to my original point: lovely or not, the painting as used on that book cover focuses attention on women as bodies, as against men as thinkers. It thereby encourages both women and men to see things in that way as well. As ebrister @21 mentions, women may already be feeling “uncomfortable and self-conscious” when they are underrepresented in philosophy classrooms: there is plenty of evidence that solo status exacerbates stereotype threat. An express presentation, within the official course materials, of women as nude bodies to be admired is unlikely to alleviate this discomfort.

    As I final note, I offer this: “males rated a woman as less competent following exposure to sexualized images of other women.” Rudman and Borgida (1995), as described by

    I agree with ebrister that common sense ought to be enough to make many of these points obvious, without the need for deep theorizing.

  21. For what it’s worth, I actually did study this book in a class. I’m not sure what the gender balance was exactly – I think it was about average: 15-20 male, 4-5 female. I had very many discussions about the book in and out of class, but not once, so far as I know, was the cover image mentioned. And there were plenty of students (we had feminists and chauvinists both) who would mention it. It had never occurred to me that the image might be problematic, and although I now, in reading this thread, see what the problems might be, I remain unconvinced that it is problematic. (At least, problematic in this sense. I find the content of the book, and the debate to which it is a contribution, unworthy of association with great art.) Like jj says, I don’t think it’s sexual (certainly it never struck this heterosexual male, nor any of the heterosexual males with whom I took the course, as sexual), and the association of femininity with truth, if it has any particular effect on what anyone thinks at all, seems the kind of propaganda which we should be encouraging.

    But I guess it’s not just a matter of how it strikes me but how it strikes other people. Just by the fact people disagree, regardless of whether Roy #14’s points are good (there are responses, but there’d also be counter-responses, and I don’t know where the argument would end, which means that in one sense the argument doesn’t matter (which is why I’m not going to start it)) I guess the choice is problematic. But if I thought the book good, I would still assign a book with a cover image as problematic as this as a course text.

  22. Sherri Irvin, I did not say the image is not objectifying. I said it did not *strike* me that way. My thought was to leave it open that images can strike different reasonable people in different ways; apparently you disagree (since you think it is obvious and common sense that the depiction is objectifying).
    The focus of the painting is not the Verita’s thighs but her beacon. She is nude because truth doesn’t need to hide. What Lefebvre had in mind is no part of how the image strikes me, since I knew almost nothing about him.
    Perhaps this reaction does convict me of a lack of common sense. I’m not known for my common sense, I have to admit.

  23. Sherri,

    I didn’t mean to imply that. I don’t know really know if something’s being “lovely” means that it can’t be offensive, or objectionable, or whatever. I don’t think that’s a very interesting question. All I mean to say is that the cover is lovely. No more, no less.

    And I don’t agree that the painting “focuses attention on women as bodies, as against men as thinkers”, any more than it focuses attention on women as Truthful, as against men as mendacious.

    In short, this is the sort of manufactured outrage that I think leads to our somewhat deserved reputation as unpleasant killjoys.

  24. jj@ 25, I thought you were using your impression that the image is not objectifying to fuel a conclusion that it is not in fact objectifying. Sorry if I misunderstood.

    HappyPhilosopher @26, sorry for speaking loosely. Of course you did not say that the loveliness of the cover is sufficient to inoculate it against any other concerns. But you nonetheless swept the other concerns aside without any explanation (nope, nothing wrong with it, plus it’s lovely), and now you’re suggesting that I am an “unpleasant killjoy.”

    My point is that the *book cover*, not the painting itself, “focuses attention on women as bodies, as against men as thinkers,” especially given the specific social context in which it is deployed. Given the data I cite in @23 (and there’s plenty more where that came from), I think that authors and presses should refrain from using such images to illustrate philosophy books, and that instructors in many circumstances should avoid assigning such books. It’s a practical step to avoid exacerbating an already troubling situation for women (and, with respect to the Gauguin, people of color) in philosophy.

  25. James (at 24), you write “the association of femininity with truth, if it has any particular effect on what anyone thinks at all, seems the kind of propaganda which we should be encouraging.”

    If the association involved casting feminine (or female) persons as especially attentive to or insightful about truth, I’d embrace your point. Insofar as Athena is an icon of wisdom, for example, this undermines masculinist models of inquiry. (And a nude woman holding up a source of illumination could in theory be empowering, if the image encouraged the audience to recognize her as seeking more than as being found.

    Yet surely “truth as a woman” metaphors do *not* usually idealize the reflective or epistemic skills of women, but rather play on how the *appetite* for a woman, and then the *knowing* of a woman (carnally), might be compared to wanting and knowing the truth. Women “have” or “embody” the truth unwittingly, naively, and thus seem not to participate in seeking out the truth. The heterosexual male is thus the paradigmatic philosopher, on this figuration of truth.

  26. @Sherri Irvin

    Thanks for the response. I also had concerns about the colonialist issues you raise, and about the context of Gauguin himself. For me, given the title, I just see the subjects of the painting contemplating the same questions of human existence that I, and the authors of the book, are contemplating. (Which, of course acutely raises the question of why their voices are not included). But the relevant point with respect to whether to adopt the book is not how I experience it, but how students can be reasonably expected to experience it.

  27. Kudos to Roy T. Cook. Every male in philosophy should be the White Knight Roy is. All men should lead the charge in encouraging both men and women to disparage books with wildly inappropriate covers and making it socially unacceptable to suggest that this is lunacy taken too far. I hope Dr. Cook is very proud of himself indeed.

    Isn’t there a simple solution here? Demand that the bookstore use stickers or felt pens to cover up the woman’s unmentionables. Preferably, the sticker would allow viewers to see her eyes but nothing more, or the offending image should be covered up entirely by a sticker that just says ‘truth’. That way, public decency and the fragile minds of women readers will not be imposed upon.

  28. Sir Roy polishes his armor, mounts his mighty steed, and turning away from the river crossing, instead rides off into the sunset. Apparently ferocious trolls guard the bridge.

  29. I’m pretty sure that a similar point was made back in comment #6, but look, it’s not clear at all how that image has anything remotely to do with semantics.

    Midway through writing the above sentence, I remembered that The Institute for Advanced Study has the following as its seal:

    Okay, so there’s a case to be made that the image is loosely related to *some* semantic notion, namely truth. But that’s not at all clear unless you are aware that the image of a nude woman sometimes serves as a symbol of truth. And I doubt if most people are.

    But even if they are, now is not the time for that image to be on the cover of a philosophy book. I mean, we’re trying to figure out how to achieve this whole gender equality thing right now. Putting random images of naked chicks on the covers of our books doesn’t really help us in pursuit of that goal.

  30. To add to my previous point, I just googled “truth” to see what I’d come up with. Apparently the Wikipedia page for Truth has an image of a women holding a mirror just like the woman on the IAS seal, but not like the woman on the book cover. But unlike the one on the IAS seal, she’s clothed. Which suggests that nudity is not essential to this motif. Is there an art historian in the house?

    In any case, like I said, this cover was just a really dumb idea. What were they thinking? What were you thinking Capellen and Hawthorne?

  31. ThatKid, it doesn’t seem quite right to characterize the picture of Verita as “random images of naked chicks”.
    LS, those pictures do not strike me as erotic at all (though I am keenly aware that others have different responses). And, the fact that the books are about the ontology of human beings makes pictures of bodies more appropriate.

  32. Elise @ 28: I’m no scholar on the history of the association between women and wisdom, but it’s certainly more complicated than how you present it. Indeed, than either of us present it. Kierkegaard goes on and on about the wisdom women have in Either/Or. It’s not exactly unproblematic (to put it mildly), but it’s complex and rich and pretty interesting. In fact, many of the complexities are like the complexity of the painting that started off this conversation. Is she in some sort of motherly way imparting wisdom to the foolish flat-footed-logic-adoring man, or beautiful and desirable in the way wisdom is? Is she an other, who gives voice to man but doesn’t speak herself, or is she speaking with that beacon? Obviously all of this is in it.

  33. I cannot html. Apologies.

    Added by annejjacobson: I think I fixed it; let me know if there’s a problem still.

  34. jj, that book is not about the ontology of persons, it’s about relativizing semantic value, and specifically why it’s bad to do that. I wonder why semantic relativism is worse than contextualism. I look forward to finding out why.

    Still, the cover was clearly a terrible idea. It almost seems like a prank. I really hope that it isn’t, and that C&H just didn’t think this cover-art choice through to its logical ends.

  35. Hi ThatKid;

    No, that part of my comment was addressed to LS, at #32, whose comment included pictures of books about the ontology of persons.

    But surely you don’t mean you are going to *read* the Hawthorne-Cappelen book?!?


  36. I’d like to read the book. I’ll also ask the authors what they were thinking when they chose that cover if I ever run into them. I mean, we’re really just trying to think and learn here. And maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but those of us who are interested in thinking and learning about a subject as dry as semantics really don’t want to be distracted by pictures of naked chicks. Maybe it’s just me again, but when I’m in a seminar or at a talk, I don’t even want to admit naked chicks even exist or that anyone around me has ever even thought about them. So thanks to C&H for ruining that for me. :/

  37. ThatKid, there’s something to that, and I would take it a step further. When I’m in a seminar or at a talk trying to focus on a subject as dry as semantics, I don’t want to admit that *clothed* chicks exist either. Yet I’m constantly surrounded by them. The attractive ones, unfortunately, are even more distracting than the occasional classical nude on a book cover. (They dress so provocatively too! O tempora, o mores!) Mixed-sex education just isn’t good for getting philosophy done.

    Also, John Ashcroft clearly had the right idea. Either we shouldn’t have classical or Renaissance art on display anywhere near a university or we should make sure we cover up the naughty bits so the kids don’t get distracted. Actually, better to just not have them because they will remind us red-blooded American heterosexual males of the existence of naked chicks.

  38. Oh. I don’t have a problem with clothed chicks seeing as I am one. And I don’t have a problem with the attractive ones, seeing as I’m one of those too. But I do have a problem with people expecting me to be dumb and I do have a problem with people ignoring what I have to say about a subject as dry as semantics. And I wouldn’t care too much about this book cover either if I never had to worry about those last two things.

  39. ThatKid, I have a sincere suggestion for you. Why not focus your attention on people ignoring what you have to say in philosophy and expecting you to be dumb? If those things are happening, everyone should agree that they are bad and should be prevented. This textbook cover art thing, by contrast, is so petty that this thread has already been parodied elsewhere, undermining the seriousness of the real concerns you mention.

  40. Fair enough Logic Guy. Like I said, I’m more interested in this book than its cover. But I’m rarely afforded that same courtesy. You know what I mean?

  41. But seriously, no offense to C&H, but it was a dumb cover choice. I want talks and seminars to be devoid of creepy old dudes thinking about the female form. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing for me to want. Now they’re thinking about how “lovely” it is! Great!

    These are the moments when I wish there were no bodies, just minds, you know?

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