Must We Mean What We Make?: Freedom and Responsibility in Artistic Practice; Or, Can We Think Ethically about Depicting the Prophet Muhammad?

Carole Baker
Duke University

“Art is often praised because it brings men together. But it also separates them.”
-Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed”1


When philosopher Stanley Cavell was asked what the responsibility of the artist is, he replied that the artist’s responsibility is two-fold: the artist is responsible to the object and to the audience. In this paper, I show how modernity’s prioritizing of the object (and with it the artist) has led to an unhealthy instantiation of privatization. In order to recover/establish a two-fold nature of responsibility between the artist, object, and audience, a philosophical shift that recognizes a more coherent conception of the modern “self” is required. Ordinary language philosophy is, in my estimation, an attempt to provide exactly that. “Self-expression” is nothing if not human expression, and human expression can only be free when it does not deny its own humanity.  When denial ensues, appeals to “freedom” run the risk of turning “freedom” into tyranny. Within this framework, I consider the cartoon controversies – which concern disparaging depictions of the Muslim Prophet in the name of “freedom of expression” – as an exemplary display of the tragic consequences of freedom when freedom no longer works with ethical criteria.

In his essay “Must We Mean What We Say?,” Stanley Cavell draws out the moral implications of speech in two primary movements: 1) Cavell shifts the question of the ethics of speech away from the issue of accuracy and places it within the responsibility of the “I” to the “we”; 2) Cavell asserts the essentialism of meaning what we say and the consequent moral obligation of taking responsibility for our speech—even when it goes wrong. Christians who recognize the stakes of responsible speech, and in particular religious speech, would be wise to attend equally to what is at stake in other forms of expression. As the recent tragic events in Denmark and France show, the role of images in contemporary liberal democratic societies remains a topic of deep contestation and much misunderstanding.

Whereas a theological treatment of iconology would prove helpful for a fuller discussion of these issues, in this paper I will draw on Cavell as a helpful guide for reflecting on the morality of speech and other forms of human expression commonly referred to as “art” today in the modern West. My use of Cavell will be selective, as the aim is not to provide a thorough representation of Cavell’s philosophy. Nor do I purport to develop a thorough analysis of image theory; rather, by drawing on Cavell to survey some of the ethical implications of speech and expression, I want to indicate the moral fragility of appeals to “free speech” and “expression” when applied to artistic practice. As we shall see, Cavell helps us to see both the sturdiness and fragility of all speech-acts. The contemporary horizon within which the ethics of visually depicting the Prophet Muhammad has received increased attention, and it therefore offers us, as citizens of liberal democratic societies, an opportunity to carefully consider how all forms of artistic practice entail choices that cannot easily be exonerated from the realm of moral judgment.

(Un)Intended Consequences

Before addressing the two movements within Cavell’s essay, I will briefly consider the role intention plays in practices of making art in the 21st century. While not all practices of making art name the same activity, what I am calling “artistic practice” is meant to draw our attention to practices of making anything that might be called art.

For example, I am a painter. I engage in a practice by which I make things called paintings. Paintings have different uses, but generally speaking and regardless of the use, they fit quite easily with little contestation into the genre of objects referred to as art.2 What would make the practice of painting any different from, say, the practice of riding a bicycle? I set up my easel; I prepare my palette and brushes, along with some solvent. I place a canvas on the easel, and maybe I quickly apply a coat of under-painting. So far, any of these actions would be like that of riding a bicycle: intentional, but not begging interpretation. But what happens next? How do I decide what I will paint on my canvas? If I am a seasoned painter, the world is full of possibilities. I can paint anything I want, employing any technique I want.3 I can paint a still life, playing with greater or lesser degrees of realism. I can make an impressionist painting and focus on the visual effect of suggestion. I can create an abstract expressionist painting focusing on the contrast of color, movement, and texture, attempting to avoid any representational effect. The list of possibilities seems endless. How will I decide? Perhaps my decision is determined by a prior decision; maybe I had already decided upon an overarching concept in which this individual piece will play some part. But how did I decide on this concept, and how does a concept actually function in this context? Does the concept come about along with, and not separate from, the consideration of materials and techniques that would be employed to realize it? Finally, I make a decision and begin applying paint to my canvas. What have we observed so far? Painting, as described here, seems motivated by a desire to realize something–even if that something is a feeling.4 At some point, choices must be made: which color, stroke, placement? What propels the choice is the desire to make one thing rather than another.

Looking at the painting from a different viewpoint, as a viewer—that is, as a visitor in a gallery or passerby on the street—I might encounter a painting with the presumption that the painter had intended through her realization and subsequent display of the piece to show something by it, maybe even communicate something by it. Why do I presume this?  One reasonable response to this question is simply to observe that that is how paintings function in post-romantic, modern life in the West.5 Certainly, not all works of art convey meaning or solicit interpretation, but whether or not a meaning is inferred from the object, the category of intention is unavoidable. This in and of itself invites reflection, if not interpretation. The role of the artist’s intention, therefore, has become central to modern reception of and interaction with art. On this point, Cavell writes:

The category of intention is inescapable (or escapable with the same consequences) in speaking of objects of art as in speaking of what human beings say and do: without it, we would not understand what they are. They are, in a word, not works of nature but of art (i.e., of act, talent, skill).6

Intention is inescapable. Whatever one’s definition of art may be, a necessary part of that definition is that the object so identified did not have to exist, and indeed it would not exist apart from someone’s intending it. Therefore, Cavell claims, “the dangers of fraudulence, and of trust, are essential to the experience of art.” He explains further:

In emphasizing the experiences of fraudulence and trust as essential to the experience of art, I am in effect claiming that the answer to the question “What is art?” will in part be an answer which explains why it is we treat certain objects, or how we can treat certain objects, in ways normally reserved for treating persons.7

The complex history of modern artistic developments in the West is not the subject of this essay and can only be gestured toward in a most dissatisfying manner. Few would contest, however, historian Peter Gay’s observation that one of the main “common ingredients” of modernism is the rise and eventual absoluteness of artistic autonomy, which was quickly embraced by the enamored public:

And with the passage of the decades and the spread of modernist art, this assertion of personal sovereignty came to govern the consumers of culture quite as much as its makers. The artists’ willingness to speak, sing, paint freely, audaciously, “from the heart”, would be matched by their publics’ willingness to appreciate – and acquire – their self-revelations.8

The autonomy conferred to the modern “self” meant not only that the artist acquired the “right” to make whatever she will, but also that, with this privatization of the artist, an autonomy was conferred to the object itself. That is to say, the object itself became a representation of its creator’s autonomy – of modernism’s consecration of the autonomous individual. Regardless of the object’s reception in the art world, its autonomy meant a kind of imperviousness to lasting judgment. If all creators are absolutely autonomous, judgment must be reduced to the subjectivity of the viewer or critic whose own autonomy was similarly secured by the autonomy of the object. Again, Gay pithily explains, “True objectivity implied subjectivity.”9 But when objectivity implies subjectivity, the result is a lack of criteria to which anyone can appeal. This may be celebrated as the triumph of the modernist spirit, which sought to free itself from any external determinations, but as we shall see, it becomes a slippery slope that easily leads to a crisis in moral judgment.

Acknowledging the role of the artist’s intention entails recognizing the inherent danger in modern notions of autonomy, precisely because it requires the recognition of choices made, chances taken, and risks wagered. In what follows, I show that the assumed autonomy of artistic practice is problematized when considered with certain—and today widespread—notions of artistic “freedom” premised on modernity’s privileging of individual subjectivity.

Outed by Language

Indeed one prominent danger in the modern making and receiving of art is the connection that has been made between what artists do and the notion of “freedom of speech” or “expression.”10 Perhaps more than any other professionalized group, artists—regardless of medium—have utilized this civil right and tested its parameters precisely because debunking, deconstructing, and disassociating became expected and nearly synonymous with making modern art.11 Today, when her work is contested or receives public criticism, an artist only has to argue for the validity of her work by appealing to her “freedom of speech.” The world is left hushed as though there is nothing left to be said without posing a threat to this perceived fundamental right. Artistic censorship may be modernity’s mortal sin. No faithful modernists would dare suggest—and the suggestion should not be understood as implicit in their criticism—that they would like to question anyone’s freedom to speak and to express herself. Such philistine behavior is best left to the religious who, by their very existence, pose a threat to the individual’s civil rights insofar as religious traditions tend to question notions of freedom that undermine narrations of a relational ontology.

The media is replete with cases that display modernity’s tendency to make exceptions for those objects labeled “art” and the ensuing tensions such exceptions create. In these cases, freedom of speech is appealed to in order to absolve the artist from any legal or moral wrongdoing, yet appeals to the artist’s right to free speech too often means freedom from the moral implications of speech. This is problematic in that it underwrites a false notion of privacy that in turn disconnects the artist from the very community to which she is purportedly speaking. This notion of privacy was correlative to modernist claims of autonomy and can be seen, literally, in the work of those artists who turned inward to find true meaning and one’s true self. Having rejected all forms of objective criteria, it is not too surprising that modernity’s artist would eventually turn away from nature altogether and toward pure abstraction as a way of both securing and expressing her private subjectivity.12 The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is particularly helpful in diagnosing the problem of “privacy,” and so I will briefly turn to him before moving on to Cavell, who is deeply indebted to Wittgenstein.

In §§244-271 of his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein takes on the notion of private language and its relation to “inner experiences.” He writes:

Now, what about the language which describes my inner experiences and which only I myself can understand? How do I use words to stand for my sensations?—As we ordinarily do? Then are my words for sensations tied up with my natural expressions of sensation? In that case my language is not a ‘private’ one. Someone else might understand it as well as I.—But suppose I didn’t have any natural expression for the sensation, but only the sensation? And now I simply associate names with sensations and use these names in descriptions.13

First, it is important to note that Wittgenstein does not deny the reality of “inner experience.” Rather, his critique applies when the idea of the private “inner” assumes a distinction from the non-private “outer”—as though such a thing were possible.14 For Wittgenstein, notions of a private inner life fall apart when encountered by language, because such notions make the mistake of assuming inner experience is intelligible apart from ordinary language. That is, insisting on the possibility of privacy reveals that one has not understood how self-knowledge and language work in the first place. Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is meant to remind us, as Cavell puts it, “that we learn language and the world together.”15 The fallacy of privacy is that it neglects to acknowledge the “stage-setting” required in order for any inner sensation/experience to be intelligible to the person experiencing it.16 When Wittgenstein observes that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul,” he is indicating that human expression—whether in pictures or words or gestures—is precisely that because expressions of thought, or of the “soul,” are nonetheless human expressions; that is, they express themselves through the human body and find meaning among human bodies.17

In “Must We Mean What We Say?,” Cavell draws out the moral implications of Wittgenstein’s thought. Importantly, he does so by primarily drawing on the work of J. L. Austin, whose work on speech-acts has been crucial to the development of ordinary language philosophy.18 Both Wittgenstein and Cavell take the task of the philosopher to be that of “bringing language home.” To where can language return, other than the bodies that generate it? For Cavell, Wittgenstein’s insistence that the meaning of a word lies (most often) in its use19 is both an epistemological and an ethical shift. Language understood as action—what we do—implies that there is more at stake than the traditional “problem of other minds” suggests:

But the philosopher who proceeds from ordinary language is concerned less to avenge sensational crimes against the intellect than to redress its civil wrongs; to steady any imbalance, the tiniest usurpation, in the mind. This inevitably requires reintroducing ideas which have become tyrannical (e.g., existence, obligation, certainty, identity, reality, truth…) into the specific contexts in which they function naturally. This is not a matter of cutting big ideas down to size, but of giving them the exact space in which they can move about without corrupting. Nor does our wish to rehabilitate rather than deny or expel such ideas…come from a sentimental altruism. It is a question of self-preservation: for who is it that the philosopher punishes when it is the mind itself which assaults the mind?20

When the philosopher takes her task to be that of bringing language “home”—to its ordinary use—she does so as a matter of redress. Why? Because beyond the epistemological implications of recognizing that we learn language and the world together, this practice helps us to recognize where we go wrong with respect to others.

Equally important to his observation that “we learn language and the world together” is the further acknowledgement that “they [i.e., language and the world] become elaborated and distorted together, and in the same places.”21  This observation is central to Cavell’s argument that we must mean what we say, as this “must” is what prevents the world from chaos.

Learning language is learning grammar—that is, how language (words, phrases, questions, disagreements, etc.) works. Again, this not only describes how we acquire language, but how we acquire/learn the world. This learning requires “we,” as language only works when it has criteria. Criteria cannot be determined by individuals; rather, it determines the individuals to the extent that humans are essentially linguistic-communicative animals.22 That is why Cavell writes in The Claim of Reason, “The philosophical appeal to what we say, and the search for our criteria on the basis of which we say what we say, are claims to community. And the claim to community is always a search for the basis upon which it can or has been established.”23

Thus, Cavell’s argument that we must mean what we say is not initially a moral argument, but a logical (epistemological) one insofar as he, following Wittgenstein, insists that a word can have no meaning other than the meaning it has according to its criteria, which is displayed in its ordinary use. It is a logical impossibility, given the way language works, for a word to mean anything other than what it does. But we often intend to say something other than what we have in fact said, or we have implied more than we had intended. Cavell does not deny this but only adds that, even so, the meaning of the words does not change. He writes, “I should urge that we do justice to the fact that an individual’s intentions or wishes can no more produce the general meaning of a word than they can produce horses for beggars, or home runs from pop flies, or successful poems out of unsuccessful poems.”24 Intention no doubt plays a role in how one plays a language game, but it does not—cannot—change the language game being played. The painfulness of an unrealized or misconstrued intention only displays more acutely the grammar by which we discover this pain.

Therefore, speaking—as with all actions—contains the potential to “go wrong.”  Here is where Cavell locates the morality of speech. When Cavell points out that “misnaming and misdescribing are not the only mistakes we can make in talking. Nor is lying its only immorality,”25 he is alluding to the various ways in which language can go wrong. Lying is not speech’s only immorality precisely because language is not used only to make truth claims. We are morally responsible for our speech—all speech—because “talking together is acting together.”26 To speak is to acknowledge that my subjectivity is not constituted by privacy but contingency.

Necessity and Tragedy

In her essay, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?,”27 anthropologist Saba Mahmood carefully surveys the present “incommensurable divide” between religious and secular world views. She does this by taking a close look at the Danish cartoon controversy which began in September 2005, when the now infamous Bomb in a Turban cartoon was published in the Danish publication Jyllands-Posten. The cartoon depicts the Prophet Muhammad in a turban shaped as a lit bomb.

Reactions to the cartoon in Muslim communities ranged from hurt feelings to outrage and violence.  Mahmood’s survey of the political and philosophical conditions that contributed to reactions from both sides points to the “limited vocabulary of blasphemy and freedom of speech—the two poles that dominated the debate.”28  For Mahmood, the limitations of these terms are not merely the limitations that distinguish the religious from the secular. In other words, it is not merely about the proper use and place of religious symbols in liberal democratic societies. Rather, the limitations of these terms point to much deeper philosophical presumptions about how language and pictures are used and understood. On this point, she quotes W.J.T. Mitchell’s statement:

The complex field of visual reciprocity is not merely a by-product of social reality but actively constitutive of it. Vision is as important as language in mediating social relations, and it is not reducible to language, to the sign, or to discourse. Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language.29

This observation is complementary to Wittgenstein’s and Cavell’s understanding of language as for them language is not a matter of a one-to-one relationship between the sign and the signified. Rather, whatever meaning belongs to a thing or word that meaning exists precisely because of the social “complex field” within which it is shaped by criteria. Like words, but not as words, images both mean and constitute meaning according to the grammar(s) of which they are a part.

By looking at the ancient concept of schesis, Mahmood affirms Mitchell’s observation and confronts the “semiotic ideology” which she says contributes to the modern secular misunderstanding and bafflement over Muslim reactions to the cartoons. It is, Mahmood deftly observes, the role of materiality in liberal democratic societies, formed by a Protestant denial of the spiritual significance of materiality, that has resulted in what seems to be the incommensurable divide between secular and religious.30 Shaped by a denial of the spiritual significance of materiality, even those secular liberals who were compelled to defend the offended Muslims were confounded.  They simply could not understand, though they wished to respect, what all the fuss was over these pictures. But such a view simply misses the nature of the offense that had taken place.  For the Muslim and many other religious traditions, icons/images are not empty signifiers: “the power of an icon lies in its capacity to allow an individual (or a community) to find him or herself in a structure that has bearing on how one conducts oneself in the world. The term icon…pertains not just to images but to a form of relationality that binds the subject to an object or an imaginary.”31

The majority religious response by pious Muslims to the cartoons was not primarily a reaction to secular ignorance of Islamic theology and practice, which, although there are no explicit laws against depictions of the Prophet, reveals a complex and variegated history concerning images and what should or should not be depicted.32  Rather, the reactions reflected the pain of a community whose shared imagination—their identity—had been utterly dismissed, and the pain was only compounded by the subsequent defense of this dismissal by appeals to the cartoonist’s and publisher’s freedom of speech.

Ripples of the controversy eventually landed on US soil and in October 2009. Professor Miroslav Volf reports that debates concerning freedom of expression dominated conversations at Yale. In fact, the controversy landed in the lap of Yale’s University Press when Jyette Klausen, author of The Cartoons that Shook the World, asked the press to include the original cartoons. After deliberation and consultation, Yale determined that the cartoons would not be reprinted. This decision once again sparked debates. Volf was one of the “experts” consulted, and he, a theologian, advised against reprinting the images, noting that when the cartoons were originally published, “Denmark was a comparatively safe place; Nigeria was not.”33 Indeed, according to news reports, the effects of the published cartoon had serious political, economic, and humanitarian ramifications. Volf’s observation was not shared by Flemming Rose, cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, who stood by his decision to publish the cartoons, “arguing that in liberal democracies people have many rights, but they do ‘not have a right to be offended.’”34

Rose’s statement is startling but painfully accurate insofar as it articulates the sentiment of so many secular responses to the range of Muslim reactions. The offense taken by Muslims is itself an offense to liberal democratic sensibilities that are treated as self-evidently more rational, more civilized. Mahmood, however, observes the importance of distinguishing between kinds of offense: “Little attention has been paid to how one might reflect on the kind of offence the cartoons caused and what ethical, communicative, and political practices are necessary to make this kind of injury intelligible.”35 Given the concrete and tragic outcome of the cartoon’s publication, Rose’s claim hardly suggests any sober reflection about the stakes of such a claim.

And yet, the sentiment of Rose’s claim was both implicit and explicit, once again, in so many of the responses to the more recent murders in Paris and Copenhagen. Multitudes took to Twitter to retweet the offensive cartoons, attempting to back-up the trending claim “Je suis Charlie.” Several international magazines acted similarly. Calling for more careful consideration of the types of offense being perpetrated in no way suggests that the violent responses to the offense can be justified. It does suggest, however, that appeals to “free speech” may in fact reveal that the language of “freedom speech” is in dire need of philosophical revision—that it is time to bring freedom “home.”

More recently, echoing Mahmood’s call for a more nuanced discussion of kinds of offense, Christian theologian William Cavanaugh observed the following:

Not every victim is a martyr, and one does not become a hero simply by offending people. Hustler’s Larry Flynt did not make himself a hero of free speech by running cartoons of women being gang raped as “entertainment.” People who defend the right of people to offend, on the other hand, sometimes do act heroically…[T]he right to offend is rarely as clear-cut as defenders of free speech make it sound.36

Clearly, “freedom” does not absolve all speech-acts or forms of expression from moral culpability. The difference between “hate speech” and satire is at times as much in the eye of the beholder as beauty, but at other times it is not. One can certainly defend particular acts of expression without endorsing wholesale abstractions that dangerously lead to unreflective action. It is not that reflection will guarantee positive outcomes aesthetically, politically, or otherwise, but the responsible actor is rarely motivated by outcomes. Rather, she acts responsibly in this or that case because her subjectivity is inextricably linked to the collective “we.” What is most sad about Rose’s comment is that it only serves to show how intolerant “tolerance” can be when certain persons or communities do not adopt its criteria. In other words, Rose’s comment suggests to anyone who may have been offended by the cartoon—be they Muslim or not—that they are no longer, or perhaps never were, part of the “we.” And yet, this “we” is the “we” of a liberal democracy that seeks to civilize other parts of the world through its ideals of freedom and tolerance.

These cartoon controversies exemplify the tragic consequences of freedom when freedom no longer has any consistent criteria to which to appeal. There is no way to consistently endorse the view that people do not have the right to be offended in liberal democracies. One of the most difficult contemporary realities to undo is our over-dependence on “rights” language, which is so often used in complex ethical situations but which too often leads to circumventing the more difficult conversations needed for peaceful resolutions. Appeals to freedom’s “rights” rarely intervene in ordinary language between individuals who otherwise enjoy a mutual respect. Appealing to a “right” cannot help me to understand why my neighbor is distraught and whether I had something to do with it. There are simply too many human relations that fall beyond the pale of legal definitions and disputes.  Laws and policies have their place, but they do not teach me how to tolerate my neighbor. Moreover, as Stanley Hauerwas observes, “tolerance” is not part of the Christian lexicon, and those who appeal to “tolerance” are most often in a position of power. No one wants to be the person or persons being tolerated.37 Christians in liberal democratic societies, therefore, should be careful not to allow the state to set the parameters of debates about freedom of speech. Moreover, the extent to which contemporary Christians find themselves puzzled, or even offended, by the offence taken by Muslims would be wise to revisit the Church’s own tumultuous history of dealing with images. It is not a history marked by tolerance.

Mahmood’s essay displays how the various responses to the controversy betray epistemological differences that remain unacknowledged by those so deeply embedded in either side of the difference. Failure to recognize the epistemological presumptions that shape all practices of expression results in the perpetuation of practices that underwrite conceptual abstractions, making reconciliation nearly impossible.  But can practices that result in the denial of the other even be considered free? When freedom ignores contingency, it becomes tyranny. As Christian theologian David Burrell has both written and personally exemplified, the only fruitful way forward is the hardest: to be fully committed to dialogue with the “other” such that my own presuppositions may be both recognized and challenged in a context of mutuality and desire for the truth.38


As each of the tragedies in Denmark and France show, abstract concepts have concrete consequences. Abstractions eventually take shape. For this reason, the philosophical presumptions regarding the artist’s freedom of expression require serious philosophical review. The philosophies and theologies that contributed to modern disenchantment, as well as the modern conception of the autonomous “self,” produced epistemological presumptions that have led to a waywardness in our language. That waywardness can be seen today in the way that phrases such as “freedom of speech” continue to shape contemporary artistic practices of making and receiving art.

This waywardness is precisely what Wittgenstein and later Cavell warned against in their cautioning against the fallacy of privacy. In a recent meeting, Stanley Cavell was asked what the responsibility of the artist is.39 He replied that the artist’s responsibility is two-fold: the artist is responsible to the object and to the audience. In this paper, I have explored how modernity’s prioritizing of the autonomy of the artist (and her art) has led to an unhealthy instantiation of privatization, a privatization that has proven to have dire consequences. What is required now in order to establish Cavell’s two-fold nature of responsibility between the artist, object, and audience? In my estimation, ordinary language philosophy may be an extremely useful way of addressing this question. Self-expression is nothing if not human expression, and human expression can only be free when it does not deny its own humanity.

While an artist cannot determine responses to her work, she can act responsibly by carefully considering the complex social fields within which her work will be received. Cavell poignantly observes:

[I]n art, the chances you take are your own. But of course you are inviting others to take them with you…The creation of art, being human conduct which affects others, has the commitments any conduct has. It escapes morality; not, however, in escaping commitment, but in being free to choose only those commitments it wishes to incur. In this way art plays with one of man’s fates, the fate of being accountable for everything you do and are, intended or not.40

The question that haunts today’s artist is no longer “What is art?” but “What is humane?” There is a subsequent question as well: “What is art when it is not humane?” We are each implicated by language; the tongue implicates the hand. Cavell observes, “If I am wrong about what he does (they do), that may be no great surprise; but if I am wrong about what I (we) do, that is liable, where it is not comic, to be tragic.”41 Acknowledging “we” is the first step in moving away from the fallacy of privacy and toward regaining artistic responsibility.42


1. Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed,” in Must We Mean What We Say?, 2nd ed., (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 192.
2. We might disagree on our definition of “art,” but this disagreement would be descriptive rather than qualitative.  If we were both forced into a room by a large man pointing a knife and told to point to the art, we would likely both point to the painting on the wall rather than the chair or carpet on the floor, giving little consideration to what we might otherwise say about the object’s aesthetic quality. Only a mad man, or sane man with a death wish, would prefer the knife to aesthetic conviction.
3. An exception would be if I were participating in a traditional art that required I follow a canon, e.g., byzantine iconography.
4. For a discussion on modern art and feeling, see Stanley Cavell’s “Music Discomposed,” 192.
5. See Charles Taylor’s chapter “Visions of the Post-Romantic Age” in Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989) for a discussion of the developments that led to modernist expectations that art be “epiphantic,” whether through representation or abstraction.
6. “Music Discomposed,” 198.
7. Ibid., 189.
8. Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2008), 4-5.
9. Gay, 129.
10. That the phrases “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” are used synonymously in contemporary discourse suggests already that there is some confusion. Speech is but one of the multiple actions we use to exercise something called human “expression.” There is a distinction, therefore, to be made between the two. But what kind of distinction? It is not that speech and expression are synonymous, but rather that the phrases can be used synonymously because it is understood that the latter, i.e., expression, is partly comprised of speech. Speech does not describe expression. At the very least, this observation supports my thesis that what Cavell has said about speech may well be applicable to other forms of expression—not because expression is speech, but because speech is but one form of expression. Indeed, speech’s freedom is derivative of free expression in a way that other actions are not, but the freedom resides in its being a form of human expression and not the other way around.
11. I do not want to oversimplify or gloss over the truly complex history Gay so carefully traces. This history, as he shows, includes many instances of severe repulsion and negative public reaction to the modern artists’ innovations. And yet, while this initially led many of them to retreat further into the presumed freedom of autonomy, Gay observes that it eventually cultivated a deeper need for community: “In later years, reflective avant-garde spirits recognized that their vaunted individualism, which presumably freed them from the burden of the past, the vulgarity of their time, and the oppression of the powerful, was often compromised by the desire for companionship and reassurance” (16).
12. Two of the most influential texts that trace and exemplify this turn to abstraction are Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy and Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
13. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe , 3rd ed. (Blackwell Publishing, 2001), §256.
14. “Of course Wittgenstein often denies that a particular feeling or experience is decisive for the application of a concept to others (or to oneself). Never, however, to deny the importance—much less deny the existence (whatever that would mean)—of the inner, but to bring to light false ideas of what is ‘inner’” (Cavell, “Knowing and Acknowledging,” Must We Mean What We Say?, 265).
15. Stanley Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?,” in Must We Mean What We Say?, 19.
16. Wittgenstein, §257.
17. It is interesting to note that this famous observation takes place during a discussion about the “service” of pictures. See, Philosophical Investigations, II.iv, 152.
18. I am indebted to Stephen Mulhall for reminding me that Cavell’s earlier work in Must We Mean What We Say? is more expressive of Austin’s influence than Wittgenstein’s, and that Cavell’s earlier work should be treated differently than the later work in The Claim of Reason. This is a very important observation that should be taken into account by anyone who would want to learn more about Cavell. Reading J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words is the best place to start for understanding Cavell’s earlier work. I cannot give the distinction a full treatment in this essay.
19. Cf. Wittgenstein, §43.
20. “Must We Mean What We Say?,” 18.
21. Ibid., 19.
22. See Cavell’s chapter “Criteria and Judgment” in The Claim of Reason (Oxford University Press, 1999), 16: “In his [Wittgenstein’s] cases we do not first know the object to which, by means of criteria, we assign a value; on the contrary, criteria are the means by which we learn what our concepts are, and hence ‘what kind of object anything is.’ (§373).” And later, “Criteria are ‘criteria for something’s being so’, not in the sense that they tell us of a thing’s existence, but something like its identity, not of its being so, but of its being so. Criteria do not determine the certainty of statements, but the application of the concepts employed in statements” (45).
23. Ibid, 20.
24. Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?,” 39.
25. Ibid., 12.
26. Ibid., 33. Again, it should be noted that here Cavell is drawing on the work of J.L. Austin, who reminded us that speech is not made up solely of propositions and assertions and, therefore, truth claims.
27. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?”  Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, no. 4,(Summer, 2009), 836-862.
28. Ibid., 841.
29. Mahmood quoting W. J. T. Mitchell, “What Do Pictures Want?” What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 47.
30. Mahmood brilliantly traces the connection between colonial missionary movements, which were the carriers of not only Protestant Christianity but along with this “aspects of Protestant semiotic ideology became embedded in more secular ideas of what it means to be modern” (843). She writes, “The dismay that Protestant Christian missionaries felt at the moral consequences that followed from native epistemological assumptions, I want to suggest, has many resonances with the bafflement many liberals and progressives express at the scope and depth of Muslim reaction over the cartoons today” (844).
31. Ibid, 845.
32. Islamic scholar Christiane Gruber has shown that not only is there no explicit prohibition against depicting the Prophet, but that historically there have been exceptions to the aniconism so often attributed to Islam, the evidence of which is clearly seen in illuminated devotional texts from Persia in the 13-14 centuries. See her “Between Logos (Kalima) and Light (Nur): Representations of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Painting,” in Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World XXVI, ed. Gulru Necipoglu, and Karen Leal (Leiden: Brill, 2009). However, these historical exceptions should not be too quickly used to dismiss the widespread Muslim resistance to certain kinds of depictions, including the strong sentiments concerning depictions of the Prophet. A more thorough treatment of Islamic theology and iconology would show what art historian Titus Burckhardt noted: “[Although] Islam is centered on Unity, and Unity is not expressible in terms of an image…[t]he prohibition of images in Islam is not however absolute” (Sacred Art in East and West: Its Principles and Methods [London: Perennial Books, 1967], 101).
33. Miroslav Volf, “No Offense Given, ” The Christian Century (November 17, 2009), 33.
34. Ibid.  Not all in the publishing world agreed with Rose, including the French newspaper France Soir, which fired its managing editor who had decided to publish the cartoon.  See “Bomb-shaped Turban Cartoons Upset Muslims” by Stephanie Sy, ABC News, February 2, 2006,
35. Mahmood, 842.
36. William T. Cavanaugh, “Victims, Not Heroes: Mourn the Dead Without Glorifying ‘Charlie Hebdo’” Commonweal, January 13, 2015,
37. These observations were shared during a recent conversation on the topic.
38. Cf. David B. Burrell, Friendship and Ways to Truth (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 37: “Intercultural understanding may be compared to a continuous act of translating, yet translating knows no rules. In fact, the only rule one can follow is that of continual dialogue, for the effort of translating represents a constant challenge to try to understand the ‘other’ in the other’s own terms, so that we can render to our community what has attracted us elsewhere. Yet nothing short of interpersonal exchange can sustain the attraction as well as our penchant to misconstrue.”
39. On October 12-13, 2009, Cavell gave the inaugural lecture for the Duke Center for Philosophy, Arts and Literature (PAL). This question was asked in a two hour session wherein Cavell made himself available to answer any questions related to his work.
40. “Music Discomposed,” 199.
41. “Must We Mean What We Say?,” 14.
42. This is not a sentimental appeal. Acknowledging the language of “we” would entail a long process whereby we would likely recognize the difficulty in sustaining any universalized appeal to a “we.” In short, it may reveal that there are indeed communities that do stand outside of the liberal democratic “we,” but such an acknowledgement would be a welcomed corrective to the presumptions inherent to liberal democratic reasoning. At the very least, I should hope it would reveal the deep ironies inherent to that discourse, some of which I have attempted to point out in this essay.

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