Alison Young


Things you might think about when observing an image:
Is this art?
Is this at all criminal?
How might the aesthetic and criminal aspects overlap?
How might they influence each other?
Is this person talking to me part of the exhibit?

Since we live in an age saturated with images, and images—whether we notice this or not—participate in producing our ideas of order and legitimacy, it makes sense that someone would want to study not only how law governs art, but how art governs law. Alison Young, Professor of Criminology at the University of Melbourne in Australia, has done just that for a number of years now. With interests ranging from the legitimacy of graffiti as an art form and how art gets regulated legally and socially to why some artworks provoke viewers to violence and how courts of law rule on politically charged artworks, Young has interrogated our responses to images with a rare combination of sensitivity and candor. Her basic assertion is that spectators are engaged in a process of judgment in relation to images—not only aesthetic judgment, but the type of judgment one finds in a courtroom. As such, spectators are involved in an ethics of witnessing, whether they like it or not.

In her recent book Judging the Image: Art, Value, Law (Routledge, 2005), Young helps us think about and see law’s complex relation to images by means of a series of meditations on the relationship between judgment and aesthetics. Topics she considers include art about HIV, performance art that involves or invokes violence, and plans for rebuilding at Ground Zero after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Young earned an LL.B (that’s a bachelor of law degree in the U.K.) from Edinburgh University and a Masters and Ph.D. in Criminology from Cambridge University. She writes widely about criminology, sexual violence, law and aesthetics, and feminist theory. She is currently working on a study of cinematic and literary representations of crime, and an examination of graffiti writers’ narratives of cultural belonging. This interview took place initially in person, and later over email.

—Jill Stauffer


THE BELIEVER: Law has a power over art, for better and for worse. Does art have a power over law?

ALISON YOUNG: Yes, absolutely. Law works through images. There is an image of a courtroom, and a judge, and a prison, and a judgment. The sovereign power of the law—that the hand of the judge can move to rule, that the mouth of the judge can open and issue a judgment—works through icons and images. Authority is a visual product, as much as any intrinsic feature of a statute or verdict. Hence the persistence and power of devices such as wigs (still worn in many jurisdictions), archaic language (asking “how do you plead?” rather than saying “did you do it or not?” to an accused person), ritual (bowing to the judge), insignia (such as coats of arms). It is not possible for judgment in law to obtain the authority it has in a courtroom if proceedings were moved to, say, the judge’s backyard, or to a corporate office. To that extent, law is dependent on the image, and images have a certain power over law.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Jill Stauffer bakes many cakes, wears many shoes, and, currently, is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow teaching in the philosophy department at Haverford College. See her goof off at

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