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Michael Gubser

Riegl, Phenomenology, and the Ethics of Vision

This essay argues that the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl’s concern for the visuality and ethics of attention in The Group Portraiture of Holland (1902) anticipated ethical concerns prevalent in the nascent phenomenological movement, outlined first in the works of Franz Brentano, Max Scheler and Edmund Husserl, and later developed by Emmanuel Levinas and others. Furthermore, Riegl’s mechanics of visual attention, laid out in his analysis of the gaze and the glance in Dutch art, provides a useful tool for elaborating phenomenological notions of intersubjectivity and the recognition of the other. The essay concludes by considering the visual ethics of Levinas’ English translator Alphonso Lingis, who developed a phenomenology of encounters with strangers in devel- oping countries, and compares it with Riegl’s analysis of encounters with temporally foreign subjects in historical paintings.

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