The Roots of War: Continuing a conversation with Arlene Goldbard

A couple of weeks ago, I published a text on the ethics of participatory art by Arlene Goldbard on A Restless Art. It was a way of opening up to others a conversation that we’ve been having for several years. We agree on all the fundamentals of community art (at least I haven’t found any yet on which we seriously disagree) so what makes the conversation rewarding is how the very different social and political contexts in which we’ve spent our lives (and our different heritage) make us see, think and respond. Arlene’s ‘virtual residency’ on A Restless Art, closed with a Zoom discussion in which we were joined by about 70 other artists and activists. We both enjoyed the process. One of the things I value in it is being able to act on our own responsibility, without help or permission. We’ll do this as long as we want to, and then we’ll do something else. 

We decided to continue the conversation by asking a question that we’ve both been grappling with since the start of the pandemic: how can community artists work in the sanitary conditions imposed by the need to contain Covid-19? Bringing people together is central to the process and purpose of our work: it’s called community art for a reason. The new obstacles are real and the risks are life-threatening. But so is the need, especially among those who have lived through traumatic lockdowns without the advantages of space, gardens or security. We need to express what we’ve been through, find meaning and common ground, mark suffering and loss, and imagine ways forward – all things that community art practice is exceptionally good at enabling. But we are hemmed in by complicated rules about who we can see and how close we can be to them, and burdened by problems caused by the suspension of our normal lives. How can community artists (whatever they call themselves) act responsibly in this situation?

Arlene and I had planned to nourish an online conversation  by republishing some of the posts from A Restless Art on her blog, another virtual residency that would open some European perspectives for her North American readers. She’s made a selection, starting with a summary of the book I called ‘A Restless Art in 10 minutes’, and she’ll post those each day from now until Thursday. I’ll link to them here and add further thoughts. The Zoom conversation  will take place on Thursday 4 June at 6pm CEST and 10am MT, and the link will be published on Arlene’s blog this evening (European time) and tomorrow morning US time. 

Since we laid these plans, US cities have exploded into rioting as people resist the unjust and unlawful treatment that people of colour receive from the police and some fellow citizens. The evidence, consistent over decades, should have put this fact beyond dispute and brought change in a society that rightly celebrates its democratic freedoms. That it has not is the immediate cause of present anger and violence. Arlene, who has written and campaigned on issues of social justice for decades, writes that ‘The terrible racism of the US is just 1 example of why community-based art is needed so voices of justice ring out’. She’s right, of course, but in times like these, people are too angry and divided to listen to any voices. Art cannot be an answer now: conflict on this scale requires much more direct processes of mediation and restitution.

Community art is better imagined as vaccine than antibiotic. It is in quieter, safer times that it is possible to bring about change and work towards social justice. Like all peacebuilding, it takes years of painstaking effort and its advances can be frustratingly small: it is easily dismissed by impatient or radical voices as inadequate, compromised, remedial. On left and right of the political divide, there are always those who want to untie the knots that bind us and those who would simply slash through them, even at the risk of cutting others in the process. I’ve always been among the un-tiers, and I see the steady grass roots work of community art as a form of preventive peacebuilding. 

The roots of war are in the way we live our daily lives—the way we develop our industries, build up our society, and consume goods. We have to look deeply into the situation, and we will see the roots of war.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (1991)

More tomorrow…


  1. I think we’ve finally discovered a disagreement, Francois! Between vaccine and antibiotic, I take your point. But the medical analogy doesn’t really do it for me. It leaves out the category of witness, which is so powerful and important. Earlier, you posted a link to a guide I wrote, Art Became the Oxygen (, which is full of projects that document loss, for instance, or bring home the direct experience of those mostly affected by a crisis, but whose voices rarely make the mainstream media. Countless projects come long after historic events that need to be brought to light (e.g.,; or respond in the moment (e.g., They amplify protest with creativity or tell the first-person human stories that aren’t conveyed by the nightly news, and lift up the voices that must be heard if things are to change. It would be foolish to say that art of any sort can alone make the necessary changes, but the role of witness definitely helps awaken awareness and action.


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