Witnessing as resistance

Community art performance by Olho.Te, (Madeira)

In A Restless Art I describe participatory art – the vast field that has spread from the source of community art – as a border land, a contested territory defined by large claims, shifting and unstable.

Participatory art, by definition, stands in two places at once, and frequently more than two places. that can be uncomfortable. It certainly makes it restless.

François Matarasso, A Restless Art, (2019)

In this territory, I argue, it matters where you stand, but it matters more that you know and can explain where you stand, because confusion or dishonesty about that just leads to poor, manipulative practice. The spectrum of co-creation I wrote about in the latest piece Arlene has chosen for her blog is an illustration of that idea. At one end is the work of Spencer Tunick, in which people form little more than material; at the other is Entelechy Arts, whose struggle for radical equality between everyone involved is central to their work. I knew where I stood from the day I encountered community art, but I was still young when I understood also that others might legitimately stand elsewhere: how you think about that is still a fault line in socially engaged art today. It’s undeniable that some people value Spencer Tunick’s work so much they travel the world to be part of it. So, sure as I am about where I have chosen to stand, I also believe that:

There is no correct place to stand in these debateable lands. There is only your place, chosen because you have considered others and settled on one that corresponds to your artistic, political, philosophical ideas. 

François Matarasso, A Restless Art, (2019)

Although I didn’t always know it, this position itself stands in a long line of philosophical humanism that sees human beings as ends, never means. As Martha Nussbaum writes in Creating Capabilities, this approach:

Is focused on choice or freedom, holding that the crucial good societies should be promoting for their people is a set of opportunities, or substantial freedoms, which people then may or may not exercise in action: the choice is theirs. It thus commits itself to respect for people’s powers of self-definition.

Martha C. Nussbaum. Creating Capabilities 2011

That is the principle, but it is everywhere confronted with the reality that people do not have anything like equal freedoms or choices in the world as it is. Indeed, that reality is the reason why community art exists, and why I’ve spent my life working in what I described yesterday as its frustratingly slow processes of peacebuilding. But as I’ve got older, and understood better the privileges of my own situation, my uncertainties grow. The controlling violence exerted against so many people in the world today makes the question of self-definition seem abstract. If the state doesn’t respect citizens’ right to life, what price autonomy. What choice or freedom do you have when a policeman feels entitled to kneel on your neck? Perhaps, even in the relatively peaceful world of art, respecting another person’s choice to be the material of an artist’s work is a dereliction of duty? I remain shocked by the ‘action’ in which Santiago Sierra paid four prostitutes ‘the price of a shot of heroin to give their consent to be tattooed’ (Tate Collection) – and not in a good way. It is a brutal demonstration of power that did not need to be enshrined as art. 

Yesterday, Arlene challenged me to recognise the role of the artist as witness, willing to ‘bring home the direct experience of those mostly affected by a crisis, but whose voices rarely make the mainstream media’. She’s right, of course, and helped me see that I’ve failed to make a connection between different parts of my thinking. Next month, a book about my family’s experience during the Shoah will be published. It includes my grandfather’s and my father’s witnessing of the destruction of an entire community, and my witnessing of them: as Elie Wiesel said, whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness. That history has defined my life, ideas of justice and work in community art, in the belief that witnessing is an act of resistance – sometimes the only one left. ‘There is no decent place to stand in a massacre’ sang Leonard Cohen.  But there is all the difference between seeing and turning away. Bearing witness may be all that is possible, but it honours the victims and resists the perpetrators.

I hold to my belief in the autonomy of the human person. Since I find constraints on my own power of self-definition intolerable, I see no justification for thinking that others would find them less so. But I also question my tolerance of how some people use their power of self-definition, and the profound inequality with which it is distributed.  

More tomorrow…