Everyone's Responsibility

I've just come back from a vacation to Mexico where I had the opportunity to visit the home where Trotsky lived (and was assassinated). That visit lead me to the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art (1938) that he authored with André Breton (signed by Breton and Diego Rivera) which in turn made me think of another important text (on this topic), which is Marcel Duchamp's The Creative Act (1957).

I've never quite understood how the art world (for all its largesse) has not reacted to the regular affronts /attacks on its members due to censorship, individual courage, and the blowback of speaking truth to power ... especially in that artists have been a part of changing society throughout history and rarely benefit from the safety mechanisms available to vocational activists. In part, my frustration is that the art world suffers from the perception that it does not have the tools to keep its artists safe ... but rather this is somehow the work of human rights organizations or legal sectors. The fraught-ness of that idea is best summed up in a script something like this:

When capital markets collapse (or surge), a marginalized community will become further dispossessed by the rationale of a dominant culture. Within that community there will be an artist willing to expose said impunity; rally their community; and whose bold creativity and intuitive strategy will be of the most potent resources left at the community's disposal. As a result of their organic, unpredictable activism, artists often face danger and must flee their homes and families as a result. Since capital is a part of the equation, the outlets of capital (including non-profit foundations that fund culture) will be pressured to cut costs. While those spending cuts are not overtly related to the silencing /discontinuing of a particular creative voice, they do have the effect of stunting the creative milieu generally. At this criticaland oft repeated juncturethe opportunity to contextualize the artist's role in society has been repeatedly lost. All the other social sectors experiencing similar funding constraints (e.g., human rights, social enterprise)  revert to an anti-artist bias that can be justified under budgetary duress.

En brev, the art world will likely never receive adequate support and publicized legitimacy from the outside toward taking concrete steps that could help keep artists safe. Currently, there is a lot of movement on the topic of artist safety, free expression, social practice, and related mobility: Much of that movement and discussion, however, still somehow remains oblivious to the distinction  between professional activism and the much more organic, replenishable framework of artists dependably (throughout history) deploying their creativity in exponential ways that cannot be presupposed. So, for sure, we'll arrive at a new moment whereby artists  “could” access  X, Y, Z resources, yet to the extent that doing so is dependent on the artist self-instrumentalizing her/his work before it has had its full impact, those resources will miss their mark.

I think that artists (when they take a stand) share some similarities with other orientation- or identity-based activists, e.g., LGBT, environmental, indigenous, disability, youth, etc. I see what I call “orientation-based” activists being left out of the swiftly professionalizing activist vocation (narrower legal-leaning designations such as human rights defender that always assume intentionality and leave very little room for “accidental” activism). Being on the outside of the vocation also impinges on the likelihood of said artists being able to make a living (getting paid) from the creative social change work they do. 

Many times, I am asked to provide a formula for how or why an artist gets into life-threatening danger. Of course there are stylistic forms of censorship and suppression that are different from one region to another and when levied across diverse demographics, but I suppose there is a sort of countdown or sequence of events that is discernible: When the rule of law erodes (or has never formed) and the protective layers of civil society are stripped away due to contested elections, civil war, cross-border conflict, etc; when we know that journalists are fearful to give literal accounts of the impunity faced by their communities, then we also know that artists who bear witness to the societal condition will face danger. The outcome is the same for an artist in Guatemala and an LGBT activist in Uganda.

Conversely, I would argue that to improve conditions for culture workers in areas of unrest would make it safer for grassroots activists (and vice versa). It’s also important to consider how sexual orientation can be used as grounds to economically marginalize a person regardless of whether his/her work is related through personal activism. For example, I recently asked an artist grantee of the Creative Resistance Fund if sexual orientation had anything to do with the eminent danger faced. The answer was yes, but with the caveat that there is no way to know for sure until it is too late. Unfortunately, I have heard this on several occasions. When I think about all these overlapping vulnerable groups—grassroots activists, LGBT community, artists in conflict (or unsafe) areas—the concepts of precarity and intersectionality come to mind. According to Wikipedia, precarity means “existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.” And,” intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.”

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Unfortunately, I can fill both hands with names of artists and culture workers detained, disappeared, wrongfully charged, economically marginalized, and harassed in just  a couple weeks. In sum, if we inside the art world don't see this as our responsibility, no other sector will either.

Should art collectors and galleries play a role in the safety of artists? Or to provide greater resources to meet the humanitarian needs of the artist?

Hell yes!  I mean, I have my doubts as to whether the commercial side of the arts makes the connection, that being intuitive, inventive, and ahead of the curve (um, avant garde) can sometimes be dangerous.  I think that hyper-commodified spaces (physically and conceptually) create a vacuum and/or eclipse the history of artists being a part of every period of social change. Unfortunately the art market only takes notice in fetishistic terms: when a big artist gets in trouble, that can be a boon for business and the market may seem to go through the motions of supporting his/her safety. While I'm critical of the fetishizing of danger art/artists in danger, I do understand that such instances can raise awareness across the board of the dangers artists sometimes face.

Do artists have the same responsibility as journalists to “bear witness”? Why or why not?

What is responsibility? Do all journalists bear witness? Do all intellectuals bear witness? Are all artists intellectuals? I can't really answer, other than to ask more questions.

Should artists be held accountable for their actions or inactions in a time of conflict? Why or why not? And if so, by whom?

If there were to be a concerted effort to inform, sensitize, and raise awareness among artists along demographic lines (and if artists had resources available to them when danger strikes) then, yes, I suppose some accountability would be in order. I don't think a perpetually under-resourced space can be held accountable in the same way that a sector of professional journalists or activists should be.

Good question: By whom?  The “whom” could be the missing piece.  Who takes care of artists when they are in distress (or need)? That same entity could likely hold them accountable or, moreover, enter a dialogue by which mutually decided upon criteria for accountability could be established.

Todd Lester is currently the Executive Director of Global Arts Corps, an organization that creates theatre to advance reconciliation in societies emerging from violent conflict. Previously, he founded freeDimensional, an organization that supports activists and artists-in-distress by providing safe haven in artist residencies.