01 December 2005

Solidarity: What Counts as Success or Failure?

In order to pose this question sharply it will help to start with two remarks by Alfredo Jaar. The first comes in response to a question about the ethics of representing mass suffering:

"In a way, the question is: are we allowed as artists to create art out of suffering? Or should we let these tragedies sink into invisibility? Why can't I resist their invisibility in the media and offer my own reading, my own image, my own outrage, my own accusations about this tragic situation? To create these works is not only to put Rwanda on the map but is also a modest way to express solidarity, to create as I did, a memorial for the victims of genocide in Rwanda. Now, how many gestures of solidarity have you seen? This is a memorial for one million people. What is this worth?"

It will not surprise anyone who has read prior posts here that I find this forthright reply to possible critics quite persuasive. However, now consider Jaar's judgment (from the same interview) that his Rwanda Projects amount to what his interlocutor termed "serial" failure :

"Rwanda required me to shift my perspective quite radically. If I spent six years working on this project, it was trying different strategies of representation. Each project was a new exercise, a new strategy, and a new failure. I would learn and move on to the next exercise that would also fail and so on. Basically this serial structure of exercises was forced by the Rwanda tragedy and my incapacity to represent it in a way that made sense. . . .

These exercises were a response to the dimensions of the tragedy and my incapacity to communicate this to an audience that, in most cases, did not want to hear about it. I was at a loss. I spent almost a year before I started to create these works. And then I felt that I had to keep trying new strategies, but was always frustrated with the results. It is true that after the Rwanda project, I gained a new insight on images and photography. I was never the same again as an artist. . . . I am suspicious and disillusioned about the uses and misuses of photography in the art world, the press, and the world of entertainment. And to make things more complicated, I don't think that the general public is well educated regarding images. Generally we are taught how to read, but we are not taught how to look."

Jaar's severe self-assessment raises several important points. For the moment two are pressing because they provide the basis for challenging his claim that his Rwanda projects failed.
First, what does it mean to, in Jaar's words, "express solidarity" with those enduring nearly unimaginable suffering? This is a complicated question and I here address only a single dimension of it. Philosopher Agnes Heller notes that solidarity involves demanding recognition for the needs of others. She insists that solidarity "has noting to do with need satisfaction" but instead is addressed to the (analytically prior) task of demanding that heretofore unacknowledged needs be recognized. Jaar successfully expressed solidarity by trying to secure recognition for those who suffered the Rwandan genocide. He aimed, quite literally, to rescue them from invisibility. The step from there to designing and implementing a political program that might alleviate mass suffering of the sort Jaar witnessed in Rwanda is massive and collective. So, while Jaar may justifiably be disappointed that his work did not provoke greater response among the privileged and powerful, he surely did not fail in his effort to express solidarity. Quite the contrary. Anyone familiar with his Rwanda projects will acknowledge that they forcefully demanded recognition for suffering to which most of us remained willfully indifferent.

Second, how does Jaar know that he failed to generate solidarity among those who viewed his Rwanda projects? He himself speculates to the contrary: "Tens of thousands of people have seen the Rwanda Project in dozens of cities around the world. If only a small percentage of the viewers are affected, this is still a few thousand people who will look at Rwanda and Africa in a different way and perhaps express their solidarity." Moreover, does the effect of public art or of any other statement or action have to be immediate? Here I am reminded of the argument that critic/writer/activist Rebecca Solnit advances in her Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Nation Books 2004) about the delayed, circuitous way that actions and demands make their way into and through the world of politics. Jaar may have had greater impact than he allows. Solidarity works, if it works at all, only when coupled with hope.

POSTSCRIPT 12/2/05: All of the quotations from Jaar in this post are taken from the interview I mentioned in my last post. They appear at pages 15,16,18, and I have supplied the emphasis. I also want to note that this post is not addressed to Jaar, but to others. As he makes quite clear, he understands the crucial linkage between solidarity and hope. Hence his concluding comments in this same interview:

"I still believe in the capacity of culture ... to make a difference in our lives. ... I still believe, because we have no choice, that the world of culture is the only space left in the world today where we can speculate and suggest new ways of understanding the world - the only place where we can dream. I have seen enough to be a pessimist, and I am a depressing character [laughter], but I think we have no choice. Hope or nothing."

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