Engaged Visual Art as a Tool for Normative Renewal in International Human Rights: The Case of Ariella Azoulay's Potential History (2012)
EUROPEAN SOCIETY OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, 10th Anniversary Conference, Vienna, 4-6 September 2014, Conference Paper No. 4/2014
14 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2014
Date Written: September 4, 2014
The political philosopher, photography theoretician and artist Ariella Azoulay has constructed an influential theoretical, curatorial and artistic body of work in which she aims at pushing our spectatorial imagination as far as is possible. She proposes no less than an understanding of engaged visual art as a most powerful tool in order to plant the seeds of new human rights. At first sight, such intentions may sound utterly utopian. For justified reasons, contemporary art theory is often situated as stopping short at the relatively inoperative level of “a virtual community between spectators” (Sliwinski, 2011). Nonetheless, proposals for an engaged visual art that takes up a concrete position may be less wild than one would at first think. Human rights have, historically, always resulted from growing social consensus, and often in direct response to indignation about stories that had come to see the light of day. Our paper starts from the work of Azoulay, in particular her video Civil Alliance (2012). The paper examines the role such an engaged visual art can play in this mechanism today, as a privileged instrument for activating a mobilizing potential with regard to rethinking human solidarity in contemporary society. Underlying our collaboration lies the hypothesis that true interdisciplinary dialogue may help overcome skepticism about the lack of influence of engaged visual art. Having shown how Azoulay's art and curatorial work leads to her theoretical positions on human rights, our paper explores how some of these might translate into international law. Azoulay's "universal spectator‟ – an implied absentee presence in the act of photography (Azoulay, 2008) – arguably is a central implied figure in international human rights law: human rights law breaks into the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty turning horror and injustice into universal concerns. This legitimizes the role of international bodies that hold states and individuals responsible for human rights violations. This institutional turn, however, shuts out any role for an individual who is not directly involved in a human rights violation (either as a victim or as a perpetrator). In our paper, we aim to start thinking such a role in legal terms. Azoulay has conceived of the role of the spectator in the first place as a duty- an obligation to struggle against injuries inflicted on others and to avoid and resist political and economic situations that give rise to structural human rights violations (Azoulay, 2008).
Keywords: engaged visual art; international human rights law; Ariella Zoulay
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