This paper examines the widespread use of the term 'witnessing' in both media theory and contemporary art theory. In media theory, it is common to argue that in our highly connected world we are all witnesses to world events simply by watching them via mediating technologies. This hyperbolic inflation of witnessing is an interesting symptom of a desire for greater involvement in world events, even if, as I argue, it renders witnessing virtually meaningless. In art history, the greater involvement in world events is often understood as political engagement. For example, in the work of photo-theorist Ariella Azoulay engagement is equated with duration: watching and attending to the depiction of events.
In contrast, in media and performance studies involvement is frequently understood as a deeper emotional involvement. Here, empathy is posited as the desired attitude or response to events showing suffering. In marked contrast, in art history this kind of psychological response is posed as something to be avoided. The paper examines the very different approaches to witnessing and empathy in performance studies, media theory and art history. In particular, I introduce the idea of complementary identification from the psychoanalytic trauma literature, alongside the more typical reliance upon concordant identification, usually understood as empathy.
Professor Susan Best is the Director of the Program in Fine Art at the Queensland College of Art in Griffith University. She is an art historian with expertise in critical theory and modern and contemporary art. She is the author of Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-garde (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011). She has just completed a book titled Reparative Aesthetics: Witnessing in Contemporary Art Photography (contracted by Bloomsbury Philosophy). This book (from which this talk is drawn) offers a new way of thinking about the role of politically engaged art. It examines the work of four women photographers from the southern hemisphere who are pioneering a reparative approach to art about shameful histories.
*Image Courtesy: Musée de l'Homme (Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle), Paris and Two Rooms, New Zealand.
Fiona Pardington, Portrait of a life cast of Matua Tawai, Aotearoa-New Zealand, from The Pressure of Sunlight Falling series, 2010, pigment inks on Hahnemühle photo rag, 146 x 110 cm.