CU Boulder art history professor explores how art can create community to counter violence
Leo Tolstoy once mused that art could thwart violence, writing, “Art should cause violence to be set aside, and it is only art that can accomplish this.”
A CU Boulder art professor tends to agree.
In her upcoming book, Don't Look Away: Art, Nonviolence, and Preventive Publics in Contemporary Europe (Duke University Press, May 2023) University of Colorado Boulder Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Brianne Cohen delves deeply into the role that art can play in creating public commitment to curbing structural violence in Europe.
Art often looks at past violence, and has, at times, enabled it. In Don’t Look Away, Cohen explores how it can be used to prevent violence, particularly by helping to create a “shared social sense of vulnerability” and “mass stranger relationality.”
“Art can have a critical role to play not only in challenging injurious public discourse but also in actively reconceiving the groundwork of more ethically self-reflexive, pluralistic public spheres,” she writes. “I wish to transform a question of informed public action in the aftermath of violence to one of the informed public prevention of both direct and more indirect aggression.”
Cohen grew up in Dallas and spent four years living in Germany as a child. She later did graduate work in Germany, London, Brussels and elsewhere in Europe. Her experiences— including moving through German society with a traditional Jewish name, to Irish Republican Army terrorist threats against her brother’s British school, violence in response to the publication of cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in Denmark and rising anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment in Europe—all helped shape her interest in broader questions about “public spheres.”
“Those real instances of violence raised questions of who belonged, in terms of community,” she says, “and the meaning of a pluralistic society.”
Her book approaches the question of “what it means to make a public sphere through a visual realm and how to bring strangers together around common matters of concern” via an examination of the work of three participatory, “recursive” artists, German filmmaker Harun Farocki, Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, and the art collective Henry VIII’s Wives.
I’m really interested in how we prevent violence in transnational space, and the question of art as nonviolent action. I’m trying to think about how we can prevent violence in the first place, not just thinking about the aftermath, what kind of images and artwork can change public attitudes and the conditions that allow this kind of recurring violence to happen.
Reflecting on violence and vulnerable populations in Europe, which has often generated “fear-based publics,” Cohen argues that their backward-looking art is a more potent tool to prevent future violence than art focused on current events or bringing perpetrators to justice.
“I’m really interested in how we prevent violence in transnational space, and the question of art as nonviolent action. I’m trying to think about how we can prevent violence in the first place, not just thinking about the aftermath, what kind of images and artwork can change public attitudes and the conditions that allow this kind of recurring violence to happen,” she says. “Maybe it’s utopian, but art can change public mindsets.”
She examines Farocki’s 2007 film, Respite, which he created from 1939 Nazi footage of a Dutch refugee camp for Jews fleeing Germany that was subsequently converted into a labor camp and stopover for prisoners who were later sent to death camps.
Cohen highlights the image of a 10-year-old girl named Settela Steinbach, which became “a quintessential image of the Jews’ subjugation in the Netherlands.” But as a 1990s documentary revealed, the girl was “in fact Sinti,” Cohen writes, highlighting a “lesser-known genocide.”
The film “recursively brings into public circulation and awareness questions of slow and direct violence for contemporary Romani peoples, a fact that has not received any in-depth interpretation in film or art historical scholarship,” Cohen writes.
“Without a historically self-reflexive attention to how publics have perpetuated such violence, it would arguably be impossible to begin the project of actively envisioning a pluralistic, nonviolent social imaginary in the future.”
Without a historically self-reflexive attention to how publics have perpetuated such violence, it would arguably be impossible to begin the project of actively envisioning a pluralistic, nonviolent social imaginary in the future.”
Hirschhorn’s installation of his “Batailles Monument” in a Turkish-German neighborhood in Kassel, Germany, generated controversy, in part because he was perceived as an outsider imposing his vision on marginalized people. But Cohen argues that his installations in “banlieues”—a derogatory French term for immigrant suburbs—effectively link “disparate, embodied, and virtual publics around such common matters of concern.”
With the atomization of information and people in the internet age, art can play a role in countering violence by creating community, she says.
“Typically, you can solve questions of civic relations or matters of concern through the local community,” she says. “But once you get to a huge, transnational space—online, social media—how do you connect strangers in ethical ways? Artists are part of that. They can create publics that ethically bind people together.”
At the top of the page: A scene from Harun Farocki's film Images of the world and the inscription of war, 1988 film. Courtesy Goethe-Institut London.