For the second session we focussed on the idea of dissent. We discussed the value of dissent - ideas that came up included:
- Dissent as a matter of personal integrity (expressing what you truly believe rather than concealing it)
- Dissent as a catalyst to thought (even when the dissenting view is largely false)
- Dissent as an aspect of a well-functioning democracy
We considered the remarkable case of August Landmesser - the extraordinarily brave German who refused to make the Heil Hitler salute in a Hamburg dockyard in 1936 (seen in this photograph with his arms folded):
Chapter Two of J.S. Mill's 1859 On Liberty made a powerful case for dissenting voices as catalysts up to the point where they incite violence. He argued that 'teachers and learners go to sleep where there is no enemy in the field' and that there is a danger of holding your views as Dead Dogma if they are not challenged by people who fundamentally disagree with you. Mill took seriously Socrates' idea that the unexamined life wasn't worth living for a human being and was fundamentally opposed to the 'deep slumber of a decided opinion'.
Martin Luther King Jr's 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' is a passionate defence of the fight against injustice using civil disobedience, the selective breaking of unjust laws. That kind of dissent has as an aim to 'so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored' - an approach that shares a great deal with the aims of dissenting art.
If you're interested in the topic of free speech try my book Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press).
This series of 10 interviews on Free Speech for Index on Censorship may also be of interest - the most relevant to the arts are the ones with Martin Rowson (the cartoonist), Zargnar (a Burmese comedian who suffered years of solitary confinement and torture), Natalia Kaliada (of the Belarus Free Theatre) and Ma Jian (the Chinese novelist). The whole series is available here.
Other podcasts on free speech:
In the gallery we looked at a number of images in Level 4 East of Tate Modern 'Media Networks', including
works by the Guerilla Girls. Dissent in art often uses words to make its targets more precise. That is certainly true of the works by the Guerilla Girls, John Heartfield, and Barbara Kruger that we looked at. Yet with Barbara Kruger's work, the use of the words 'Who Owns What?' within the work had a degree of ambiguity (not to mention irony given that the label by the side of the picture indicates that Tate owns the work, thanks to help with the purchase from a donor)...the ambiguity extends to Tate's own longer caption: few of us saw there anything trinket-like about the box that the hand holds or the way it is held - the allusions are surely to advertising a product and holding it out as something we need to buy. Perhaps there is even an allusion to ownership of pharmaceutical patents as the packet looks suspiciously like a packet of pills...
Next week we'll be thinking about the self, masks, and performance. You might like to watch this short animation about Erving Goffman's view of the self as a prelude (I wrote the script and Andrew Parks did the animation - you might recognise the voice over actor).