© Yuliia Strykovska
Within my attempt to establish a dialogue between the practice of art and law and determine their value and impact in both personal and societal contexts, I conducted interviews with a diverse group of respondents: lawyers, artists and art researchers, designers, students of anthropology, human rights activists, etc. This revealed a paradox: art is usually viewed as an act of creativity that is inherent in human nature, while law is seen as a discipline, a professional sphere of activity, and an institutional domain. Art is considered personal, a way of self-expression, and law is seen as external and imposed by others. I would like to challenge this perspective and encourage a more open outlook by asking: To what extent can we voluntarily exercise law in everyday lives and with a similar emotional approach as is attributed to art? Can we appropriate law as a practice and experience it as being our own? Can art serve as a means to achieve that?
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
These beautiful words about fundamental human rights were proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on 10th December 1948 in the post-war world because “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
However, to this day, for many people around the globe, human rights remain abstract, as they experience direct violence, social and systemic injustice. In an era of growing quantity and complexity of legal regulations in various spheres, human rights seem to be a desirable minimum that should be guaranteed by effective mechanisms to ensure human dignity and safety. The question remains whether we should wait for somebody with authority to grant us these rights, allow us to enjoy them, and eventually bring about justice. Alternatively, I propose we can start consciously building our personal relationships with the law, with our rights and liberties, and make it a part of our daily experience.
We live in a complex network of relationships that constitute the modern world. However, we often do not know and often do not even attempt to comprehend the written, legally established rules of this life, the rules of the states and societies in which we live. As a result, we become subjects of law, described by dry words of legal norms, rather than active participants or practitioners of our rights and liberties. We, as a society, tend to shy away from the intricacies of the law and bestow the responsibility of understanding and upholding it onto “chosen guardians”. The knowledge of the law, legal rights, and obligations and their interpretation is often considered a hallowed insight, held by “a few who know” such as lawyers, courts, parliaments, and police. This sentiment is echoed by respondents who have spent their professional careers immersed in practicing and interpreting the law. Yet, our detachment from the law, a crucial facet of social wisdom, leaves us vulnerable to manipulation and undermines our ability to exercise our rights and liberties. By delegating this agency, we also forsake our critical perspective and abdicate our power to shape the boundaries of governance. As Michel Foucault argued, the “art of not being governed quite so much” is a valuable asset in defining the limits of governmental power and finding an answer to the question “What are the limits of the right to govern?” (Foucault 2007, 45–46).
Staying away from this critical attitude that involves knowing and exercising our legal rights not only subjects us to injustice and violence but also prevents us from exploring life’s possibilities and potentialities and from fully expressing our abilities and talents.
The educational system plays a role in this phenomenon. In Austria, for instance, despite being included in the high school curriculum, there is no separate course dedicated to educating young people about their legal rights and obligations, including human rights. As responsible individuals tasked with the well-being of future generations, we have the opportunity to equip young adults with the tools they need to navigate their lives by offering an introductory course in basic laws and human rights. This could help alleviate uncertainty and dizziness in their decision-making and empower them to become active citizens rather than passive subjects of the law. This is a viable solution and can be implemented in a creative way.
Citing Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Shusterman states: “Practice gives the words their meaning.” […] and such practice involves “agreement …in form of life” (Shusterman 2002, 92). According to Shusterman, acquiring knowledge through practical experience and bodily perception, rather than just pure thinking, leads to a practice-based understanding (Shusterman 1999, 299–313).
Imagine if we cultivate the value and empower the meaning of human rights through sensory perception and emotional connection, leading to a reliance on these rights. Art, as a practice that engages the senses and elicits emotions, could be the means to achieve this. From Sara Ahmed’s perspective, emotions play a crucial role in orienting us towards objects and others (Ahmed 2014, 15). Thus, perceiving the law and human rights through the prism of art can not only aid in exercising our rights but also cultivate a deeper and more personal connection with them resulting in a greater understanding of ourselves and others. Furthermore, participatory artistic practices foster a growing sense of solidarity, defined by Roberto Esposito as the result of increasing emotional or traditional attachment (Esposito 2010, 3). This sense of solidarity and the ability to create new senses through collective imagination are key elements of art's social value, which is highly relevant for everyone.
Art and law are human practices that serve to bring people together, communicate, educate, organize, negotiate, and celebrate the values and communities they are a part of. We can enjoy both art and law. The legal term “to enjoy” the right means to exercise and practice the right and gain the benefits from it, such as “comfort, consolation, contentment, ease, happiness, pleasure, and satisfaction” (West's Encyclopedia of American Law, n.d.). We can enjoy our rights through a wide variety of artistic methods that evoke emotional responses from our bodies, communities and societies. To act, draw, say, sing, dance and play, to perform our rights and gain the benefits from these actions that humans deserve – independence, comfort, safety, and joy. This represents the true recognition of the power and value of both law and art through personal experience.
This method I employed in my artistic research and participatory practice, called Necessary and Sufficient, aimed to investigate the areas where art and law intersect as human practices. For this practice, I constructed a shelter, a temporary and delicate personal space made of gauze, which symbolized the essential and adequate conditions for feeling secure and safe, a space that could be claimed as one's own. I invited people to join me in this space for discussions about their experiences with art and law, including what they consider necessary and sufficient in these practices for themselves, their communities, and societies. Interviews resulted in the creation of a shared space where both practices coexist, represented in the model:
To SEE ______ (ART) _______ (LAW)
To SAY ______ (ART) _______ (LAW)
To DO _______ (ART) _______ (LAW)
To BE _______ (ART) _______ (LAW)
TO SEE images (ART) frames (LAW)
TO SAY sense, insight (ART) rules (LAW)
TO DO create (ART) justice (LAW)
TO BE out of the box (ART) in the frame of law (LAW)
The words defining for participants the most crucial things in art and law appeared on the walls of the shelter. Senses have been added to the common understanding of both practices’ roles.
Ahmed, Sara. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Esposito, Roberto. 2010. Communitas: the origin and destiny of community. Translated by Timothy Campbell. Stanford California: Stanford University Press.
Foucault, Michel. 2007. “What is Critique?” In The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, 41–81. Introduction by John Rajchman. Translated by Lysa Hochroth & Catherine Porter. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Shusterman, Richard. 2002. “Wittgenstein's somaesthetics: body feeling in philosophy of mind, art, and ethics.” Revue internationale de philosophie, vol. 219, no. 1: 91–108. Accessed 21st Jan. 2023 via https://www.cairn.info/revue-internationale-de-philosophie-2002-1-page-91.htm.
Shusterman, Richard. 1999. “Somaesthetics: A Disciplinary Proposal.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 57, no. 3: 299–313. https://doi.org/10.2307/432196.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, n.d. Accessed 21st Jan. 2023 from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.
West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2, n.d. S.v. “enjoy.” Retrieved 21st Jan. 2023 from https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/enjoy.