Does the artist have a responsibility when representing conflict?

Over the past 6 months, I’ve been working towards a Gold Arts Award. As part of this, I’ve been researching art and politics, and considering questions that have surfaced as a result.

My focus is on artists’ relationship to conflict, inquiring into whether the artist has a greater responsibility than others, when representing conflict in a work. I’ve been exploring this question through research into artists working with this subject, conversations with practitioners, staging a Debate at Tate bringing together artists and young people to explore the issue, and creating a digital artists’ book. Following this, I’ve made some conclusions and after much deliberation fallen on one side of the argument. The below is my articulation of this view and a copy of the digital artists’ book. I’d welcome all thoughts and feedback!

The artist (in their role/capacity however this is defined by their practice and in addition to the responsibility held by all people) has (time frame is fluid) a responsibility (complex and plural, to be defined by the subject, relative to the issue and artists relationship with the conflict) when representing (both implicitly or explicitly) conflict (to mean all scenes of human suffering).


Most people have a ’cause’ they particularly care about. These ’causes’ are often issues we are in close proximity too – an injustice by authorities in the local area, instances of inequality experienced by a friend, the illness or struggle of a loved one. These issues surround us, and we tend to take on board one or two as our personal battle – we may give money to charity, run a marathon, write a letter of complaint, frequently debate the issue with others, protest, sign petitions, etc etc. This is our duty, and we fulfill it automatically if we are engaged with the issue. Some may be more of the spray paint it onto a wall than sign a petition character, but the desire to push change forwards is the same.

Though we know that war, starvation, mass illnesses and atrocities are happening in the world, we tend to fight the battles that we have personally experienced. The pay off for us, even if our battle is unsuccessful, is that some of our emotional needs are met: connection to the wider community, autonomy and control, a sense of achievement, meaning and purpose. So it is in our human nature to care and respond to issues, and we receive a payoff of emotional security for our engagement.

When travelling, we come into contact with social issues which are outside of our usual sphere. We experience new conflicts, struggles and dilemmas, and most often our response is not to engage or take up these battles. We assume that as we are active in our community, the problems of this other community are the responsibility of our counterparts. We feel we are not involved, informed or able to engage or contribute to these battles of the other.

Political 1 sheet 19 2010 Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Political 1 sheet 19
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Many communities, both at home and abroad, have so many problems piled up, that they become impossible to solve. When a community is faced with multiple challenges and threats to their security, they are placed in a position of personal powerlessness. They are unable to function effectively as all areas of self are threatened, or become apathetic as instincts of self preservation settle in. Unless we have personally experienced this powerlessness it may be misunderstood or difficult to comprehend.

Problems of powerless people or communities must be solved by a power greater than themselves – a government body, support from a charitable organisation, a neighboring community or family. But how do the powerless appeal for power? What other powers exist when the government or neighboring community does not arrive with support? Is there a power that exists that can affect change, or order help and support for the powerless?

Art has considerable power. It’s essence is to transcend barriers, alter perceptions, instigate new chains of inquiry. Historically, art is always a part of revolution. Whether it’s in protest banners, propaganda images or photography, it is used to help the other understand our needs. Artists (both official and unofficial) who make such works (whether or not they view it as an artwork or present it in an art context) wield a powerful tool for communicating an experience or view.

Ein Sklave des Kapitals 2001 Tacita Dean

Ein Sklave des Kapitals 2001
Tacita Dean

‘A picture says a thousand words’ we repeat. Those with the ability to create images in our minds, communicating issues in an effective way hold considerable power. In this way, the power of the artist is evident. And is it not the responsibility of the powerful to help the powerless? If artists do not use this power to instigate change, the alternative is to use their power for personal gain – whether this is to fulfill ambitions, for financial benefits or self-propulsion, this use of power is centered in the self.

I argue that art has power and those gifted with the ability to create art are powerful, and this power must be used for the benefit of the powerless rather than to secure the advancement of self. The artist has a responsibility to a conflict, when representing it in a work.