The Art of Identification: The Heart of Social Justice

Dying Gaul, unknown sculptor

Dying Gaul, a Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic work from the late Third Century, BC

Social justice is one of the great themes of human history. Scholars have written about the Axial Age, when ancient religions based on ritual began to evolve into religions based on ethical behavior and the calls of conscience. All Axial Age religions have a version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others…” or, conversely, “Do not do to others…”), also known as “the ethic of reciprocity.”

The ethic of reciprocity is an exercise of imagination. It requires subjects to project themselves into the life, mind and experience of another. This exercise—the asking “What if I were her?” or “What would it be like to live through what he has lived through?”—is what allows us to fully understand the impact of our actions. Art cannot make good people out of bad, but it can give good people the means of widening their ethical gaze. Every novel that tells the story of a poor person, every movie that tells the story of a wronged person is another chance to live with the repercussions of human behavior, experience those repercussions vividly and reflect on our actions and inactions within the social world that produced them.

The traditional visual arts lack the one-two punch of narrative and time, the kind of power that comes from a realist novel’s detail or the long storytelling arc of a great film. But they have strengths of their own: immediacy and compactness. As brief as poetry, as powerful as film, as haunting as storytelling, visual art can communicate almost anything: disdain, joy, peace, protest, destruction, hope. And it can communicate otherness in a way that fosters identification.

Works that evoke identification in the viewer go back as far as art itself: think of the unknown sculptor’s Dying Gaul or Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Contemporary artists are producing work that does the same, using every possible technique: beauty and horror, proximity and distance, sunniness and despair, emotion and coolness.

Jonathan Borofsky’s sculpture Male/Female stands on the grounds of Baltimore’s Penn Station. Male/Female is one of a series of monumental sculptures that Borofsky created for public spaces the world over. Pieces like Walking to the Sky, originally installed at Rockefeller Center in New York before being moved to Dallas and copied elsewhere, and I Dreamed I Could Fly in Toronto are aspirational, offering images of ascension in an accessible pop visual language.

Male/Female is a 51-foot aluminum structure showing a male body from one angle, a female body from another, intersected midway and sharing a colored, illuminated heart. The sculpture evokes romantic love and the intimacy of shared life. But beyond that, it brings to mind a fundamental identity between men and women. Arguably the greatest social justice challenge, both historically and now, is the vast dissociation of men and women, the profound “othering” of women, manifested in clothing, physical safety, work, law, wealth and, indeed, every aspect of personal life and community life.

The play of sameness and diversity is explored in Michael Mut’s series of paintings We Are All the Same. In these paintings, the diversity of physical shape and surface of the human community is both celebrated and tempered by an underlying unity, represented by the graphical nature of the figures and the common pigmentation. As in Borofsky’s sculpture, color is the nexus of unity.

Commonality is one way of highlighting identification with others. Another is specificity, the ability to see in images of others a human personality and not a blank slate or emptiness. Visual art can evoke this specificity both positively and negatively.

Tom Block’s drawing Albanian Refugee is an example of specificity in its positive aspect. As a piece of portraiture, it evokes both the 19th-century drawings of the poor by artists like Vincent van Gogh (The Potato Eaters) and Honoré Daumier (The Third-Class Carriage) as well as the Dutch burgher portraiture tradition. By portraying an old woman who is Albanian, we are reminded of the most famous Albanian woman of all, Mother Teresa. With her scarf and crinkled eyes, she could be Mother Teresa. There could reside in her all the brilliance, energy and compassion that we revere in her, and that potential is not obscured by her poverty or status.

Specificity is evoked in negative aspect by M. Jordan Tierney in her newspaper rendition of a crowd of Muslim women. It calls into question the way that mass media can help or hinder our understanding of distant people. Tierney’s whiting out of faces, omitting individuality and leaving only veils and robes, calls attention to the difficulty of seeing that individuality even when faces are not obscured. Mass media allow unparalleled access to the lives of others, letting us hear voices and know stories, but can also present others as anonymous and even threatening masses, diluting our ability to relate to them.

All of the works referenced above feature the representation of the human form in one way or another. One last piece provides a dark counterpoint to those works. Amanda Burnham’s Shotgun depicts, above all, a point of view: the view of a person inside of a dark car, looking out on an urban landscape marked by blight but also light. The dark, blurred outlines of the car’s interior provide not so much a frame for the world outside as a barrier to it. The density of the black interior dominates; the outside is a small and decidedly other world, distant despite the physical proximity. The viewer takes the place of the person riding shotgun and is put in that dark, separate place.

In Burnham’s work, the sense of isolation is a powerful reminder of the importance of community. And though their methods and visual inspirations are varied, the artists above serve, however indirectly, the cause of social justice by reminding us that seeing others as relatable and fully human is both a gift and a challenge.

Editor’s Note: As Lynn mentions in her essay, “otherness” and identification apply to literature as well. Author Ian McEwan listed “a failure of imagination” among the crimes committed by the 9/11 terrorists. “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”–Ilse Munro

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One thought on “The Art of Identification: The Heart of Social Justice

  1. Sally Smith

    Great article. It opened my eyes a little more to the social justice theme in art. Thanks for the links and slide show. It was nice to be able to immediately see those pieces.


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