Draw Your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles
Last night I heard American author Sarah Sentilles talk about her most recent book Draw Your Weapons at a School of Life event.* The book explores the relationship between art and violence, positioning art as an agent of hope. Having responded to Susan Sontag’s text ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ as part of my Master's dissertation this book is so far up my alley it may as well be in my backyard.
Sarah Sentilles has a super interesting background. She received her bachelor’s degree at Yale University and both her master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard University. She became a primary school teacher in Compton, downtown LA which she attributes as a key moment in confronting her own whiteness/ white privilege. Devastated by the inequality of it all, she looked to divinity and began training to become a priest only to realise she doesn’t believe in God - understandably somewhat problematic. She has since turned to academia and writing to explore how to live in the face of so much suffering.
Sentilles argues that there is a very strong link between social justice and imagination, in that you have to be able to imagine a new world in order to bring it into being. The very act of making art reminds us that we can create something new. Oppression is visual, hence the visual arts are a powerful tool to disrupt it. Art can raise awareness, art can elicit sympathy, art can disrupt, art can cut across lines, art can trouble certainty. Art reminds us that things can be made and consequently unmade and reinvented – racism, sexism and inequality are social constructs – THEREFORE CAN BE UNCONSTRUCTED.
Draw Your Weapons focuses on images of war and violence, specifically confronting imagery of human suffering. Whilst acknowledging the dangers of documenting a suffering subject, specifically its potential to exploit, Sentilles argues that seeing disallows the alibi of ignorance. However, she suggests when we view images of violence and suffering we tend to side step the issue. What begins as feelings of disbelief and sadness towards the issue at hand quickly turns into feeling sad/mad at ourselves for not being able to adequately respond. Classic, narcissistic us. Consequently, Sentilles argues that we need to become better viewers. Art allows us to do this - it allows us to be better consumer of images, able to critically engage and respond.
*Side note - do yourself a favour and check out the School of Life, a global organisation founded by legend Alain De Botton, that is dedicated to developing emotional intelligence via philosophy, literature, psychology and the visual arts. They hold lectures, classes and workshops in both Melbourne and Sydney so have a squiz at the calendar - Germaine Green has a talk 'On Consent' in early September.