Art and <em>parrhesia</em>

This fall I plan on taking Interrogative Design, a workshop taught by Krzysztof Wodiczko who is well-known for his artworks that challenge perceptions of space, politics, and society. While only tangentially related to what I’m planning my thesis work to be, it’s directly related to regular concerns of mine.

First class meets tonight; the readings were selections from Michel Foucault’s Fearless Speech as well as Chantal Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox.

Foucault’s piece explores the situations where parrhesia, or truth-telling, can take place. Here is not the place to get into the details of his nuanced argument, but suffice it to say that parrhesia occurs a) between two people in a discussion; b) when there is some risk to the truth-teller; and c) when the truth-teller (parrhesiastes) is at a “lower” rank or position than the one receiving the truth. Mouffe, on the other hand, investigates the current nature of liberal democracy, questioning the current desire for agreement and consensus in a plural society, suggesting that instead of such a situation being desirable, it instead reflects the dangers that liberal democracy is supposed to lead us away from. Her contention is that by focusing on agreement rather than reasonable disagreement we silence the plurality of voices that most liberals would accept as necessary to the healthy functioning of society.

My responses this week focused more on the Foucault reading rather than the Mouffe (although her piece provided much to think about). What are the conditions that allow for parrhesia in art? Below you can see the (albeit small!) bit that I wrote about this issue, suggesting that we need a different way to think about truth-telling in art given the fundamental difference between the agents/non-agents in the discourse.


Given the pains that Foucault goes to to define what parrhesia is and what it is not, I question whether the term can be applied to what we consider art. As a word referring to particular type of interaction, it would seem to be limited to speaking processes, actions to which art oftentimes sets itself in opposition. The process involves one human speaking to another; while their discussion might concern objects, the interaction is between embodied agents and not between an agent and an object. Yet art is about both process and object, and whether we consider the stationary thing or moveable process, I find it difficult to shoehorn this into the parrhesiatic definition. Even if we consider parrhesia as a concept and extend it to experiences with non-animate objects, I still challenge whether that is parrhesia. Foucault writes that parrhesia is “a technique which deals with individual cases, specific situations, and the choice of the kairos or decisive moment.” [p. 111] Since our experience of art is that of a person observing/interacting with/considering an object (excluding performance art for the moment), it seems to lack the specificity of the kairos, given that the object cannot know about the desires or personality of the person observing it.

Where this becomes interesting is when the artist is with the object, or when the artist is the object. In those cases the chance for parrhesia is present, as the artist can deal with the “individual cases” and “specific situations” that are natural in face-to-face experience.

(The technologist in me suggests that perhaps we will be able to develop objects that can deal with certain cases and provide individual truth-telling situations, but even so, it likelly will not be to the level of complexity that Foucault explores.)

Not that the concept of truth-telling through art is impossible; in fact, I would consider it to be an incredibly important guiding principle. Yet it seems to desire a different name. While this might appear as a simple semantic concern, the fact that parrhesia demands the interaction between two people, while art often is between people and object, suggests to me a fundamental conceptual difference. I would be quite interested in exploring the possibilities of truth-telling when one part of the dyad is an inanimate thing.

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