Watching the video of Walter Scott’s shooting was profoundly disturbing. I remember calling my partner over to watch it on my computer; he refused, but I felt impelled out of a sense of some invisible necessity. After the first viewing I went back and replayed the clip, lining it up to the moment before Scott, running down a leafy, tree-lined back road, collapses to the ground, mortally felled by the bullet in his back. Paused at that fatal instant, I sat before my computer, a creeping sense of cold unease washing over me. What struck me most was Scott’s loss of dignity in the manner of his death and the deprivation of his humanity through it; a life, meaningful and complex, rich with memories and experiences, love and regrets, was taken without regard for all that it stood for.
With the spectre of Scott’s body frozen at the moment of his execution, I went over and picked-up my dog-eared monograph of Goya’s The Disasters of War, quickly thumbing to Plate 39, “Grande hazaña! Con muertos!” In the image, three male corpses bound to the trunk of a tree, sag under their own dead weight. One of the bodies suffers a particularly ignoble fate; dismembered and decapitated, it is strung upside down a la John the Baptist, the severed head spiked onto a pointed branch. Strange fruit, indeed. Death here bears no hand of honor, no reverence for the divine. Instead, the bodies of men become the mortal artifacts of inhumanity. In that moment, watching Scott’s end play out before me, I understood Goya’s desire to depict such violence and trauma. For the greatest indignity of the undignified death would be for it to go unseen. Goya grasped that in order to return dignity to the those who had been so miserably desecrated, the living would need to bear witness to the atrocities they suffered.
But, as a witness to Scott’s death, or as Goya was to those dismembered Spaniard soldiers, I wondered, what role does the artist and the beholder play in the depiction of trauma? For the former, the aims seem more clear—to document the agents and conditions of indignity wrought upon others; Felix-Gonzales Torres’s installation, “Untitled” (Death by Gun)” (1990), is a pointed rumination upon gunshot fatalities; Anselm Keifer’s early meditations upon Auschwitz and the Shoah are grim studies in the landscape of genocide: and Fernando Botero’s recasting of the now infamous Abu Ghraib photographs starkly capture the degradation and torture of Iraqi inmates.
The spectator’s responsibility seems less clear though one possible answer may lie in the deep philological roots of the word “witness,” which comes down to us from the Latin martyr, itself a derivation from the Sanskrit cognate, smarti, which translates as “memory.” Indeed, perhaps too obviously, it would seem that “to witness,” to bear the weight of witnessing, is intimately linked with the concept of memory. And in this vein, the role of the spectator is to remember, to hold close to one’s heart the portrayal of degradation and inhumanity, to let it sit near and uncomfortably so as to always incite disquiet and reflection. Anything less, treads dangerously close to a colder shade of commonplace voyeurism.
Joseph Akel is a New York-based freelance writer and editor. His non-fiction writing regularly appears in the New York Times, Interview, the Paris Review, Artforum, and Frieze, among others. Additionally, he has penned several artist monographs, most recently for artist Doug Aitken. Akel is currently working on his first novel. He holds a master’s degree in Art History from Oxford University and is a Ph.D. candidate with U.C. Berkeley’s Rhetoric Department.