To be an artist means also to be a witness. The job of the artist is to look, to see, to listen, to witness and to communicate the seen and heard and witnessed to the world. The artist must notice that which others overlook. The artist must be willing to pay attention to that which others ignore.
Art must record not only beauty but also truth, and truth may be ugly, like the attack on Guernica.
Images are not reality. Vision is not truth. Pictures always lie. But the job of the artist is still to find some way of communicating some sort of truth to the world.
Here are some experiences I've had as a witness:
A few years ago I saw a man being arrested on Cathedral Green, Exeter. He was being arrested by one police officer and one traffic warden. I stood still and watched the process. I was about 100 metres away. I didn't move any closer because I wanted to observe without becoming involved.
The policeman left the arrested man in the hands of the traffic warden and went away, perhaps to get a vehicle.
I stood and watched. The traffic warden was kneeling hard on the man's head, pressing down with his knee in an unnecessarily forceful and vindictive way. I don't know what the man was being arrested for but I continued watching in case there might be a call for witnesses at some later date.
The traffic warden continued pushing his knee down hard onto the man's head until he noticed me watching him. Noticing me, the traffic warden relaxed the pressure visably and the man began to struggle less, presumably because he was now in less pain.
Eventually the policeman returned and the man was taken away.
On another occasion I observed an incident in Exeter High Street. There used to be a shop in the High Street trading under the name of "Game". They sold computer games and bits of hardware, cables etc. I observed a young man walking out from the shop. As soon as he reached the pavement he was set upon by 4 or 5 youths wearing badges which showed they were employed by the shop. They were surrounding the first youth and pushing, pulling, shoving, grabbing and generally attacking him. They were not behaving in a professional manner, but instead were acting like a gang of thugs, laughing and enjoying the opportunity to attack someone.
I was standing about 5 metres away. I didn't move. I didn't speak. I stood still and quietly observed the events. It seemed that the young men were hired as security guards in the shop and believed the other youth to be a shop lifter. However, instead of simply detaining him they had decided to have a bit of violent fun at his expense.
Then one of the youths noticed me witnessing the events.
He turned toward me and shouted "Go away! Stop standing there! Go on, move! Go away!"
I didn't move or speak. I continued to stand still in the same spot, quietly witnessing.
The young man shouted at me some more, telling me to "Go away". He began to punctuate his words with pushes and shoves and began balling up his fists threateningly. I still didn't move or speak. Other pedestrians in the High Street continued to hurry past, ignoring the incident, literally "passing by on the other side".
The young man from game shop began actually trying to physically push me away from the scene. He was still shouting and the others were still roughing up their suspected shoplifter a short distance away.
I allowed the young man to push me down onto the pavement. The experience of many protest marches in my younger days meant I knew how to fall to the ground without offering resistance when shoved.
The young man then stood over me shouting "Get up! Get up!" I stayed down and continued observing. By now another passer by was videoing the events on his mobile cell device.
The young thug gave up on trying to make me stand up. I had still not spoken. I could have argued with him but I reasoned that any use of words would only muddy the waters. I was on a public street and was certainly entitled to stand still for a few minutes.
When it seemed clear that the thugs had lost interest in me I slowly stood up and continued observing as the police arrived and the thugs from the game shop handed their captive over to be arrested. When the incident was over I continued along my way home.
On another occasion, in Sidwell Street, Exeter I saw the police put an arrested man into a police vehicle and drive him away, while a woman complained to another police officer. I don't know on what charge the man had been arrested and I don't know what relation the woman may have been to him. The thing which interested me about it was this: The policeman threatened the woman that if she didn't stop shouting at him he would arrest her too, but she wasn't shouting. She was speaking to him in a reasonable quiet and peaceful voice. Her voice had an emotional, distressed tone to it, but was not at all loud or raised above ordinary speech. I was walking past and overheard this exchange between them without stopping to hear more. I simply slowed down and walked slowly enough to hear what was said before continuing on my way.
It was unmistakable. The policeman deliberately pretended that the woman was shouting when she quiet clearly wasn't, rather than be bothered to treat her complaint in an honest and fair way.
This sort of behaviour from officialdom interests me greatly. The routine lying, conniving and falsyfing by means of which police officers and other officials rob the public of any sense of there being decency in the world.
I made a mental note of the policeman's face so that I would recognise him again and not be too surprised by his lack of honesty.