G is for Generosity — Jens Hoffmann — 2018
This text was written for the book ABC B.A. published in 2018 by Dent-de-Leone and distributed by Les presses du réel. This monograph is composed of a collection of texts and critical essays in the form of a abc-book. Based on key words, twelve art critics, curators or writers wrote a text commenting on Boris Achour’s work. The book also includes an iconographic collection offering an overview of the artist’s work.
G is for Generosity
Among the so-called human virtues, generosity is often conflated with charity, the giving of money without obligation. Both are, arguably, deprioritized in a world that advocates competition rather than cooperation and equality. Yet generosity is not the same as charity, as it can encompass forgiveness, patience, compassion, and self-control. Today’s news is full of acts of generosity (that is, between otherwise depressing reports of war, ecological disasters, and school shootings). Take the story of Detroiter James Robertson, who was walking twenty-one miles on top of two bus rides to get to a job that paid about $10 an hour—a torturous commute that left him about two hours of sleep every night. When the Detroit Free Press got wind of the story, a crowd-funding initiative raised $350,000 for Robertson, and Ford Motors donated a brand-new Taurus on top of it. Robertson remarked: “The Taurus is the perfect car for me. Simple on the outside and strong on the inside.”
In humanism one speaks of the golden rule, a moral principle that involves the ethics of reciprocity: treat others as you would like to be treated. While this maxim seems sensible and has been a guiding principle in Western societies, it assumes at least some level of preexisting equality, or equivalence. What if others do not want to be treated the way we’d like to be treated? What if they have other tastes, ideas, convictions? Suddenly the seemingly logical and humanist premise turns into imposing our own feelings, desires, and behaviors onto others, and an insistence that they see our point of view as the normalized one. Does the golden rule fail us here? Perhaps not, if we interpret it as about offering compassion and listening with greater empathy. Call it the golden rule 2.0: do not treat people the way you do not want to be treated.
Art in many ways is seen as a self-serving and egocentric form of expression. The idea that an artist produces works they believe in so much that they are convinced there is an audience out there who might pay attention has always astounded me on some level. One would assume that this conviction must be backed up with a lot of self-confidence, and indeed, I have known of some truly egomaniacal artists. But my two decades of experience as a curator has shown me that despite a longing for public recognition and, yes, sometimes self-centeredness, doubt and diffidence also play an enormous role in making art.
How does this all fit into a conversation about generosity, you might ask? Perhaps instead of looking at art as a vain form of self-expression, we could see it as having greater societal value. A great work of art is not just a mirror of its maker but an invitation to participate in a dialogue—the first sentence or inquiry in a desired discussion with the viewer. Relational aesthetics, Fluxus, and many other art movements have overtly emphasized viewer participation; Felix Gonzalez-Torres, even from beyond the grave, continues to give away candy in an active conversation with his audiences. Soliciting dialogue, discussion, and participation among one’s viewers, I would argue, is a form of generosity in that it unselfishly encourages viewers to experience art on their own terms, bringing to the table their life knowledge and experience.