Contemporary art provides one of the pretexts for bringing people together. It does this through a combination of highly refined mechanisms that involve coexisting institutions, funders, curators, artists and their projects. Artists love being relevant to the community. At least to one community. Unsurprisingly, contemporary society provides them with a wide range of communities and causes for which they should promote their relevance. Today, the relationship between artists and their public goes beyond any professional interests; it is, first of all, one of mutual empathy, and only secondly one that is associated with aesthetic meanings. Consequently, we can speak of a growing desire to employ good artistic practices such as generating and encouraging gestures of solidarity.

As an act of social responsibility in modern societies, solidarity has been invoked since the French Revolution. It underlies many spiritual teachings as a model of honourable behaviour that brings peace, harmony, salvation. Showing concern for the others, caring for them, listening to their problems, developing a temporary sense of togetherness, helping each other, but especially learning how to escape danger – natural, political, ideological or otherwise – all this defines the tendency to show solidarity in art.

Philosopher Richard Rorty distinguishes two ways of assigning meaning to our existence: solidarity, which means including our own life story within a community, and objectivity, which involves relating to the world by means of a direct relationship that excludes similarities of thought. As recipients of art, perhaps our first gesture of solidarity with the artist is participatory aesthetics, through which the public, after centuries of passivity, is given the mission to contribute to the fulfilment of artistic gestures and become part of the community.

An artist’s solidarity is expressed on three levels: with the subject – a power-based relationship between the observer and the object of study; with the public – the artist assumes the role of conveying the message of the vulnerable community to the artistic community; with other artists – through various acts of resistance, they form groups, protest and make claims together.

In 2010, the famous Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei created jobs for the inhabitants of a Chinese village. Over 1,600 people hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds which were then exhibited in the main hall of Tate Modern in London for six months. We could give countless such examples, whether we talk about artistic acts under the form of financial, moral or legal support, social assistance or the development of disadvantaged communities around saving prerogatives. The “artistic project” brand can involve all kinds of social actions. Exclamations like “Shoot me, I’m an artist!” (Chris Burden) turn into “Let me help you, I’m an artist!” or “Let me tell the world how hard it is for you here and show you how you can make it” (Renzo Martens). In the field of art, however, such statements may originate in the social motivations of non-profit organizations, but they are also the artists’ own investigation leads.

Both through art and the mechanisms of social assistance, humanitarian organisations and projects for vulnerable groups, solidarity is transformed from a feeling that would make people help each other, be sympathetic and receptive, into a task. But whose side are we on when the goal of solidarity is diluted at the border between carrying out an artistic project and using human capital to illustrate one’s own artistic approach?

In a society that systematically funds artistic projects that express solidarity with a cause or a community, empathy becomes a requirement, an eligibility criterion. Vulnerable communities become an artistic theme of art. The ground that such an approach prepares for the art of the future is not exactly stable. On the one hand, the abundance of themes ensures a lot of artistic content. On the other, we will end up exposing the category of the helped. We will look for what is unanimously desirable and expose it. We will temporarily commiserate with the subjects and expose them as well. We will show solidarity with the artists and expose ourselves as comforters. We will become mere activists and expose ourselves as fighters. But the subjects will continue their vulnerable existence even after the artistic intervention. The artistic project will be more about the other one than about us. Our Other Us will become strictly They. And then, who gives us the right to assume the other one on our behalf?

For those of us who merely witness what artists do, not knowing how to show solidarity with them, one question remains: whose side are we on in art?