WESTPORT — Inhumanity.

That, according to artist Ward Shelley, is what keeps mankind alive and what inspired his upcoming show at the Westport Arts Center.

“What keeps mankind alive is inhumanity toward other men. Instead of helping each other, they try to exploit one another,” Shelley said. “It’s pretty dark, but I think a good place to start when you talk about other things.”

Amanda Innes, executive director of the Westport Art Center, chose Shelley’s work for this season’s exhibit as a way to get people talking and thinking.

“He likes to get people to think about things in a way they haven’t thought about them before, whether it’s how people live or the issue of homelessness,” Innes said.

Although Shelley, a resident of Easton, is primarily known as a performance artist, his exhibit “What Keeps Mankind Alive” is a series of diagrammatic paintings.

Included among the works in the exhibit is “The Last Library,” part of an ongoing collaboration between Shelley and fellow contemporary artist Douglas Paulson. The piece is composed of 3,000 books housed in bookcases that “should have been written, but haven’t,” Shelley said.

“The books are all subjective points of view,” he said.

“It’s kind of like a snapshot of what was going on in our minds at the time.

“It’s a little bit like Twitter — using a very short form to convey an idea,” Shelley said.

Shelley admits his work, and titles of the imaginary books he created, are undoubtedly infused with his own biases and narrative ideas, but said the piece is not meant to impose his own ideas on others.

“We try to make it entertaining, as well as contemplative, with a certain amount of humor and sardonic commentary,” Shelley said.

“You kind of browse the way you would almost like shopping, hunter-gatherer style. You start forming a chain of associations, but ultimately it’s a very subjective, personal experience everyone has on their own.”

Innes concurs Shelley’s exhibit has a deeper social meaning, but agrees the meaning is not forced on viewers.

“I think that’s really the biggest social purpose of art, getting you to look at things differently,” she said.

“And it’s in a way that has to originate within the viewer.”

The opening reception for Shelley’s exhibition is Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the arts center and is free.

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mediact.com; @SophieCVaughan1