The Responsibility of Artists

The other day whilst at the Day Job, I had a co-worker ask me an incredibly, hugely philosophical question rather out of the blue. The conversation went something like this:

Co-worker: Hey, so you’re an artist.

Me: *snorts* I wouldn’t call myself that, but okay.

Co-worker: You know, you’re a creative type. Writing and painting.

Me: Um, yeah. ‘Suppose so.

Co-worker: So, I have a question I want to ask.

Me: ‘Kay.

Co-worker: What would you say is the responsibility of an artist to the world? Or you know, society?

Me: *incredibly long pause, full of shocked blinking* Umm, that’s a huge freakin’ question. Like…huge.

Co-worker: Yep.

Me: *blinking some more while I think on the fly* I don’t think an artist really owes anything to the world. You know, like, changing it or anything. Or you know, instilling world peace or something. Umm…

Co-worker: *nodding*

Me: *wracking my brain* For me personally, I think I will have succeeded as an “artist” if I’ve reached one person. Just one. And not for anything big. It could be as simple as making someone forget about their stressful day for just an hour while they read. Or you know, like, getting them to feel something. Anything. Happy. Sad. Doesn’t matter really. Just like…something, like, yeah. Anything.

Co-worker: *nodding*

Me: *feeling insanely inarticulate* Ummm…yeah. So, what’re you writing an essay or something?

Co-worker: My kid is.

Me: Ah. That’s a ginormous essay question.

Co-worker: Outlined in-class essay.

Me: Ouch. My inner BA in English self is both excited and terrified.

So, I’ve had some time to think this over, and I still think it’s an insanely huge question, and one that other greater old-school thinkers have probably tackled at length at some point.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read much philosophy beyond having to write an essay on the Allegory of the Cave, which I likened to a rat stuck in a sewer system (I like choosing classy metaphors. And what’s better than choosing a metaphor to describe another giant metaphor?). You might as well ask a question like: What’s the relevance of art at all? Or: What isart? Or: Why bother to write fiction? Or play music? Or draw? Or bake or cook? Or dance?

So here is my answer in a slightly more articulate, less sucker punched way. Or at least I hope. I make no guarantees.

 I do believe that in a way, there is art out there that can change the society by shining a light on something we normally, uncomfortably hide away in the dark. Just think of all those Pulitzer winning war photos that practically slap you in the face to make you uncomfortable that yes, there are people out there dying that you so casually have either ignored, or never bothered to learn about. Or a play that shines a light on the horrible bits of racism that still go on. Or a book that chronicles the hard life of a poor Dust Bowl family making their way to California (Yeah, I know I’ve bitched a lot about having to read Grapes of Wrath three times, but I also see the merit in its story, even if the book made me want to stab myself in the face all three times).

So yes, I think art can have overarching transformative capabilities on society.

But I also don’t think many artists intentionally set out to change the world. They’re simply sharing their inner vision. It’s something that’s intimate. It’s daring and a whole bunch of scary. It’s slapping a tiny bit of your soul out there into the wider world. It’s in dealing with your own inner bullshit and emotions in a way that others can see. It’s sometimes like a session with a psychologist, only you’re using fictional characters, or cerulean blue paints, or a DSLR camera, or interpretative dance, or with tomatoes, carrots and celery, or chord progressions and staccato in F minor.

Or more simply, it’s saying ‘Hey, this is how I see.’ And sharing what you see with others can be transformative, without even realizing it. Without that being the intent.

One of my favorite lessons as a writer was that if you take the same basic story and have it written by five different writers–you’ll get five different stories. No one has your vision. Only you can tell the story you want to tell. No matter if you think the story has been told a million-and-one times–it hasn’t. Because you haven’t told it. Toss a bunch of nutty photographers on the same beach at the same point at sunset, and you’ll get different scenes. Have five pianists playing the same impromptu, and you’ll get five different interpretations. Ever watch different cooks making the same dish?

Your vision is a thumbprint. It’s unique. It’s a fucking snowflake in a blizzard.

I also think the only true responsibility of an artist is to be emotive. For those emotions to flow from the artist to the—we’ll just call them the absorbers(you know: readers, listeners, viewers, tasters). It’s impossible to take a chunk of yourself, mix it into paint or music or writing and not have it be emotional. In fact, it’ll probably suck if you don’t feel it, if you force it or try to make it trendy, or what you think the absorbers want to absorb. It’s why so many writing classes tell you that you shouldn’t try to write to a trend, or in a genre you hate. Because if you don’t like it, that emotive property is going to make its way into your work, like spilling a bunch of coffee over a page–the stain is going to stay there. I once had a friend tell me when I was performing in a wind ensemble as a wee lass that they could tell just by listening whether or not I felt something strongly about a piece of music by the way I played it–even if I hated the composition itself. That came through.

The point of what you’re doing, I think, is to share your own emotiveness, your own vision.

And hopefully you will connect with someone. At the very least–one person. And if that happens, I believe you’ve met your responsibility as an artist.

So, my darling artists and non-artists alike: What do you think? Do artists have a responsibility to change the world? Is that responsibility small or world-spanning?

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