Artists’ Obligations

I’ve recently made a decision to attempt to make work that is more overtly political. For some time I’ve been very aware of the materials I use to make my work– where they are made, where they are purchased from, or whether they are purchased at all or instead recycled from old work or found materials. Yet this is not immediately, or perhaps ever, obvious to the viewer who looks at my work. And, as someone who obsessively reads the editorial pages of the NY Times and Washington Post, who listens to NPR podcasts rather than music on my long runs, who subjects her friends to rants about corporate socialism, environmentalism, and the myriad present social injustices, I’ve begun to feel that not making a more explicit statement with my artwork is irresponsible.

In fact, do artists have a responsibility to make work that critiques, protests, or even simply comments on actions that have led to a world that is being suffocated by carbon dioxide, people fighting in a war that began with false pretenses, major health crises, government sanctioned oppression of groups of people, government sanctioned torture, the list goes on. Should art have a social message? I’ve often postulated that the personal is in the end the universal, which is in some way political. Thus, it is only necessary to create works that have meaning for the artist; the rest flows naturally.

Yet, certainly there is precedent for great political art—Goya’s Los Capricios, Picasso’s Guernica, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, and more recently, the work of William Kentridge about apartheid in South Africa, and Daniel Heyman’s prints and installations about the Iraqi detainees and the torture at Abu Ghraib.

Still, art remains a useless commodity. That is, after all, what makes it art; it has no function other than to be admired, and perhaps to engage the viewer, to make one think. Great art will please the viewer multiple levels: it is interesting superficially, and, for some, it will also inspire closer inspection—research, study, reflection, action that will ultimately lead to a more enriching experience.

Indeed, as makers of a useless commodity in a world of rapidly depleting resources, artists need to make work that engages the viewer, even arouses him or her to learn more, to take action. We have enough vapid escapes from reality in the form of television, video games, ridiculous YouTube videos, and our other passive forms of entertainment. Art does not need to offer an escape.

I take some solace in the belief that simply choosing to be an artist is a political statement. In a culture that places a high value on corporations, superficial scandal and anti-intellectual beliefs, the artist’s actions say that there is worth in creative pursuits. There is value in studying art, in studying how to make art, in examining the philosophy that drives art; there is value in learning and in making.

I continue to accept that the personal becomes the universal, that the individual is key to ultimately accessing the collective unconscious. Yet, particularly now, shouldn’t the political be what we are personally interested in? In order for art to remain relevant, valuable, and not simply a beautiful yet vapid commodity, art needs to be about something that matters.


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