The Artist’s Responsibility?

So, I took a quarter off from blogging. Yeah, that happened. Now back to it.

To start back up, let’s look at something in the vein of pop philosophy–that way I can ease myself back into blogging with something that’s squarely in my wheelhouse.

So, last night an artist posed this question “If you have the ability to depict humanity through your art–should you depict humanity as it is or humanity as it should be?”. The medium of the conversation was Twitter, so my response was the kind of cryptic Zen thing that the 140 character limit requires, but I wanted to dig into the question at a greater length, because I think there are a couple of things in there that might be fun to talk about.

The question as posed is clearly one for artists1, and artists who feel they have a certain competence. To answer the question as asked, you have to accept both the premise that you have art, and that you’re competent to use it to reveal something about humanity. I wouldn’t have posed the question this way, because I’m not an artist2 and I’m very aware of that. I likely would have used a more distanced phrasing: “If one has the ability… should one…”, but I’m very pleased that the question wasn’t posed that way–the way it was asked both requires a more intimate engagement from respondents, and also treats them as equals. That’s a question intended to draw a conversation, not as disingenuous staging ground for a manifesto, or as the opening volley in some abstract intellectual game.

It’s also a normative question–that first “should” carries a lot of weight. A responsibility is implied, which raises some interesting questions itself: Does the artist have a responsibility to do anything at all? If so, does that encompass favouring one of the paths offered? Also if so, to whom is he responsible?

I might be more comfortable talking in terms of the Responsibility Of The Artists were I one myself, but going too deeply into that side of things from the peanut gallery seems a bit presumptuous. Let me just say that I see only three possible answers: that the artist has a responsibility to himself, to society/humanity, or to his art. I’m comfortable talking about the first one, because I think it’s probably true, but in the same way that it’s true for anyone, artist or not. I don’t think I buy the second one–artists have much to offer society/humanity, but I don’t think I see a normative framework in which they OWE them to us. The third one sounds nice, but I don’t know what it means, really. I’d love to spend some time, over a glass or two of something, shooting the shit with some artists about that one.

But a responsibility to themselves? That I can ramble about, because that lines up with the process philosophy that I’ve spent a decade and a half, or so, refining. In the shortest possible terms–since I don’t want to turn this into an essay on Chris’ weird ideas about How To Live3 or –I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that everyone has a responsibility to themselves to be better than they were. What better means will include a vast number of things, and they might change over time, of course. We don’t all agree on better either, but that’s one of the things that makes life interesting.

So an artist, could easily been seen as having responsibilities (to themselves) to both become better people4 and to work to improve their art–that may mean improving technical skills, but it probably also means understanding what their art is for, and improving it’s success at that, as well.

So, if we accept that an artist has some responsibilities to try to improve their art, does that say anything about the question of using art to help depict humanity as it is versus as it should be? (That second “should” is just hanging out there like a normative time bomb, isn’t it?)

And that’s where I say “why is this an either/or question?” and smile, because this ties right back into my whole process notion.

In order to know whether you’re better now than you used to be, you need to know two things: where you are now, and which direction it is towards where you used to be. Then you can decide whether the direction you moved in to get to where you are now, was the direction of better or not. And when you want to try to set out on the road to better, you need to know two things: where you are now, and which direction is your best guess towards better. So you can imagine that I want art to help me see my own feet, and to help me figure out how to evaluate the quality of different directions down the road.

For at least the entire length of Western Civilization, and probably longer, one of the roots of wisdom has been “know thyself”. Knowing yourself in the individual sense means understanding who you are, why you do what you do, knowing your own limits and failings, knowing what you want and why you want it, the kinds of stories you tell yourself about who you are, and so on. And sometimes it means understanding that there are things we’re very purposefully not knowing about ourselves, because if we let ourselves know them we’d have to change.

Of course there’s not just the individual sense–we also need to know ourselves in communal senses of various sizes: what does it mean to be in a friendship, to be in love, to belong to a social group, to a profession, to a nation, to a species? What does “we” encompass?

And big-A Art, of course, is one of our main tools for doing this: for reflecting and interpreting who we are, for understanding the ways in which others are like us, different from us, for defining our relationships to others, and so on. Art is the only way we have to see the world through more than one set of eyes.

For the larger sense of “knowing ourselves” you could probably make an argument that helping to build, and evolve, our understanding of these relationships is one of the most important things art does. This is where subjectivity really comes home to roost–art can be used to create or reinforce understandings of ourselves, especially as groups, that look like really bad ideas from some vantage points. That’s a whole other layer of “should” though–and I’m staying away from that or else I’ll never finish this post.

So if Art can help us understand ourselves, help us really know ourselves, then that can’t be a bad thing5. And an artist who understands that, and considers that an aim of his art probably should feel a responsibility to try to do some of that.

I’ve phrased off that in a way that makes it sound like the role of the artist is to help someone who’s seeking understanding, and I do think that’s one role, but let me be clear–I don’t think it’s the only one, or even the most significant one. Sometimes the role of the artist is to force people who are complacent into some self-understanding that they perhaps would rather not have achieved. Sometimes it’s just holding up a mirror so we can see what we look like from the outside. Sometimes it’s shining a light on things we’d rather not see about ourselves. Sometimes art challenges us to know ourselves.

But that’s not the whole story–because knowing what we are now also includes understanding the ways in which we are limited, failing, or broken. It’s understanding our mistakes and why we make them, it’s understanding why we do things we regret. And all of that implies that we can see a way to be better, (even if it’s only “not like this”). Sometimes all you need to do in order to suggest the way humanity should be, is to show how it is, so maybe the two paths aren’t even really that distinct.

Art can certainly be used to explicitly show an artist’s view of what humanity should be. Maybe it’s as direct as making a suggestion, or marking out a path, or maybe it’s as subtle as asking “why” about the right thing at the right time. Hell, it can be a case of playing “what if” with some bad decisions and using the results to implicitly highlight the right ones. The point is that art can also show us the direction towards “better”, at least in as far as the artist understands where we are, and which direction is better.

Does it have to? Is the artist responsible to do that?

Man, I don’t know.

If you could help someone be better, are you responsible to do it? If you could stop someone from making a big mistake, are you responsible to do it?

Maybe not: we’re all adults here. But I’ll probably like you more if you try.

Here’s what I do know: an artist who uses their art to both help us understand ourselves (even if we sometimes don’t want to) has done a good thing, an artist who uses their art to suggest ways in which we can transcend the current limits of who & what we are has done a good thing, and any artist who does both is going to get my respect.

  1. I should note that I am using the term here in the broadest possible sense, to include anyone who creates art–painters, writers, actors, sculptors, musicians, whatever.(back)
  2. i don’t think even the French would classify a raconteur as an artist, and that’s probably as close as I get. I might have the hubris to claim philosopher, but that’s something both subtly and distantly distinct from an artist.(back)
  3. If you do want to know, you might read my little parable, or see the ideas reflected in things like this or this.(back)
  4. …just like everybody else.(back)
  5. Yes, I am using a lazy cheat here of assuming that any art that “really” helps us know ourselves lines up with what I think is “good”, and that other stuff is “propaganda” and not art–again, I’m specifically avoiding that whole can of worms to make a different point. If you want to bring up Triumph Of The Will or “white power” music, we can do it in the comments.(back)

  4 comments for “The Artist’s Responsibility?

  1. September 20, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Sometimes the best way to make people think about “humanity as it should be” is to depict “humanity as it is” — the artist’s depiction is not necessarily the same as its intent, and indeed, I think most good art that makes a meaning social commentary does so by putting a lens on what is or what could be. If the viewer or reader can then make the jump (sometimes it’s a big leap, but some art is more obvious and it’s just a baby-step) from the depiction to the intent, and that’s where the art is.

    • September 20, 2010 at 12:07 pm

      Yeah, the fact that the dichotomy might not really be one is what I was trying to express with “Sometimes all you need to do in order to suggest the way humanity should be, it to show how it is, so maybe the two paths aren’t even really that distinct. ”

      The question of separation between what the art depicts and what the artist intends (hopes?) the audience to experience is very interesting. Makes me think of my writer friend who used drummer analogies to explain how good writing leaves a lot of things unsaid (“playing the spaces”). I’ve often thought that the key to poetry in particular was in that gulf–that what you want to convey can’t be said, but you can use words to “outline” a space, and the reader fills that in with their experience, allowing communication of something that doesn’t fit into the medium used to convey it.

      P.S. Threaded comments!

  2. Kira
    October 2, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Well, what about abstract, formalist and structural art then? What about your Mandelbulb? What about Santayana and his ideas about beauty?

    • October 5, 2010 at 12:29 am

      I think the question kind of presupposes that we’re talking about art that depicts humanity, which would dodge most of your first point. (Although I think there’s a whole assumed-but-undiscussed premise in there that would be good for an hour or so of fabulous bullshit talking over drinks around the question of “what’s the difference between creating beauty and creating art?”)

      Santayana and aesthetics is a whole other ball of wax, although again there’s some blurring of the potential beauty/art distinction there. Certainly Santayana’s notion that “to judge that anything is beautiful is ‘virtually to establish an ideal'” might be used to argue that in order for depictions of humanity to be considered beautiful they must by “what we should be” type depictions, just as his “pleasure regarded as a quality of the thing” definition of beauty might. I think, though, that the Venn diagrams of “what is beautiful” and “what is art” only overlap somewhat, and that some of the most effective art—by whatever metric you judge effectiveness–would fail Santayana’s tests of a formal beauty.

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This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.