The Artist in Society

I recently read a letter from one of the country’s leading artists in which he outlined his views on the role of the artist in society. It’s a fascinating list of 22 points from someone who has obviously given this a great deal of thought. Some I found inspirational (#18), some I questioned (#6), and others I’m still trying to understand (#17 and #22).

There is much to admire in those artists who are totally committed to their work and ideals, who create without concern for critical and commercial success, or being accepted (let alone appreciated) by the masses or their peers. It’s a romantic view of the artist, toiling in obscurity and abject poverty, completely dedicated to transforming the ethereal into something tangible.

I think many of us aspire to that ideal, but in reality, few are able to maintain it. Real life intervenes, and compromises are made for any number of reasons – financial reward, comfort and security, notoriety. I don’t view that as a failure or a lack of character – at least, I try not to. Some people (myself included), are simply much happier in the middle of the spectrum than hanging out at the extreme ends.

So, take a look at the list and see if any of the points resonate with you.

1. The artist’s role is to challenge, provoke, question, unsettle, reveal and present the world in which he lives, using every artistic means at his disposal. In order to do this, he must first and foremost challenge, provoke, question, unsettle, reveal and present himself.

2. An artist must be both the bridge and the abyss.

3. Creating means crawling out of your personal nothingness. It’s beyond understanding.

4. A work of art does not exist to please, it exists to ignite.

5. A work of art doesn’t have to be understandable.

6. A cultural institution shouldn’t concern itself with how many members or subscribers it has.

7. A cultural institution should concern itself only with the excellence of its commitment to artistic creation and artists. This freedom is what gives the institution its particular qualities and profile.

8. For an artist, the best way to respect an audience member is to consider him/her more intelligent than oneself.

9. We are not here to serve.

10. We are not here to succeed.

11. We are not here to entertain.

12. We are not here to start over.

13. We are here to engage.

14. If an artist were a word, he would be the word pli (fold).

15. The word pli occurs in “Plier. Déplier. Replier. Impliquer. Compliquer. Expliquer. Simplifier. Dupliquer. Appliquer. Amplifier.” (“Fold. Unfold. Fold up. Engage. Complicate. Explain. Simplify. Duplicate. Apply. Amplify.”)

16. We are not here to invent, but to deepen wounds.

17. If an artist were an animal, he would be either a dung beetle or a boa constrictor.

18. Working on behalf of a minority that is not interested in what interests the majority is also democracy.

19. Art is not a doormat you use to wipe off and assuage your unquestioning acceptance.

20. An artist is not a politician.

21. (finally, most unbearable of all) An artist does not have to justify himself.

22. Together with murder and innocent blood, self-justification is one of the things that separates art from terrorism.

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