In most occupations the question of responsibility is easily answered. A doctor must ensure the safety and health of their patients to the best of their ability. A scientist must pursue the physical truths of the universe with the greatest accuracy possible. A teacher must support their students in their pursuit of knowledge and provide the structure necessary to do so. Even with this seeming occupational clarity, there is one question which haunts some of us daily: What is the responsibility of the artist in the modern world? That condition of “modern” is very important to this piece; the rise of the internet has so drastically increased the world’s access to art that it cannot be ignored as a passing factor. What is the modern artist to do?
As with any piece such as this, I find it essential that I define our subject. In this case I would define an artist as a creator of entertainment or intellectual enrichment. This would include music, literature, graphic art, physical pieces and filmed pieces. Obviously quite a few specialties fall in between or are combinations of those qualifications, and they should be counted as well. What should not be counted is creativity in more practical professions. For example, there is a certain art to creating new medical equipment, a type of thought that innovates to serve directly. However, because its ultimate goal is to serve the health of the public and not to enrich intellectually, it is not part of this argument.
Amongst the few of us that have the mental disease that forces us to create instead of doing something more obviously useful to society, I have noticed a pattern. Artists are not only interested in their own area of work, but typically have very strong and educated opinions in other areas of art. This is evident throughout much of history as many great thinkers and artists have delved into other territory. Furthermore, most artists seem to have an attraction to philosophy and in turn, history and politics. This is completely logical as art uses all these things as a framework to deliver its message. While in earlier civilizations this was also linked to science and math, we have advanced far enough to separate the theoretical side of thought from that of direct scientific pursuit. Additionally, the modern artist has all of this information at their fingertips, making these varied artistic pursuits that much more complete.
For the purposes of this piece, I ask you to accept that artists in general are good at this type of theoretical thought. It is because we are good at it that we also enjoy it (ok, we enjoy it for other reasons too, but work with me). Though I am a writer and wish to do that for the rest of my life, I also invest quite a bit of time and thought in other forms of art without any promise or hope of turning that into an economic pursuit. That is a big factor in why Alex and I started this blog in the first place. This information is important and it must be preserved and spread. That is the first piece of the responsibility an artist holds.
Last Spring I attended a college radio conference and was treated to a lecture by Public Enemy front man Chuck D. While he told many stories and dispensed many opinions on the state of hip hop, he made two big points that have stuck with me. The first was that it is the responsibility of the artist to pursue information, you can’t expect to be handed anything and if you aren’t enthusiastic enough to put the effort in you should find something else to do with your life. The other was the responsibility of the artist to educate the public on that which they love. Specifically, he spoke on how the fall of the radio DJ has diminished the public’s knowledge of music. With no one to guide them to their next record, or perhaps the preceding record, most people simply do not put in the effort to find new music. In this case, artists are simply not being paid for their skills.
We all need to put food on the table, and one can certainly do so by creating art. Though even commercial art can be of great value to society, I believe the artist owes society something more than that. If we are equipped to think in a different way than most, it is our responsibility to provide these inquests to the general public. This responsibility should not only include our personal area of focus, but any other topics we are well versed in. Our skills may not seem to be needed on a daily basis, but they contribute in many important ways. Art often comments on the philosophical and political state of society. This adds another layer of responsibility; the artist must keep up on the overall state of the world, even beyond art. How could one effectively comment on a society that they don’t understand? Not that this would be a burden, as I stated prior this tends to be an area of interest for artists regardless.
This is not to say that those who are not artists have nothing to contribute, society would completely collapse without the more practically minded. A world populated by only artists would not be able to sustain itself for long. What I am saying is that the gift/curse an artist holds can be used to enrich the lives of the world. We are the stewards of free thought, it is our responsibility to preserve and enrich as many aspects of art as we can, because not everyone cares enough to do so.
Vinny’s unrelated video pick of the week!