The Responsibility of Art Is Not Just Internal
When I was sitting at the Dynamic Adaptability conference a couple months ago, at one point an artist got on stage ostensibly as part of a panel on how to raise money for individual projects. He led a rousing 10-minute example of how to engage an audience to donate money to a hypothetical project and encouraged audience members to shout out questions about the project, things like “what is your budget,” “what is the format of the event,” and some variation of “what is the point off this event.” And it’s this last one that caught me, because in response, without hesitation, and to the great joy of the many artists in the audience, the speaker said, “Art does not need a reason to exist; art does not need to be justified.”
As an advocate for the arts, and as a person with a mind for marketing, I find this line of argument both reductive and damaging. Of course art needs to justify its existence, just like any other potential investment opportunity – to claim otherwise is simply to say to claim that art sits above all other aspects of the world. To argue that the simple existence of a piece makes the world a better place, regardless of the quality, message, aesthetic and form of that piece is the same as saying that the mushroom scrubber is in fact a useful invention simply for the fact that it exists. And ultimately, I think such an attitude, of choosing to say “if you don’t get it, too bad” as opposed to trying to puzzle out the intricacies of translating the vocabulary of an artist to that of a lay person, is at the heart of a lot of the perceived irrelevancy and marginalization of the field in the larger population.
I get extremely agitated when I hear a person in one sentence say that they make art from a personal place and feel no need to understand how it engages or doesn’t engage with the community, and in the next sentence say that they want to (or, often, “deserve”) to make a living doing just that.
When it comes down to it, I feel that there are certain people, the greatest artists of all time, for whom such an attitude might be true (although, to point it out, many of those artists did not in fact make a living off of their work during that time, and were instead only celebrated later). And I don’t claim to be able to judge which of the many thousands of individual artists in the city are the ones most likely to be the next great, society-touching savant. But I know, for me, that I love being an artist – taking photographs, designing quilts, writing short stories, painting, drawing, doing theatre – and I don’t especially feel a need to create that work with the world at large in mind. The difference, I think, is that I also don’t have any expectations that a room full of people will throw money from the balconies at me simply because I tell them to, nor that were I in that position, I would not have to answer that person in the third row who shouts out, “Why does this deserve to exist?”