Art is dead.
That’s a phrase that has been uttered many times by many people in many ways. It’s certainly catchy, and it’s not hard to see why people feel that way. After all, it is easy to become discouraged as an artist trying to get started in the world today. The obstacles have scarcely changed through history (there’s a reason “starving artist” is a stereotype), but the state of the view of art in the United States at least feels very lacking.
Why is that, though?
Speaking as a person who has engaged with artistic pursuits throughout my life, I found myself disenchanted with the state art is in. I have mentioned before in my blog (and it is likely to come up again, let’s be honest) that my background was in theatre. I love theatre with all my heart. Theatre done right is a community coming together and discussing issues common to them all – this has been true ever since its ancient roots in tribal campfire storytelling. Moments when you can reach that true connection in that brief time you have with an audience are like the dragon that many chase their whole lives. There is an electricity, a power in it. Theatre, now, is for the elite – it’s going the way of the opera. The connection can’t exist in these spaces, they are reconstructions of a past glory. They do not, and probably can not, understand why their words fall hollow. Perhaps they don’t even know the difference. This isn’t the first time it has fallen into those clutches, but usually the people have found their voice in the gutters and theatre has continued in its truer form regardless.
Now, though, I’m feeling something different – an undercurrent of disdain for such pursuits runs deep in our culture. I can recall from my childhood seeing the artist portrayed as a lesser person, poor, pointless, often a drain on the characters whose lives they leeched from. They were loser boyfriends who wasted time painting all day and doing nothing productive. They were weirdos locking themselves in their rooms and screaming while they flung paint at a canvas. Even when they were good, they were certainly at least eccentric (though let’s be honest, that’s probably pretty spot on). My point is, I can’t remember many positive portrayals of artists in the media I engaged with – which is strange, because you assume they’re the ones making it to begin with. I’ll stop here before I veer too far off track, I’m working towards a point here.
What is the artist’s place in society?
This question is why we should be concerned that this is the public perception of artists. I’ll explain.
The artist is a society’s conscience. They hold the mirror up to nature, as Shakespeare says, and they reveal the true form of a society in both its beauty and its ugliness. The artist asks questions and encourages others to do the same. They venture into the dark sides of our natures, seeking to understand the things that unite us all as a species. The joy, the pain, every extreme across every spectrum is within the purview of the artist. They want to feel it all, know it all, then share it all with everyone they can. Society absolutely needs this kind of self-reflection for its continued health. It never is grateful for it, but it needs it.
Think of it this way; a society is like an organism. Every piece has its function to the health and success of the organism. Choosing to ignore a crucial piece of that machine is dangerous, perhaps deadly. Right now, we are missing our compass. You can see it everywhere, the lack of empathy and understanding for fellow human beings. Meanwhile, people are dying all over the world. The first resource wars have already begun, the rising tide of global scarcity is coming for us all – and soon. The climate is changing, human population keeps growing, and sustainable solutions are continually put to the wayside in favor of short-term profits.
We’re being taken to dangerous places as a society, and the voices of artists are sorely lacking. The problems we face not just as a country but as an entire species are truly great and urgent. That’s partly why I’m here to begin with – I can’t do nothing anymore. I hope that more people with louder, more effective voices are taking up the charge as well. The stakes have never been higher, and at the moment we aren’t acting like it.
Long live art.