In my "Drawing from Imagination" class, each week we're assigned a Discussion Topic to show that we really think about art and have critical skills of some kind. I tend to have a lot of fun with these, and I'm just obnoxious enough to want to share.
DISCUSSION TOPIC #12:
Would you say it is more important for artists to produce their work for the enrichment and elevation society, even if remaining anonymous, or that society has a duty to recognize artists and acknowledge their personal "statements"?
Please no "both are important" answers!
Both are important! Oh, wait...
As a working artist, it's hard to deny the importance of recognition. Commercial viability depends on marketability; marketability depends on recognition. We can't eat if we don't get noticed. We don't feel loved if we don't get attention. We can't go home on Thanksgiving and make our parents proud if we don't get a few hundred Facebook Likes on a new illustration. But these are selfish desires, even the ones about eating and paying rent. It's not a duty of society to notice us - society owing anything to artists isn't part of the unspoken contract. If we want to get noticed, we need to make art that pleases people - or shocks or surprises people - or entertains them, or turns them on, or offends them. That part is our responsibility, not theirs. We're the ones that have to hire agents, or pound the pavement, or send out endless portfolios. It's the same for fine artists as for commercial artists, though their ambitions may be more lofty than ours - they're still holding up a mirror to society, and begging society to look in that mirror. If society walks by without making eye contact, that's not failure to meet an obligation. That's just the mechanics of attention.
Taking a wider perspective, as a human and a cog in the machinery of history, it's more important that I make some kind of contribution to society. Even an empty, fluffy contribution, entertainment for entertainment's sake - I've made a few kids smile, or a few puritans blush. I don't take an altruistic responsibility to "change the world for the better" necessarily, although I hope I push a few molecules of air in a positive direction, in the balance of things. The groundbreaking pioneers that painted the animals at Lascaux... they made it possible to be what we are, and we'll never know their names, if they even had names. I love that there are academics working hard to know more about them, but their contributions have long outlived the individuals that wielded the brushes. Van Gogh contributed far more to the understanding of light and the techniques of emotion than he ever received recognition for in his lifetime, and that's sad for him - but to the benefit of humanity nonetheless.
Enrichment and elevation of society. Those words are awfully noble, and I don't know how to be certain if I'm even pointing in the right direction. For centuries, the only enrichment or elevation art was allowed to aspire to was dictated by the Church. Michaelangelo and Fra Filippo definitely enriched society with the art they created, but whether or not there was elevation depends on how you feel about the underlying faith and philosophy. I think that the great artists of history (and the mediocre and unknown ones too) always hoped to enrich and elevate mankind in some way, although one suspects that they often also craved recognition and fame - or at least the avoidance of excommunication or execution.
For myself, I will be satisfied if my art lifts the moods of some people, inspires some other artists, provokes some thought, and maybe continues to do those things after I'm gone. But if it sells some books, wins some awards, makes some house payments, and gets me a few hundred Facebook Likes, that's okay with me too.