I was in New York last week, mainly talking with groups of NYU arts students about roles for artists in social change. Every once in a while in such milieux, I run into the complacent view that artists are doing good just by being artists. It annoys me when people trot out essentialist ideas of artists, as if creative workers were intrinsically good or wise or worthy, a species apart.
I told the students that artists often have something important to contribute to society because artistic training and practice tends to heighten certain capabilities, cultivating the ability to perceive what may not immediately be evident to others, or to express what others have not yet been able to formulate for themselves. I see two ways for artists to affect the larger society: First, to use their creative skills and talents to call attention to other ways of seeing and understanding the dominant reality, to see through the cover-stories; and second, to intervene as a citizen in public discourse, deliberations and policy-making.
Possessing such powers doesn’t necessarily mean they will be used for the good, even though we might like to think so. Without vigilant self-awareness, anyone can be blown off course by temptation or pressure or merely by distraction. I thought it was important to point out to the students that there are plenty of artists who are interested in nothing more than money, fame, and kissing up to the people who can help them get it. There are even artists who desire social control and domination of the many by the few. For example, Leni Reifenstahl exercised the first type of artistic leadership by making masterful films that positioned Hitler as the head of a 1000-year Reich; and Ronald Reagan became the second type of leader by involving himself first in professional politics (as head of the Screen Actors Guild), and then in corporate, state, and national politics.
So if an artist wishes to help change the world, that person–like everyone else who shares such desires–must begin by answering basic questions to discover the animating force behind the wish to have agency. What am I living for? What is worth fighting for? To whom do I feel accountable? With whom am I aligned?
Answer those, I told them, and then you’re ready to begin.