Blog / 2011 / Artists Are Future-makers.

February 12, 2011

Reading this article by Barry Johnson made me think on art and elitism again.

I tend to divide artists into two kinds: the elitist artists who make art with other artists in mind and the popular artists who make art for a wider community. I fall in the latter category and I’m clear on what I think of elitist artists. But, while this dichotomy is true to some degree, Johnson’s article reminded me that all artists, regardless of intended audiences, are still grouped together as cultural elites.

a female Paul Bunyan who plants trees instead of cutting them down
Gwenn Seemel
Paula Bunyan’s Pine Nut Planting Pouch (Austrian-American, Renate)
2008
acrylic on an oversized canvas pouch
34 x 23 x 10 inches
(Part of a series of portraits about what it means to be an American.)

The most obvious and painful proof that artists are considered cultural elites is the withdrawal of public funding from the arts which Johnson refers to and which has been going on for years now. It’s a sure sign that art is marginalized and undervalued when the government can’t find a place for it.

What’s more, by suspending support for the arts the government sends a clear message to artists that what they do is a luxury and far from “mission-critical.” And, even if every creative were imbued with the persistence and tenacity of the mythological Starving Artist, that message can’t help but impact art-makers’ self-esteem.

a female Paul Bunyan who plants trees instead of cutting them down
detail of Paula Bunyan’s Pine Nut Planting Pouch

All this makes me think of a conversation I once had with another artist. We were talking about the purpose of art, and I argued that an artist must create change for her-his viewers even if that change may seem at first glance to be small or too personal to be important. I declared that an artist isn’t an artist unless she-he does this.

My colleague responded that I was arrogant to believe that I could create change for anyone else.

Huh.

That stumped me. The logic of his statement felt right and even virtuous. Then, in a flash of intuition, I knew that the humility he was endorsing didn’t quite make sense. I replied:

It’s arrogant to ask a viewer to look at your work if you’re not offering change.

It’s easy to say that artists aren’t mission-critical when the artists themselves don’t believe that they contribute to society.

Artists are the future-makers. No matter how or why we’ve been cast as out-of-touch elitists, we’re not. We serve a concrete purpose in our communities and in the world’s community: we re-imagine the world and help to make it work better.

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