I often reference Republic, the classic Greek philosophy text, when I discuss the role of the artist in society. In the text, Socrates is having a conversation very similar to a million conversations I have had over a beer with any number of friends over the years. He is forming the perfect society. He believes that a sort of class system is inevitable. In the conversation, he discusses the creation of a political or ruling class, a military class to protect the political class, and so on. When he gets to the subject of what we would in modern day recognize as an artist or creative class, he basically doesn’t know what to do.
He recognizes right out of the gate that they are trouble. They are not ones to fall in line or be conformists. They have the power to make people think by presenting poetry, music and visual art that reflects images of the issues that may be going on in society. They have too much potential to make the perfect society not work. So his first inclination is that they should all be kicked out.
Upon doing so, he then walks back in his thinking. He then recognizes that a society without artists would be totally lacking. There would be none of the joy that is brought into people’s lives by music. No beauty by artists. So he eventually and begrudgingly decides that, ok, we can let them back in. But they must promise to be good. And that is the solution given by one of the greatest philosophical minds of all time. If you really think about it, there is a degree of irony in his view, given that he was constantly in question for corrupting the young minds of his day with that whole idea that people should think and reason intelligently.
This is where I have always thought he fell short. He had the wrong view of the artist. He saw them as a necessary nuisance, something to be tolerated. He saw them as a disruptive presence in society that could incite discord among the people who would have no reason to be unhappy. However, in real life there is no achievable state of perfection in a society. There is only the constant evolution of improvement.
Thus, the artist throughout the ages has lived as an outsider. Artists constantly observe and analyze, giving them the ability to recognize when injustice and negative aspects of society need to be brought to light. They are not the nuisance that Socrates saw, but instead are a steadfast tool that can help societies’ leaders identify and course correct when they begin to waiver from the direction of betterment for all.
Over the ages, art has evolved in a constant series of movements, each being a direct response or evolutionary step to a previous movement. So you have things like Dada, which moves into Surrealism, which moves through abstract expressionism and beyond. We are currently in a post-modern world. There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what can actually be considered art and what the purpose of art is in general.
This brings us to our current political climate. There is much injustice going on, no one can argue that. We live in a time when people can be complacent in that we have a leader who demonizes the media because the truth and the spreading of truth to the populace is a threat to him. There is corruption and abuse of power. This is the time when we need artists to stand tall and do what they have done throughout history. This is a time for artists to stand and make people think. This is a time when we need artists to be political and be the course correctors that the vessel of society needs to right its direction to continue a journey that is for the betterment of all. This is a time for artists to be ARTISTS.
So this is my challenge the five people who actually read this:
Make art. Make art that is political and full of energy. Make art that is thought-provoking. Make people uncomfortable. If you make people think and question, then everyone wins. Truth wins. Otherwise, you are just making pretty pictures with no real meaning or value.
If every artist in our nation were to stand and make just one piece of political art, the world would take notice. So go forth