Warning: What follows is esoteric as hell.
Googling the term “responsibility of an artist” returns over sixty million results. A quick scan through just the first few pages of these finds more than a dozen peer-reviewed, academic essays with similar titles.
Seems I’m not the first to ponder the question. I may as well ask, “What is the meaning of life?” Yet I suspect all of us who consider applying the label “artist” to ourselves must consider this issue.
What is the issue, you ask? For me, right now, the question I’m pondering has to do with the purpose of my art, the reason I write, the themes I choose to write about, the publications where I aim to place my work. Heavy stuff like am I concerned with myself or the larger world, with style or with substance, with form or with function?
Here’s what I know: When I write, my first intention is to communicate a particular experience, observation, or emotion. To communicate a thought process. To communicate an idea. To communicate. Now, if I’m honest with myself, I also realize that in some instances I hope to persuade as well. Or at least to get someone thinking a little differently than he was before he read the piece. I want to generate a visceral response in a reader.
I like playing with sounds. I like finding the exact right word. I like arranging words into structures. For me, this part of the writing process is every bit as important as the idea I’m trying to communicate.
I know that my words contain power and I want to use that power to support ideas, places, and people I believe in. This part gets a little complicated, because I have no aspiration to preach or to try to convert in any realm, though I will gladly debate if I have a genuine interest in a discussion. I’m not interested, however, in using the power of my words to promote anything I’m not particularly motivated about or inspired by (which is why I’ll never work in advertising).
Which brings me back to responsibility. Is an artist responsible only to herself? Or is an artist responsible also to her community?
I think these types of questions are ultimately personal, to be decided by each individual artist, because we each have different priorities in our lives as well as in our art. Our art cannot be separated from the remainder of the fabric of our lives. Our art must be integrated into our lives if we are to be whole. Each of us belongs to various communities, some of which are very close to home, others that extend endlessly outward to the entire community of our planet. We are each affected by different moments as we move through our lives, and those become our inspirations, the running themes of our lives. We tend toward communities that hold sacred similar moments.
My words contain power. If I am to truly belong to my communities, then I must use what power I have to support those communities. I feel a responsibility to those groups as an artist because they are part of my self, integral to my life as a whole.
That little word “my” holds a lot of weight, though. I cannot as an individual nor as an artist be held responsible for supporting every good idea, every worthy cause, every deserving community. There simply aren’t enough hours available in my lifetime. I must make choices. I must decide which communities to devote my power to, just as I must decide which personal themes to focus on in my work. I choose to expend my energy supporting those communities most in-line with the running theme of my own life. (What other way is there?) And in making that choice, I necessarily decide that I must withhold my energy from the rest, because my power source of words is not unlimited. I must have time to recharge.
And though I do, as an artist, feel I have a responsibility to my communities, I also must uphold the responsibility I have to myself to produce the best work I possibly can, according to my own standards. When I compromise my artistic standards in support of a group expectation, I am not being true to myself. Ideally, I need these two goals to align. Realistically, of course, this won’t always happen. So, there will be times when I will compromise my artistic standards for the sake of a community goal, to support the greater good, so to speak. But then, what I produce in those situations is not, to me, truly art–even though others might say it is–because it does not measure up to my personal benchmark of artistic expression. Sometimes I’m more concerned about supporting a particular ideology or cause or person than I am about creating art, and in those cases, the compromise doesn’t worry me much. But I know that if I deny my artistic self too often for the sake of community goals, I will not be whole.
My conclusion is that both responsibilities, to myself and to my communities, are necessary to maintain my artistic wholeness. As in much of life, the answer is in the gray spaces in between, in how we give attention to both without neglecting either.
And my journey continues.