My buddy dingalo.deviantart.com/
asked me for a response to help her go about an art project about "emotional consumption"-- what it's like to be "consumed by" an emotion or mental state of being (e.g., "consumed by guilt). I thought I'd share and see what other art people have to say about what drives their art practices
My response:For about the 4 years (about 9th-12th grade) that I seriously considered "becoming an artist" (not that I had any well-outlined idea of what that would look like), I felt consumed by the faith in art that it could "change the world" or "help people" (in some vague sense--never outlining what that change would entail or how positive impact could be measured), and the romantic notion that artists/writers/musicians can usher in new paradigms of thought, overthrow oppressive regimes, stop environmental destruction etc. If it were possible for my art practice to catalyze such change, then it seemed to me that artmaking was altruistic AND a moral obligation.
At the same time, however, I could never answer the mentally-consuming question, "is art a selfish pursuit?" In asking myself such a question, I was assuming that selfishness was morally reprehensible. Arguably it is: the time you put into making art and being completely consumed by your own artistic pursuit is time you could be putting into any other "practical" alternative activity that would generate more "good" for people (I put these terms in quotes what counts as something practical and what is good for the world is totally subjective). After one of the art programs I attended, one of my teachers concluded with some last words of wisdom: "art is totally useless." Of course, art still has value though--we wouldn't all be on this site if no one valued it.
I wanted to pursue art because I genuinely thought I could "change the world" by making art that reflected on societal, environmental, and economic issues. Not that I really had to understand any of the issues very holistically to make art about them--what is the history of economic and societal development in the Philippines that has resulted in it being a poorer country with lower living standards than the U.S., with people living in places like Smokey Mountain?( dannayy.deviantart.com/art/Met…
). What has brought about technological change and facilitated the mass distribution and integration of new devices into our lives? ( dannayy.deviantart.com/art/Roo…
) Why does environmental degradation even happen? ( dannayy.deviantart.com/art/Ind…
) But as the artist it's not my job to do
anything about it--just to scream "HEY GUYS LOOK AT EVERYTHING TERRIBLE IN THIS WORLD!" So doing art became about being that person who calls attention to issues and spreads awareness, but plays a marginal role actually eliminating and mitigating problems. Of course awareness is important--but it wasn't enough for me. I didn't want to admit that I was, to myself even, masquerading art as something that is purely altruistic. It isn't fully selfish of course: i'd say it's a mix of self-interest/selfishness but CAN create real good and impact people positively and be life-changing, and there's no reason to condemn that. But when you deal with big social justice issues in art, you have to acknowledge that there's a lot of work that needs to be done by a lot of people in order for you to get the outcomes you want. For example, it takes a while for the message embedded in an art piece about environmental degradation to manifest itself in any national cap-and-trade legislation (which died in the US Congress and hasn't been a huge success story in the EU) or international legally binding greenhouse gas emissions limits (lol).
If you try to engage/address these big issues in artmaking, I'd say that you surround yourself with the delusion that you can change the world positively through the power of art. Which isn't to say that you can't or that art is powerless; it just seems to me that people purport art as being more powerful than it actually is. Art isn't political willpower or effective enforcement of any policies that will help the change you want to see happen come to fruition.
As I said before there's always an inherent time tradeoff when you make art: time i'm putting into art is time i'm not putting into doing more "useful" things in the world. But I also stated that art does have power to shape how people think and can certainly incite action and activism. I think people would agree that visionary and influential activist-artists like Banksy and Ai Weiwei are useful people as they try to keep their governments in check. But until you truly change people's lives and can see that on a scale that satisfies you (and it's hard to satisfy us egotistical artists), therein lies some futility in artmaking; frustration that your art isn't reaching people or that people "don't get it", and, until people do clear that success threshold, it seems to me like it's not best use of one's time. But this is a double standard in itself--how can people clear the threshold if they don't even try and don't put the time in to it? It seems like the dichotomy in art making is between that sinking feeling of its pointlessness and ineffectualness in creating the real changes you want to see in the world (or the fact that you have no idea to what extent you've impacted people's lives with your art) and the hopeful feeling that it always gives you when you imagine the potential impacts your art could have. I guess I have a utilitarian when it comes to how useful artists are.
If you don't do art to try to achieve these lofty ideals like "changing the world" or "changing the way people think," that is totally fine too. Art therapy creates it's own kind of good. People respond to aesthetically pleasing things--abstract paintings in offices and landscapes in people's houses. In the art world, realistically I thought I'd go down the freelance illustrator/ graphic designer road. But I'm not an art major anymore because there seemed to be no way to really reduce societal inequality in this country through taking on commercial projects to make money. Maybe putting all my time and effort into an environmental science major will yield some "good" (advancing what we know about the climate system, estimating climate change's impacts, understanding ecosystems and helping build their resilience... still pretty vague so far too).
I don't have any delusions left about what my art making can do. I want to make some kind of enlightening graphic novel for people's entertainment and life enrichment, and also for my own entertainment--at the end of the day, drawing will always be fun and relaxing and self-fulfilling. And I can make money off art because people value it. So art can create utility, but making a movie or writing a book or painting a painting isn't guaranteed to be effective activism.
What do you guys think? What are your goals in your art practice?