Dare I ask? Just what IS the role of an artist in society today?

I think I just heard a strange sound…..must have been the sound of a can of worms being opened.

I pose this question in the wake of being accused by a local “arts advocate” of not participating, of sitting on the sidelines and criticizing instead of “rolling up my sleeves and making change by participating”. And all along I thought I was participating! So I started wondering, just what exactly is it that is expected or desired of a artist in our society/community today?

Let me begin by saying that I am as confused by this question as anyone. I could come up with some eloquently waxed statements on the matter. It of course leads to other questions-such as, “What is the role of ART in society today?”. And the omnipresent question “What is ART?”.

Let me start small. Sometimes nibbling around the edges lets me figure things out as I go so I’ll just start by saying that making things with my hands seems to be embedded deeply in my DNA. Also, that I’m not really convinced that I am an artist. See I told you I was confused. If I ever had to go out and get what my parents termed “a real job” it wouldn’t quell the deep need I have to create things. Perhaps a 12 step program or a religious conversion would do the trick, but I doubt it. It’s just there.
So I have gone along with it since I was a child and worked it out so it could pay the bills.

Here are some other questions that come up:
Does everyone need art in their life?
-probably not, of course there are many cases one could site on this one.
Are we happier as a society with art and artists in our midst?
-I think so……
But why?
-here is where it gets more difficult. More subjective.

Does the artist’s role change in relationship to the changing needs of society? If you read this book, What is Art For? by Ellen Dissanayake you might be led to believe that making and responding to art is simply part of our human nature. Or that
we as humans have a need for beauty be it in the context of nature, our surroundings, or by creating it ourselves.

Furthermore, by definition, the term artist can be construed to mean many things. Many artists I have met (and from here out I will use this term inclusively and without judgment ) create because they cannot NOT create. Are you an artist because you created something? 5 things? 10,000 things? Is there a point at which your productivity becomes so great that you are no longer considered an artist? First you are an artist, then you are an artist with bills to pay. You become a production artist. Overhead increases. Now you are a Manufacturer. Well, you can see it starts to get a little messy here. I have been in all of these situations.

Back to the question. The artist’s role in society. Do artist’s have a responsibility in society? Should they create beauty for others to enjoy? Should they lead by example? Should they share their vision and their creativity with the public by teaching? Should they communicate with other artists from around the world? Should they all participate by dictate and attend meetings hosted by tireless arts advocates?

What would you do?
Here are some things I see other artists doing-
This is an easy one- Phil working with Pan Afrika featuring Master African Drummer Dramane Kone of Burkina Faso at a local preschool last week. Dramane is a Griot from the famous Kone family of Burkina Faso and Mali. a Griot is a West African poet, praise singer, and wandering musician, considered a repository of oral tradition.:

How about Jane and her work over the past two years at Mundo Lindo (Beautiful World) which is now coming to a close.

And if you know me you may be familiar with Elementary Art .

Please feel free to post links to any you know here in the comment section (this could get pretty lengthy!).
Of course we are only scratching the surface here but the bigger question really is would the community rather see the likes of us at bored meetings or out doing stuff? It’s somewhat disingenuous to say you want our ideas and opinions yet when we give them and you don’t like them tell us we aren’t part of the solution because we aren’t playing by your rules. Artists and musician types often make great sacrifices in lifestyles in order to choose these paths as a career. It’s not 9-5. There are no paid vacations. You often work 80 hours a week. You almost never get paid what you think you should. Forget about health insurance of any real substance. Bottom line, if I’m not gonna get paid for my volunteer work, would I rather be in a bored meeting or in a roomful of children? I think you can guess my answer.

If you want my ideas, feel free to email me. No meetings required. Until further notice, only paid gigs are being considered though.

Countdown to Chicago continues…..dyeing and processing the last of the silk for the show. Just booked a series of workshops in Claremont over the next 5 months. More details will be posted shortly on the classes and shows page….gotta go and get busy now!

17 thoughts on “Dare I ask? Just what IS the role of an artist in society today?

  1. jeanne, herself

    great question, glennis. one that must be asked over and over and over again. it’s big, and i need to work around the edges of it for a while to best distille and articulate my answer, but here are the first 2 things that popped into my head as i read: the role of artist in the society of public schools is to provide an easy cut when money grows tight. (smart ass answer, but with some truth here anyway.) (this thread takes me down the road that has consistently spared sports programs then joins with another thread about how back in the day, the scientists were actually artists first.) (then what i really want to latch onto is about how (again, i’m talking about around here) folks think art is worthless except to provide free babysitting.) (yes, i speak from experience and will . . . another day.) my other thought was that trying to answer this very worthwhile question is like trying to bite my own teeth . . .


  2. ana

    perhaps the role of an artist is to question and the role of an art educator is to teach others to question. along with the art, of course.


    1. shiborigirl Post author

      i like it- taking it to the people- kinda like trash for teaching!

      ana- all i really hoped to accomplish with the kids in art class is get them to practice asking “what if”, trying it out, and learning from it. explore the possibilities. do something not related to testing.
      one hour a week.


  3. Sander

    Personally, I don’t think the questions are ‘if’ or ‘should’ artists be active in processes outside their roles as artists, but how. Time is precious, and we have to get a return on our investment. That’s not an unreasonable expectation.

    You, and all residents of Long Beach, give money to the City with the expectation that they will spend it in a way that will produce meaningful, measurable results, and that benefit the most people. There are always a myriad of variables, some we can’t even conceive of, but let’s assume for a moment that our elected municipal leaders want to do a good job if for no other reason than to get re-elected.

    If you spend your money to advertise your workshop, and nobody comes, you may consider a different method of promotion for your next one. You learn, and change, and expect different results.

    With the City, we’ve had a process in place that hasn’t worked well in a long time. It isn’t because of individuals doing a bad job. It’s because the process itself is flawed. The City is spending your money unwisely, not asking for any accountability, and thus is not engaged in a process of learning and changing.

    We’re allowing this. We’re encouraging it. Because we are not on the phone to our elected municipal leaders every day, demanding accountability, offering new models, and asking for hard answers, our money is being wasted.

    The problem is the City’s blind support of the Arts Council for Long Beach. In my ‘A Modest Proposal: Part 1,’ I make a good case for eliminating the ACLB. I received an email in response that accused me of ‘oversimplification.’ Although I’m currently formulating Part 2, let me say that it should not, and does not, take 7 full time staffers to oversee the management of $540,000. It’s really that simple.

    Right now, more than half of those funds are designated to pay for staff positions. All of it could go into the hands of arts organizations and/or artists if the City chose to implement a different model. Your participation can facilitate that change.

    Ultimately, only you can decide if a change in the arts funding system justifies the time required to establish and maintain dialog with your City Council representative, the Mayor, and City Manager.


    1. shiborigirl Post author

      i never asked if or should artists be involved. i’m just figuring out how i should do it to get the best turn on my investment.

      my goodness! how in the world does it take $270,000, 7 people, and a year to spend the other $270,000 on art and culture in the city of Long Beach? seems that isn’t a very good use of our investment.


      1. Antonio Ruiz

        At the risk of inviting more tempest in a teapot, let me be clear: I never accused you or other artists of not rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. I believe and have always believed that we are all, by nature, creative beings. I have nothing but high regard for those who make very large sacrifices in their lifestyles and their lives to pursue their desire to express their creativity. Notwithstanding the questions about my motives , I am an advocate for community based arts strategy. I believe in arts education in schools, community centers and in the streets. I believe we, as a city and as a people, need to update our strategy for where we want to go as a creative community. That includes the Arts Council, RDA policies on Public Art, LBUSD Arts Education policy, the politics of Arts, Development strategy and countless other connected public policy issues. We each have our own way of advocating for the Arts. Some do it by doing the arts. Practicing their craft and teaching. Others do it in the public policy arena. However, we do it, I want us all to inspire, support, and encourage each other. I promise not to ever get into a public spat about motives or accuse people of “not rolling up their sleeves”. What’s the point? No, instead I want to and will continue to reach out for partnerships to discuss, strategize, debate peacefully the best course for our community. I hope we can have a civil conversation; agree where we can and disagree to disagree when we must.

        Thank you for this opportunity to clarify my position. (phone # removed)


        1. shiborigirl Post author

          seems to me you said this:

          Antonio Ruiz said:
          I wonder why people stand on the sidelines and criticize instead of rolling up their sleeves and making change? Look, please add to the process by becoming involved. If you weren’t there, please talk to MORE people who were there. More importantly, get involved. This is a movement of people volunteers, not bureaucrats. This was not a one meeting process nor will it be. Change will only come when ALL of us become committed to change. As for diversity, the last time I checked I was not Eurocentric. Every effort was made to reach out and it continues. From the composition of the Steering Committee to the volunteers, we (and I know I am) are committed to making sure this process is a reflection of the city in which we live. Get involved. Roll up your sleeves and help make us make this happen. Talk is cheap. It’s the action that is very expensive.”
          -on the LB Post.
          and then this:

          Antonio Ruiz said:
          In response to recent postings: In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel, slander, and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. It is often, but not always, a requirement that this claim be false, and, or alternatively, that the publication is made to someone other than the person defamed. In common law jurisdictions, slander refers to a malicious, false and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images. Most jurisdictions allow legal actions, civil and/or criminal, to deter various kinds of defamation and retaliate against groundless criticism. Related to defamation is public disclosure of private facts, which arises where one person reveals information that is not of public concern, and the release of which would offend a reasonable person. “Unlike [with] libel, truth is not a defense for invasion of privacy.” ”

          Just wanted to set the record straight on that account. Those were direct quotes, by the way.
          Spin doctoring doesn’t do anything for me but hey- you can fool some of the people some of the time.

          Furthermore, you can believe anything you want to believe, work with anyone you want to-provided they want to work with you.
          To date, I am not inspired or encouraged by any of this. In fact just the opposite. Doesn’t make me right or wrong, good or bad. It does however make me think about people like Millard Sheets and Ruth Asawa (among many others) who really did inspire, support, and encourage their communities artistically while at the same time continued to create their art.
          Those are the kind of leaders I’m looking out for.
          I have no interest in debates and strategies. You’re welcome to it.
          (BTW- I removed your phone # from your reply)


        2. phil

          i have enjoyed this thread so much, i am linking it to all of my sites. my blogs get hundreds of hits from artists/musicians each day. my Facebook site has 600+ friends in the area. i believe this thread to be interesting to those of us who are actual full time artist.




  4. annalisa

    That is a big nibble!
    I wish I had any sort of an answer to that but I’m still wrestling with what the term “artist” means on a personal level, and ultimately I think that is where we have to determine our answers for the larger question of our role in society. As to responsibility to our communities, well I can think of a number of famous people who are celebrated artists who would be immensely unsuited to ANY sort of public service (just picture Van Gogh teaching kids… bit scary if you ask me)


    1. shiborigirl Post author

      haha annalisa-
      are you saying i’m not ready for prime time? just kidding of course. yes, some people are not cut out to be teachers-artists or not.
      consensus seems to be that it is a very big question.

      btw- congrats on the etsy treasury- shibori to boot!
      curiously, my stuff showed up on two treasuries today too- the ribbon- still figuring out how to parley it into more sales!


  5. Josh

    The role of the artist in society is that of a mirror strolling down the road. Nothing more, nothing less. The more art is institutionalized the more it’s intrinsic reflection is diminished. Too much over processing just seems to fog things up.


  6. Tammie

    What is the roll of an artist? Full question.
    I am so amazed and curious how someone would accuse you of not participating. The very nature of art is to follow ones own inner muse and imagination. A calling from deep within. As far as I can feel, art is a unique rising in each and every individual that changes and grows with who we are in each moment. Art can be judged but why bother, why not appreciate or move on. I feel that if there is any responsibility to society for an artist it is to be somewhat true to a deep inner calling. To be brave to express oneself creatively. This would then inspire appreciation, inspiration and maybe other experiences. For me art is something that has no boundaries. Someone accusing another of not participating and making change as an artist….. is avoiding being an artist themselves by spending their time elsewhere….


  7. jude

    in short, to me art is some sort of R&D, and it starts on a personal level, so i guess i would define an artist as some one who is focused on question asking and answering in the context of exploring something for the purpose of self development and understanding. then this leads me to the role of an artist in society as one who shares this knowledge unconditionally with the goal of making the world a better place. not unlike a teacher.
    of course if we get into the commercial side of it, well it is a different story. i can’t call that art.


  8. shiborigirl Post author

    wow- so many good thoughts here. i am keeping them all in mind as i continue on doing what i do-making, asking, questioning, sharing, and yes, selling!
    we can only do what we do, be who we are.
    one thought that does rise out of all the ideas shared here is that i think to me- civic sorts of participation leave me feeling so limited and confined. as an artist, maker, or whatever the heck you want to call it, i think i best leave that to others, lest i get all riled up again and spend valuable studio time writing lengthy blog posts on the matter. something else will come along. i am pretty sure of that!


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