Am I "Useful" as an artist?
Recent events in our country have me wondering, "What is my role as an artist in this particular time period?" I wonder if there is something more "useful" I could be doing. Should I be taking a more active role in politics? Should I listen to news while I am painting in order to be better informed? Should, should, should...
I received an encouraging letter from Director Anita Walker of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency that allocates funds for the arts in my state. This past year I received a $2,000 grant for my art from the Mass. Cultural Council. Their funding comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, which many know is now under threat under the new administration. I worry that grants like the one I received may go away under a new President and administration. But I come back to this encouragement.
Anita Walker's letter of 1/11/17 asked, "What is the role of artists in American politics? Do they have a place? How do they best serve our nation? As a new President prepares to take office, the voice of the artist is being heard. It is not just the artists with name and fame, such as Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, that are in the headlines, but also the artists who contribute their individual identities and talent to the ensemble, where harmony and not division is required. From the cast of "Hamilton" and the Rockettes to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, individual artists in these organizations have become symbols of a country divided."
Ms. Walker went on to cite President John F. Kennedy's affirmation of "the arts and the artist as significant in the life of a nation... in fact, central, a test of the quality of our institutions..." She included an excerpt of a speech he gave at Amherst College, October 26, 1963 to honor the New England poet Robert Frost.
JFK: "If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him (/her) aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artists. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his (/her) vision wherever it takes him (/her). We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth... In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideaology. Artists are not engineers of the soul." (the inclusion of the feminine pronouns is my addition)
Wow... "little of more importance to the future?" That addresses my question of usefulness pretty directly, but in a surprising way. I appreciate deeply the idea that artists are to be 'set free' to follow our own vision. I also resonate with Kennedy's assertion that art is a form of truth. With all the rhetoric of 'fake news' and 'alternative truths,' we can begin to get even more jaded and disillusioned - what is truth? I share JFK's belief that art should not be used as propaganda or a weapon. Art has been used that way, and continues to be, in communism, advertising, portraiture, photography, Nazism... my take-away then, is that we artists must be careful to not get caught in a trap of being "useful" to an agenda. We can think about truth and vision, using our "sensitivity and concern for justice" in order to "nourish the roots of our culture," as JFK affirms and asserts.
I find my truth in God and in the beauty and mystery of the world he made (I embrace the idea that there is a loving God who created the world, and that science is how it got done). I'm most inspired by 20th century painter Georgia O'Keeffe and the Canadian Group of Seven painters whose tradition I follow. My paintings in the last decade or so have been landscapes that have no people or man-made objects in them, with a few exceptions. I feel that the moment a bridge or a man is in a painting, all of a sudden that painting is about that man or that bridge. The landscape then is relegated to play second fiddle, and becomes the backdrop. No, I want the landscape to be the star player. I want to show the glory of light, shadow, color, composition, line, and mark-making. I reflect what I see through my soul and share this with the viewer. Many people feel drawn to, and resonate with, these pieces. Could this be a truth?
JFK also asked the famous question, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
I am a US citizen and a Christian. So my citizen heart says, "Sure, I'd like to be helpful to my country." But as a Christian, God ultimately does not ask me to be "useful" to him. Asking God if I am useful is not the right question, it misses the point. He is God - he did not make me to be useful - I'm not a machine, programmed for others' benefit or profit. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that I am supposed to be useful in order to be valuable to him. He loves me unconditionally simply because I exist, and asks me to love him and love my neighbor.
A better question I can ask myself is a 'yes, and' approach: "Can my art be somehow relevant and helpful to my culture and nation as JFK asserts?" AND "Am I loving God and my neighbor through my the work of my hands? How am I doing that?" To me, these sound like better visions and truths to pursue. Let me keep my focus on these pursuits even as I stay informed and passionate about what is going on with the current leadership in my country.
One thing I hope to do is to paint at one of our country's National Parks. I hope to contribute more money directly to conservation of ocean and land, if my tax dollars will not be helping through the Environmental Protection Agency in the foreseeable future.
Thank you to any readers of my blog, visitors to my site, and those who know me and keep me motivated as an artist. I am honored to recently receive another award - apparently this blog is rated one of the Top 75 Painters' Blogs in the world. Wow. Thank you everybody. Please comment, if you would like, in order to foster community and contribute your thoughts to the mix.
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