Artists take on the work of thinking critically about our culture. It has always seemed strange to me when criticism of our culture is labelled as unpatriotic, or some other term intended to deflate the argument for improvement. Without thoughtful critique, we stagnate, we repeat old mistakes, we fail to become better than we have been. Good artists try to re-work existing ideas, or create new ideas that challenge negative aspects of the status quo.
Direct confrontation in favour of changing some aspect of the accepted culture often creates the opposite of the desired effect; people respond defensively, becoming more entrenched in their existing beliefs. Effective art walks a fine line of challenging ideas without triggering the defense response. It’s a line in the sand, different for every person. Each culture exists with a spectrum of new and old ideas. I see radical artists at the front line of new ideas, passing them down to receptive but less radical artists, who can translate the useful parts of those ideas into something for the wider population.
From time to time I wonder if I’m where I should be on that spectrum. Artists are strange participants in the culture that surrounds us, constrained by the usual desire for acceptance and community, but compelled to push for change. Because artists must sometimes operate outside of what is expected, there can be a perception that even our basic needs are different from those of other people, as illustrated with the ‘starving artist’ stereotype.
A good artist can make art look easy, but it usually comes down to years of practice. Decisions that look easy or obvious are not always so, before they are made. Every artist is continually making decisions about how to interpret, critique, and improve their culture. As John Darnielle has said, “As a would-be intellectual, I think it’s my job to overthink what I’m doing.”
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