The Role of the Artist in Society (if there is one)

“But the artist… speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

~ Joseph Conrad

TheLightIsPink
The Light is Pink, mixed media on canvas, 36″ x 48″, ©2017 Julia Rymer

I create abstract paintings and prints that explore my emotional reactions to nature, science and color theory. This exploration began in earnest in 2006, when, after graduating from Pratt Institute and returning to my native Colorado, I began reading books about science, particularly physics: “The Fabric of the Cosmos ” by physicist Brian Greene, “Quantum Electrodynamics” by Richard Feynman (a dense read in a short book), and “A Sense of the Mysterious” by physicist-turned-writer Alan Lightman (still a favorite of mine). At the same time, I continued my mentorship with painter and master colorist Jeffrey Keith, exploring the emotional effects of color in my work.

All this to say, I don’t make political art or art about social issues.

I say this with trepidation: in graduate school we were trained to illuminate what it is about. And for as long as I have been making art, which is going on 20 years, I don’t explore social, cultural or political issues in my work. I am OK with this, obviously- I believe the artist needs to be who they are, as I have written here.

But, with the current state of affairs in the United States and abroad; with more disturbing photos coming in daily from crises in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan and Bangladesh; with systemic injustices continuing in our institutions, I now ask myself: is my art, in the form that it is, still relevant?

What is the role of the artist in society?

Is it our duty to question our society and culture, to call out its injustices and problems, to point a finger at what is really happening?

Or, is the artist one that responds, free to create from that which inspires them, in the form that feels most authentic to their vision?

In pondering these questions, I happened upon a poem by Irish poet Michael Coady, who takes on the idea that art is a counterpoint to the evil of the world in “Though There Are Torturers.”

Though there are torturers in the world
There are also musicians.
Though, at this moment,
Men are screaming in prisons,
There are jazzmen raising storms
Of sensuous celebration,
And orchestras releasing
Glories of the Spirit.
Though the image of God
Is everywhere defiled,
A man in West Clare
Is playing the concertina,
The Sistine Choir is levitating
Under the dome of St. Peter’s,
And a drunk man on the road
Is singing, for no reason.

In this poem, the artist’s role is to lift human experience into the light, to exalt the sublime, and to exist in tandem with the darkness, pain, and evil in our society.

Another thought, of course, is that there is no role for the artist any longer, so disconnected and technology dependent we have become. What is the point of paintings or live performances if we can just stare at Facebook and have our cultural and emotional experiences served to us? We don’t have to be challenged anymore to question our world, as we receive confirmation of our biases daily.

And yet, I have an inability to stop creating, and many people have an inability to stop engaging. Social media starts to feel empty after awhile. At our primal root as humans, we still have the need to connect with each other in physical form, “in real life.”

Perhaps the role of the artist varies with the artist themselves. There are many artists creating work on social and political issues whose work is stronger than anything I create with that intention. The work of mine that is strongest echoes that statement above by author Joseph Conrad, probing the emotional experience of being human, of the pursuit of scientific truth, of natural beauty, of color and light. In that sense, relevancy is well, irrelevant. Who cares what anyone thinks, if I am just going to keep painting?

If you are an artist, or an art lover, what are your thoughts? How do you think artists should engage with the world? I invite your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

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