The arts & social responsibility
A rambling by Elizabeth Badurina

Do artists have a social responsibility to uphold?

The short version: No. An artist does not have a social responsibility to please the public's sense of right and wrong when writing, creating or otherwise expressing himself. However, as with most things in this life, the issue is not so much black and white as it is a lot of varying shades of grey. There are no easy answers, which just makes any decision on this subject a mutable one.

Art of any kind is a reflection and distillation of the world around the artist. Whether or not we want to admit this, or even consider it, it's a basic truth. If we limit, then, artistic creation to only those values that we as a society hold to be "right" or "moral," we effectively duct tape the artist's hands and lips, thereby paving the way to our own emotional bondage.

Consider for a moment the Middle Ages: the Church was in the height of its power, priests were unquestioned and unquestionable, and society went about its business in a fair amount of fear of excommunication (or worse, if you consider the Inquisition, which is another issue altogether). There was no secular art. Period. At least none that ever saw the light of day. As a result, we may have missed out on artists who could have done much, much more -- until the Reformation paved the way for art as an expression of joys other than that of a spiritual kind. How many Michaelangelos had to put down the brush? How many Beethovens had fingers silenced when they decided not to write/paint about the Annunciation? We won't ever know.

That said, we live in troubled times. No one is disputing that. Kids bringing guns to school. Corruption in government. Invasive media. We can call it growing pains or the decline of civilization, depending on the state of your pessimism. As art is a reflection of life around us, the things that some artists say or do makes us uncomfortable. It's hard to live in an insulated bubble where everything is just fine with the world when some artist keeps holding a mirror up to our societal failings, and naturally, we don't like that.

But whose fault is it? The artist, for reporting honestly what he or she sees? Or our own, for allowing the world to become the way that it is? (That's rhetorical, by the way. It's obvious where the blame lies.)

Granted, there are exceptions. And yes, I think artists need to be aware that with celebrity comes responsibility. Artists are emulated. They are held up as examples. But it's up to parents to teach children what kind of an example it is, not the artist. If some idiot makes a song about beating his wife, it's a parent's responsibility to tell his/her children that yes, it happens, and no, it's not acceptable. And it's up to a parent to ultimately say, "you can't listen to that in my house." But it's also to a parent's benefit to know that it will still be out there for his/her children to be exposed to, and to explain beyond the simple edict why something is unacceptable. The artist has no such responsibility over children he may never meet. (One would hope, however, that he'd be wise enough to explain to his own children, though I'm not holding any hope out for that.)

I don't like a lot of the messages that the music today is transmitting. Heck, I don't even like a lot of the music itself. But although I don't agree with much of what those artists are saying, I DO agree with their right to say it, both constitutionally (in the United States), and morally, from the view of the artist's privilege.

Maybe, if we're so concerned with what the message is, we should turn that contempt on ourselves, and fix the problems, rather than shooting the messengers.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]
Rambles: 5 January 2002