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Big Ideas: The Artist’s Role Today

This article is part of Big Ideas, a series exploring Chicagoan’s thoughts about contemporary art.

The role of the artist has differed throughout time and place. He or she has been a craftsman, an illustrator of texts, a decorator of religious structures, a luxury goods producer, a rebel, and the savior of mankind, among countless other types. As culture has changed, so has the artist’s role; One year ago, I lay in bed trying to puzzle what that might be in the US today. Eventually I came up with an answer I felt fit.

To me, the role of artists today is to recognize their great potential as visual communicators. Artists, like designers, architects, fashion designers, etc., communicate visually, but unlike them, the artist today has complete creative freedom. They generally don’t have to think about commercial, structural, or functional concerns, like the more constricted producers of visual culture. Therefore artists have a great potential to visually communicate feelings, thoughts, and ideas as wide as human imagination. That’s huge. There are, of course, artists today who create work as a personal practice and don’t consider their role as a communicator to others. But I think the contemporary artist has a responsibility to at least recognize that potential, even if they choose not to act on it. Images can impact us in a way different from words and sounds, so I believe the artist has a vital role to play that parallels that of writers and musicians.

To explore this question further I asked various people with ties to Chicago to offer their answers.

Ian – Artist, English teacher

It’s voluntarily eschewing your own sight to provide others with new vision; it’s helping others to see something that they didn’t realize they were incapable of viewing; it’s about exhibiting so many forgotten things, illuminating what we haven’t had the luxury of finding; it’s warming frozen honey with your bare hands and hoping that it comes to life, and the excitement and anticipation of impatiently waiting; it’s communicating where you’re going, where you’ve gone, and where you are so that others can trace your footsteps; it’s infecting others with the same defect that breathes life and beauty into the melancholic and mediocre; it’s about eliciting an orgasm of light and sound, causing others to hold their breath and wonder why they suddenly smell of sex; it’s about offering succor for moments that we’re too bashful to discuss and too proud to admit; it’s pulling others taut and holding them there for hours, for days, until they finally stretch or tear away; it’s about reminding others that we’re never alone while remembering that we’re always alone.

Shareen Chehade – Costume designer for film

I feel that the artist’s role is to invoke emotion, thought, change, and so much more. Where do I even begin? What we do is not a skill, it’s something you’re born with. The power to create.

Sierra Rhoden – SIFC writer

Art has an innate way of handing the microphone to the otherwise silenced. Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 commemorated the brutality inflicted upon the Spanish during the Peninsular War. In 1980’s Detroit, Tyree Guyton’s junkyard dreamscapes of the Heidelberg Project sent cries of a marginalized neighborhood echoing across the nation. In the first episode of the artist competition reality show Work of Art, critic Jerry Saltz makes an obvious yet revelatory statement, “Art is a way of showing the outside world what your inside world is like.” The ability to express ourselves, and to relate to each others’ expression, makes us a richer, more compassionate people. Artists reflect human nature in ways that other media cannot, supplementing our culture and enriching our cultural archive for future generations so that we can learn more insightfully and empathetically from our past and pursue a more enlightened future.

Deborah Hamilton – Retired teacher

The role of the artist today is to provoke thought, emotion, and engagement. As a catalyst for change, internal or external, artists manipulate medium to stimulate a progression of reactions in the consumer. Artists have a hidden role as consumers, themselves, as they notice, absorb, and react to the socio-political environment. They serve as footbridges between “what is” and “what’s to be.”

Miles Johnson – AmeriCorps member, outfitter, rapper

In our daily lives, whether on the Internet or on the highway, we are bombarded with images.  Often it can feel like every picture we see is trying to sell us something.  Artists offer an alternative to this commercial barrage.  They produce images, stories, and experiences free from focus groups and market testing.  Artists’ ideas come not from the board room, but from a more private, personal place.  Viewing a painting or reading a comic book can clear the fog brought about by Facebook sidebars and digital billboards. In an age of endless imagery, artists can wake us up.

Kim Kissinger Marino – Painter

Artists are responsible for creating counter balance to the disorder of the world. Art opens dialogue, both intellectual and innocent, and allows interaction that otherwise would not occur. Art is an unlimited solvent.

Somer Rickards – Artist, English teacher

The thing about art is that it is almost always up for interpretation.  It’s never going to be something we can nail down.
As with many things in life, I think an artist’s role is what they make it.  Because there are so many of us [today], our work can be done on a smaller scale.  An individual artist need not connect with the whole world; the community around you is enough.  Because we all influence one another, it’s an unbreakable chain.

My role as an artist is what I make it, and the lines between my role as an artist and my role as a decent human being blur a little bit. I aim to affect the people around me positively. I write or draw things because they amuse me, or they’re beautiful, or because I know it will lift someone’s spirits. I have created things for the sake of good grades, I have assigned meaning for the sake of requirements, and lived within the cage that is other people’s expectations of what my art should be. Some of those things still turned out alright, actually.

However, I measure the success of a particular piece not by popularity, but whether or not someone (or many ones) connects with it and has some sort of emotional reaction.  My role as an artist is not “to drag the heavy cartload of humanity onward and upward,” [as written by Wassily Kandinsky] but to take people by the hand, when I can, and encourage them to do the same for others. This can be done with a photograph, a complex painting, a stick figure, a few carefully chosen words, or sidewalk chalk. It doesn’t matter! Love just needs to be present.

The next Big Ideas article will be published on March 4th. In it Chicagoans take on the challenge of building a better wall text.

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1 Response to " Big Ideas: The Artist’s Role Today "

  1. spudart says:

    I’m curious for the next in this series. What is “a wall text?”

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