The Role of the Artist in Society
Within the context and setting of the currently on view in the Onassis Cultural Center New York, we organized a discussion on the urgent topic of "The Role of the Artist in Society" today. On November 15, New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch will moderate a free-flowing conversation, featuring chef Alex Atala, writer Azar Nafisi, photographer Eli Reed, and curator Nancy Spector.
The event is sold out but you can tune in and watch live on the Onassis USA Livestream page next Tuesday at 7 PM:
Below is a selection of texts and videos from prominent 20th century thinkers, each grappling with this very question.
A 20-year-old Franz Kafka once wrote to a friend that "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us." In his short story "A Hunger Artist," he explored another side to the artist's role within society:
“Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food which I enjoyed. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.”
In a 1962 essay entitled "The Creative Process," James Baldwin described artists as "incorrigible disturbers of the peace," and asked what responsibility they have to society:
"The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states—extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge."
In his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 1985, Milan Kundera posited that the novel was born when Rabelais "heard God's laughter one day." He then asked: what kind of space does the novel create for its reader?
"The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin."
In 2002, shortly before the American invasion of Iraq, writer Jeanette Winterson asked: "What can art do for us now, in the likelihood of another war?"
"We sense there is more to life than the material world can provide, and art is a clue, an intimation, at its best, a transformation. We don't need to believe in it, but we can experience it. The experience suggests that the monolith of corporate culture is only a partial reality. This is important information, and art provides it."
In his autobiographical essay "Why I Write," George Orwell explored the tension between the desire to create beauty on the one hand and the desire to stand up against injustice on the other:
"When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention,
Last year, Svetlana Alexievich became the first non-fiction writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In her Nobel Lecture, she described her responsibility as a writer to capture and preserve the voices that surround her:
"When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think — how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven't been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don't appreciate it, we aren't surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive."
In this rare interview with Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher describes the student protests of May 1968, which called into question the role of intellectuals in society:
"We realized through all this that what was singled out was the classic intellectual. Part of the revolt centered around the classic intellectual."
More recently, in 2015, Toni Morrison recalled her decision to keep writing in the face of political despair:
"I thought about all those people who wrote in prisons, in gulags, under duress, got murdered--they were doing it! And I’m sitting here going, ugh, I can't write. It's so embarrassing! But, you know, you need, sometimes, somebody to shake you."
This illustrated interview with Robin Williams, using audio from 1991, explores the comedian's thoughts on his role in society:
"Comedy is there to basically show us we fart, we laugh, to make us realize we still are part animal. As intellectual as we think we are, we still trip. We still have human foibles, sexuality, all the different things that still make you aware of your humanity. And that's what we're supposed to do. It's just to keep us awake."
In 1965, a young Bob Dylan examined the role of TIME magazine in society, and, by implication, the role of the artist:
"If I want to find out anything, I’m not going to read TIME magazine, I’m not going to read Newsweek, I’m not going read any of these magazines. Because they've just got too much to lose by printing the truth. They'd just go off the stands in a day if they printed really the truth!"
In this short interview with Jorge Luis Borges, the writer speculates about the task of art, and about the relationship that develops between a poet and his readers:
"The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man's memory. That is our duty."
In 1963, months before his assassination, John F. Kennedy gave a lecture at Amherst College in honor of the poet Robert Frost, in which he described the role of poetry in society:
"When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment."