Why Do the Arts Matter? is a question I’ve been asking myself since I first started Artist Strong. It is such an important question to be answered that I’ve called on colleagues and friends to get on their soapboxes and share their answers. It is a recurring question we bring ourselves back to here on Artist Strong.
Today on Artist Strong I want to talk a bit about art as cultural reflection. In terms of art theory and art history, it is always important to look at context to fully understand an artwork, this can include, among many things: historical time period, gender/nationality/ethnicity of artist, technology, and social value systems of the time. But often
I wonder, which came first? Does the artist help create the cultural moment they are in, or are they only a reflection of their cultural mileiu?
I read an article showcasing fall movies coming out. It used these new films as a means to discuss the changing role of women in film. Recently there has been an upsurge of filmmakers showcasing women as characters with varied personalities, of greater depth than previous roles have offered (What?! Not another 30 something woman looking for love?).
The arts can be a reflection of our culture and time, and film includes this. Three cheers for portraying women in stronger, more interesting roles. I think it’s a shame its taken this long, that the assumption was strong female leads wouldn’t bring in the money. This assumption led to certain beliefs, which created certain systemic choices. And yet. Where are the filmmakers in this? In some ways I feel like the blame is being placed on the buying public: “well, if you won’t buy it, why would we prioritize it?” And yet, this assumption has been proven false lately with several dystopian movies about young women raising hell. Is our culture and society only now ready for women to be portrayed in this way?
Eminem released a new song I’ve only heard recently on the radio here in Muscat, it’s called Guts Over Fear. In it he discusses feelings of judgement and even hatred for sharing himself and his ideas. Lots of different groups have singled him out for being biased or for being a poor influence on others. And yes, I can understand some of this frustration, some of his lyrics are misogynist and homophobic. Yet, I also understand his feelings as an artist. I feel for this man, who in his lyrics talks about a really tough life and trying to make it all work. He doesn’t profess to know it all, he shares his journey of trying to figure it all out. I respect his honesty with
us, even if I don’t agree with everything he says. If Eminem watered down his music, would it be as salient? He hints at this in the song and in the end says he needs to ignore his naysayers; he suggests that listening to them too much actually cripples his creativity, which stems from the anger he feels.
Eminem isn’t the only musician who promotes a machismo culture of violence and objectification of women. That reality exists. But, should there be a line? Where should the line be drawn? In the end, the line seems to be drawn in response to our ever changing, evolving cultural norms, which also means it could be a different line for each and every person. Moral relativism anyone?
So, does the artist help create the cultural moment they are in, or are they only a reflection of their cultural mileiu?
NPR recently spoke with Jason Porath, an animator who once worked for Dreamworks. He has created a blog called Rejected Princesses. In this creation he shares a new illustration each week that highlights a story about a woman who wouldn’t fit the Disney Princess brand. This has included a Soviet tank commander as well as the most prolific female serial killer in history. His interest isn’t only in heroine figures, but unique female personalities across history. In some ways, Jason answers a bit of my question today. He has worked in an industry limited by certain cultural expectations and norms and after a lunch conversation with a friend, turned it on it’s head. He, as an artist, is having exactly this dialogue. He is working within our cultural norms, but trying to get us to think a bit differently about the world around us, and thus, changing those norms. He is both a reflection of our culture and creating culture with this artistic investigation.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: Do you see artists as a vehicle of culture? What responsibility do we have as artists to the content we produce? I want to know. Talk to me about it in the comments below.