Discussion → Art and Responsibility

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    Edward Mullany
    Sep 26, 01:08pm

    To what degree is the artist responsible for addressing the social problems of his or her time?

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    Ben White
    Sep 26, 01:55pm

    To me, the issue is not so much of responsibility but of relevance. Art is unique in its ability to combine intrinsic worth (merit) with message, to affect people in ways that simple discourse often cannot. The artist that ignores his or her milieu risks irrelevance. I don't think it's an obligation to engage, but it does offer opportunity. That said, it's difficult to do well and deftly.

    Focusing too much on social problems at any one time or proselytizing can alienate an audience and harden their hearts in way that nuanced suggestion never will. Then again, Kafka doesn't shy away from the nearly absurd in The Trial, and it's very effective, so the rules for engagement are clearly not so cut and dry.

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    Darryl Price
    Sep 26, 02:02pm

    I would say to the degree that he or she believes that his art is here for entertainment or a "defense against the enemy." And who exactly is the enemy: the usual suspects:boredom, apathy, hatred, cruelty,senseless violence. Etc. We are here.That's the first statement that art makes. We make art out of this fact. It is us as much as anything else we touch becomes part of us. It's our footprint, carbon or otherwise. It's our act of being here, our moment in the ongoing always unfolding drama of life itself. Will it be well-played out or simply goofed upon? Certainly there's a time and a place for both? But art contains for me all of these elements in one ball because it is as organic as anything else I see around me. It crumbles eventually like everything. And yet it always comes around again when you least expect it.It builds from nothing and becomes something. When it's here it burns brightly. It doesn't choose so much as simply exists in the already known to be universe, popping up like a mushroom there, shining like a star there, banging like a door over there, singing like a bird somewhere. Art shouldn't be defined so much as it should be experienced.Perhaps even lived as created. The point being if it lives it dies. If it lives it has an effect. It moves something or someone somewhere even if it's just the wind or atoms of dirt or water in our ears and eyes.We live in societies within societies within societies and they all do to some degree produce an art. You can't get away from it. And to pretend otherwise seems to me to be cowardly and petty and as ignorant as arrogant. You can no more just make art for yourself than you can walk sideways on the stars.Of course we are responsible for what we put into this world as artists--whether it's hate or love, blood or guts. To try to absolve oneself of the responsibility is to be like a bad parent or absent parent--the child still lives--warped--in our image. Darryl P.

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    Ethel Rohan
    Sep 26, 02:17pm

    I never consciously write to address the social problems of our times. I don't feel that responsibility and am wary of the inherent pitfalls in such an endeavor. I do, as Ben suggests, try to write stories that are relevant and that attempt to illuminate the human condition regardless of time or place.

    However, I do agree that writers need to write about their times to both record and attempt to understand what it means to be human in the twenty-first century etc. I think Darryl says it best:

    "We are here.That's the first statement that art makes. We make art out of this fact. It is us as much as anything else we touch becomes part of us. It's our footprint, carbon or otherwise. It's our act of being here, our moment in the ongoing always unfolding drama of life itself."

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    Meg Pokrass
    Sep 26, 02:19pm

    I wish i could say something profound here, and I know I can't. Themes that keeps coming out in my work, again and again (and i am not writing this way consciously) are the themes of abuse, and mental illness. I write about myself, what i've experienced in my family and my life, and that is what keeps emerging. I've been told by readers that they can identify, and feel comforted by the stories.

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    Joseph Young
    Sep 26, 02:38pm

    To whatever degree an artist feels he or she should address them. Some will address them, some won't, and both are good. There's addressing the issues of the day, and there's addressing being a person in the world.

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    Daniel Coffeen
    Sep 26, 02:54pm

    Art IS necessarily responsible in that it belies ready-made categories and invents new possibilities of affect and life. Art — true art as creation, not confirmation, not imitation — is always the antidote to any whiff of fascism.

    Take Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. To me, this film is NOT violent at all in that its presumed images of violence are ambivalent, even multivalent: they are open and hence resist monolithic thinking. To me, again, that film is less violent than someone asking me to sign a petition to save a rain forest.

    When art becomes social commentary, when it invokes the readymade nonsense of the so-called "news" (which is anything but news a it's always the same old shite), it ceases to be art in that it is no longer creative but referential.

    Art does not confirm the known; it invents new ways of knowing. And that is the ultimate social good.

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    John Minichillo
    Sep 26, 03:08pm


    A great question.

    I've always believed in the old argument "apolitical" = a kind of politics. If you can ignore the things going on to focus on chestnuts, then your blinders are political. What we see and what we don't see, consciously or unconsciously is political.

    What is more difficult, and maybe more apropos for Fictionauts, is the question of how to handle the political in fiction without it seeming loud, or distracting, or "topical." The easiest way to do this is to focus on character and put the political in the background. But it can inform metaphor, setting, or even plot. The Isaac Babel short "You Were Too Trusting Captain," is a good example. The characters don't get much attention in this story, they are all minor characters, but the sweep of the story, and the setting are just gorgeous. In the story, a ship is frozen in port in Russia (Petersburg?) and the sailors are an international band of lowly castoffs. Lenin has just died, and there are celebrations/fireworks that can be seen from the city. The captain tells his mate to lock the men below decks. Instead, the mate lowers the men onto the ice, and the story ends with the image of these scabs walking across the ice "like commas." To appreciate this story purely on aesthetics would be to miss the deeper feeling. It's a gorgeous final image but also a political one.

    After 9/11 there was the big question of how it would affect art. There is no doubt that it did. I sort of envy visual artists on that front, because there are probably more opportunities to comment on an event like that. Then there were the novels. Problem is, it's real easy to just miss, or to try too hard to make a statement, to define the moment. On the one hand, I think a lot can be learned from writers who lived with censorship. They let the metaphors speak, since any kind of direct representation would be blacked out (and so might they). Because, frankly, realistic representations of recognizable events reads like a Lifetime movie. So maybe it becomes a mood, it informs the metaphors, it pops up in the relationships or the plot points in small ways. But as people we've been pondering 9/11, or Katrina, or the 2000 election, or the Seattle WTO riots. In fiction, it seems we focus first on character, and then, like the Babel story, these events are in the background in a way that can bloom into something worth pondering.

    Writers come from all kinds of backgrounds. I think the group that just went up "My dog ate my MFA" makes that clear. There are working class writers and there are privileged writers. But the unifying principle is that it requires a lot of free time. Add to that years and years spent reading. Whether we are formally educated or self-educated, writers are educated. Does that mean we are more politically astute? Probably.

    But politics, which is just a more socially acceptable way of talking about power, can infuse all kinds of relationships. Feminists who deconstruct the dominant white power structure, also deconstruct sex. And as fiction writers we are probably more interested in relationships, and in objects, than we are in grand ideas, or even than we are in language. There was a Lukacs book (I think Theory of the Novel, or something close to that) where he asked if the Modernists, in the way they represented personal POV were being "political." We may not be conscious of that perspective, but we've inherited that perspective, although the world we inherited has changed. So we can present an internal POV of a world that is bulldozed, packaged, televised, and disposable. But we can also find beauty in that world, and we can also find a connection between the people who populate such a world and the people from Shakespeare's time. I've always believed that we are all Postmodernists and get a little frustrated with the ways the label gets thrown around. So that I see two kinds of postmodernism. The first, the more common usage, are the writers who follow a nonrealistic tradition and emphasize the "play" of language, so that there is self-consciousness, gamesmanship, and/or metafiction. Then there are those who write realistic stories, but who live in a postmodern world (we all do) so the product is necessarily postmodern. I think, in recent years there has been a desire to "get past" postmodernism, and it seems to look like a desire for the genuine. This is an admirable artistic project, but it's one that is complicated by the world we have inherited. And so, it may even be reactionary, wanting to go back to 1879 in order to write "how I want."

    In my own work, the things I see that I care about sometimes will be the "seed" of a story. It will be the reason I want to write, it will be a message I want to get out, but then in the process, the story and what's most important to the story sort of take over, and the politics can take a back seat. Of the stories I've got at Fn, examples would be "A Feral Queen," which is from the point of view of a young girl who is allergic to bees. She's been given this fear, and so when she discovers a hive, her father is slow to respond, but learns that he can call a beekeeper to come take care of it. The beekeeper thanks the narrator for giving him the queen, and he explains that the bees are dying off. It's an environmental catastrophe we are in the midst of, and it was made me want to write the story. But as the story gets written, as it becomes a performance, that is really just a footnote. What is most important is the imagery the beekeeping provides and the character beet that the father decides to take the daughter along to see where he keeps the bees, despite the danger to his daughter, because he just can't help himself - he wants to see it; he wants to be a beekeeper too.

    The story, "Death in Venice" (which I will probably re-title "Death on the Caribbean") is a retelling of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" (go figure), was my response to the early years of the two wars (which are still going on?) and the notion that they were pretty easy to just ignore, except by folks who were paralyzed by them, believing they were atrocities, but unable to stop them, since mass public protest did very little to change policy.

    In the story, my character follows the trajectory of Mann's, so that a well-to-do self-indulgent egoist goes on a vacation on a whim, and finds himself quarantined before he even recognizes the disease all around. It seemed a great metaphor and I felt it spoke better to the times than anything from contemporary writers. To get my character quarantined I put him on one of the cruise ships with the Norwalk Virus. This was a story that was going on at the same time as the war, but might be forgotten now (our collective imaginations have short attention spans - always focusing on the new, and the events of the news seem disposable). The most famous incident was the Disney Cruise where something like 1/2 to 1/3 of the vacationers caught the virus, and I was just sort of delighted by the idea of all these people getting sick, unable to escape it, and still convincing themselves they were having a good time. Add to that the obvious decadence of a trip like that, and I was really enjoying myself. I've never been on a cruise like that, so David Foster Wallace's essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" was a great help.

    My most recent big project, a novel I'm trying to convince agents is sellable and unbelievably awesome, is a retelling of Moby-Dick. In order to do M-B and also keep it contemporary, I decided to set it in Northern Alaska where the Inuit still hunt whale under tribal rights. After learning a lot about them (thank you Internets!) I felt I had an in to the story, with a great setting and an added slice of danger to the story (icy cold frozen ocean + little skin boats = holy crap!) I wasn't going to try to write from that POV, but even going up there would be what Ron Carlson calls "venturing out into the deep end." So I took a mild-mannered white guy from the suburbs with an office job, had him decide to get a DNA test (something politically charged itself) and when it comes back that he is 37% Inuit, he decides to join one of the whale hunts under tribal rights, a way to leave the plastic world behind and attempt to walk under different stars. And so in the background is global warming, because no one is more threatened by it and is more aware of it than the Inuit. And with my white guy who all of a sudden believes he's not a white guy, I get to have a lot of fun with race, from playing with racial stereotypes to asking broad questions about identity politics.

    So...I hope it's clear that what I think is most important is the story itself, and having fun as a writer. But as we write about the things we care about, and as we comment on the people who we share the world with, we are probably going to address the political. Although I know why this is not the dominant trend in fiction, and while I understand why, I might even turn the question around, as writers, particularly as "emerging" writers who have to find ways to stand out a little more with our work, how can we NOT address the political?

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    Cooper Renner
    Sep 26, 03:59pm

    I would tend to agree with Joseph that the artist is responsible only to whatever extent he/she wants to be, feels moved to be, etc. Auden (wasn't it?) said that art makes nothing happen. That's not entirely true, if one considers Thoreau on civil disobedience art, but I think it is true that one can more directly engage political issues by running for office than by writing a book or a poem. All sorts of issues get engaged simply by existing: if a writer creates novels in which female characters are treated with respect, that is, by implication, a statement against the belittlement of women, even if that issue is never directly addressed. My own tendencies are toward 'art for art's sake.' If I want to be preached at, I'll go hear a sermon. If I want to read a strong attack on "intelligent design", I'll turn to nonfiction. I'm not saying 'creative' writers can't deal with these issues. I'm saying I'm not likely to be the audience.

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    Darryl Price
    Sep 26, 04:33pm

    yEAH BUT YOU'RE IN THE AUDIENCE ALREADY."And though she feels she's in a play--she is anyway."--The Beatles)And again:"You'd better free your mind instead." Several of you have made the classic mistake of thinking responsibility means less freedom and you're already kicking at the doors and running for your lives. But think about it. Just stop. No one in their right mind would want you or anyone else to be anything less than free, especially if you are an artist. But to pretend that it all has nothing to do with you,you who are so special, with the air going in and out of YOUR nostrils is childish at best. Haven't the physicists convinced you yet that what happens on the other side of the world does and will affect you eventually in some way whether you like it or not?The microbes defeated the aliens in WAR OF THE WORLDS. You're not an island--though you may feel like one.Big deal. You don't get the luxury of just being in your own little world just because that's the way you WANT IT TO BE.What are you, two years old? Who the hell do you think you are? I'm reminded of the little zen story about the monk who had meditated so long and hard that he announced to anyone who would listen that now he no longer had a body--and then a bee stung him on the nose and he was reminded of the very fact. You don't get out of this life just because you create art.Or beauty. Or noise. Or shit.And you certainly don't get to pretend that you have no ears just because you hold your hands over yours. That's bullshit of the highest degree.Being an artist doesn't make you precious. Yeah you get to pick and choose for yourself alright but that doesn't give you the right to silence what you don't want to hear or not be aware of the very real world that you live in.And no I'm not saying you have to do anything you don't want to but let's put away this notion that just because we're different or like different things at different times that we're not all in this together. It's disingenuous.

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    Robert Swartwood
    Sep 26, 05:11pm

    I'm going to take the no doubt very unpopular view that writers should not create art. Yes, novels and stories and poems can be considered art, and oftentimes are, but when a writer sits down and tells him or herself that they're going to create not just art, but something that addresses social problems, it becomes pretentious and most times comes across in the work. A writer should write simply to express him or herself, to entertain, and if they happen to address a social problem while doing so, then more power to them. There are many definitions of what art can be, but for me, true art it not something made for the sake of being art, but rather something that has been made for the sake of being made -- and if it becomes timeless, if it not only addresses a social issue but helps to change it, then the writer or artist or whatever has gotten lucky :-)

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    kate hill cantrill
    Sep 26, 05:27pm

    Thanks for asking me to join in here, Edward. I pretty much feel like I just want to ditto Meg's answer. I write about mental illness and the domestic situation because those subjects are what compel me to create at all-- for my own sanity and understanding of life--it's not at all about a feeling of responsibility for me. I'm just trying to hang onto the itty bit of sanity I still have (it could fit into a tea cup at this point!!), and if it helps others to do the same then yay yahoo!

    This question makes me think of "Home" by Jayne Anne Phillips, which I think is one of the greatest stories ever to walk the planet! She addresses the grand social issues of the time through this one teeny little relationship between a mother and a daughter and it is uber powerful. I like to think that she was not conscious of the bigness of the story as she wrote it, but the bigness just pushed through. I guess I'm trying to say that I would prefer artists of all sorts to create for themselves--without a feeling of being responsible for anything at all-- but in the best of moments they will document/change/help the world. Crap, am I even on topic?? I had this issue in grad school of meandering. ha ha and then spelling it all wrong.

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    Gary Percesepe
    Sep 26, 05:40pm

    i like what rick barthelme says somewhere, a propos the "big issues" note that parents don't sit around getting heartbroken about abortion, they get heartbroken because they killed the baby.

    Or, because the baby was born with fins for hands. It's the particular.

    from his 30 steps for writers

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    barry graham
    Sep 26, 05:53pm

    none whatsoever

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    Katrina Gray
    Sep 26, 06:24pm

    The personal is the political: I truly believe this. Writing begins in a personal, intimate space, where ideas brew. These ideas, like it or not, are flavored by our workspaces, our families, our friends, our enemies, our tv shows, our magazines. These ideas are like water: they take the path of least resistance, and seep into our foundations, our unconscious minds. They are bound to make it into what we write, even if not consciously.

    I think "political" is a steamroller word--one that has the potential to shut down conversations with its heavy, dense, powerful connotations. But the word shouldn't be so much of a bomb. Politics (minus the showy election-year stuff) tend to be subtle, and not necessarily what anyone would call "political." We could probably deconstruct any text to show politicization.

    So, my answer is that politics may not be able to be escaped in anything we do--certainly not in the act of writing.

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    Katrina Gray
    Sep 26, 06:35pm

    Ooh--I like what Rick says about this. Yes, yes, yes. That's it: it's in the particular.

    Thanks for posting that, Gary.

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    Roxane Gay
    Sep 26, 06:43pm

    As writers, it is a personal choice as to whether or not to assume the responsibility (or is it burden?) of addressing social issues in our work. I don't think that we, as writers, have that inherent responsibility. If we have any responsibility, it is to love what we do enough to write the best work we can, to study our craft, to participate in the community.

    For me, the best writing is that which takes up social issues but does so in a way that is not overt--where social ills are critiqued but not at the cost of the creative work being able to stand on its own merits. Robert, I definitely agree with what you say. The word art makes me very uncomfortable. To my mind art is perceived, not made.

    My main concern is that the responsibility (or is it burden?) for addressing social issues all too often falls on the shoulders of writers (or artists) from marginalized populations. It becomes an expectation that you must write about being Black, Asian, Working Class, Queer, West Indian, Woman, Latina, and so on. That responsibility quickly becomes a constraint and an impediment to interesting, engaging, relevant writing.

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    Travis Kurowski
    Sep 26, 08:34pm

    I am with Roxane (and many others above) in the opinion that---though it may be something like a responsibility for a global citizen to address the social problems of his/her time(s)---there seems no necessity that art objects, literary or otherwise, need to be engaged in such efforts.

    Such a requirement, responsibility, or whatever would sort of seem like adding rules to something that, as far as I understand it, only needs to follow the rules it itself creates. Or something like that.

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    Ben White
    Sep 26, 08:57pm

    You know, perhaps Barry said it best. I also agree with Robert's point--writing and art aren't the same thing. Most writing, even most literary writing, isn't art. Writing, at its heart, is a craft. Consciously deciding that it's more while mid-process probably does more harm than good. Like calling something you do avant garde—it may not be wrong, but you're setting up readers' biases against yourself by saying so; the work has got to stand for itself first, then for other things second.

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    Gabe Durham
    Sep 26, 10:23pm

    Hey, hey,

    Many good things said. Roxane's point is important. I feel so little outside pressure to write on any particular subject, because, as a white straight male, I'm afforded a weird false neutrality (or default, maybe) that isn't afforded queer Asian women. And that's not cool.

    Ultimately, I feel my only responsibility is to try to write something good. To not waste my reader's time.

    A few other thoughts, though:
    - All good character fiction is an exercise in empathy for both writer and reader, and empathy informs politics, social problems, personal relationships, you name it. Often I feel that all the fiction I'm reading better equips me for my friendships, marriage, and work. (Other times it makes me weird, but I think the first one wins.)
    - The best fiction involving social issues allows me the opportunity to consider the issue in a way I otherwise wouldn't without pointing eagerly at the issue.
    - I like this essay a lot: http://www.believermag.com/issues/200410/?read=article_bachelder

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