The Responsibility of Art

Barack Obama said to Jake Gyllenhaal, “You have a job as an artist to help people through difficult times, to illuminate things through art”. As an Arts undergraduate, I often get the impression that my degree isn’t taken to be as ‘serious’ or ‘important’ as a BSc. However, I’d like to argue the case that art has just as much, if not more, responsibility in the progression of the world.
Take a moment to think of a life without art. There would be no books to lose yourself in, no films and no music. There would be no colour or creative expression in the world. But art doesn’t just serve to entertain. Art pushes boundaries, presses against cultural issues and challenges us to think more deeply, widely and originally. Literature, for centuries, has highlighted issues of injustice, political rebellion, the power of love and hate. It is a gateway to escape the world as we know it, and observe it afresh from a different perspective, through somebody else’s eyes. In the modern world, literature extends into the production of theatre, films and documentaries which illuminate the unsung stories within the world, and the people who are affected by them. Artists, poets, writers and painters have the responsibility to illuminate the different perspectives and issues within the world, to make us more receptive and empathetic to those around us, and introduce us to new ways of thinking. Art can rupture communities but can also bring them together. Art is within the graphics of political propaganda, but it is also the words of Shakespeare. Art is within everything and moulds the society we live in, whether we know it or not.
I was awakened to the illuminating power of art when I was 16. I was introduced to ‘slam poetry’ in high school, and was hit hard. I stayed up for hours into the night watching videos of slam poetry competitions and performances, learning more with each new video. It was from this genre of art that I learned about feminism, and all its varying forms and issues. The poetry was so visceral and the performers were so powerful that it made a deep impact on me. I became enlightened about the feminist movement and have been part of it ever since.
One of the first pieces of slam poetry I watched was “Women’s Halloween (Monsters)” poem written by Hannah Halpern, Amina Iro, Reina Privado and Asha Gardner (youtube) which discusses how women’s Halloween costumes have become progressively sexualised over time – but that the women who choose to wear them are just as strong as the women who do not:
“A woman dressing, acting, BEING, should be HER CHOICE /
If a woman wears a skimpy outfit let it be HER CHOICE /
If a woman wants to be covered up let it be HER CHOICE /

This pro-choice, pro-women poem educated me and introduced me to concepts I’d never considered before, and I would encourage anyone to watch for themselves the conviction with which these women convey their art.
Obama’s sentiment that artists “have a job… to illuminate things through art” has never felt more relevant that in the current climate. The hordes of witty protest posters we see at Trump demonstrations, protest poems, and films make politics accessible to young people who have the power to shape how the world works and progresses.
Art compels us to reconsider issues, illuminate injustices, and hear hidden voices. We need artists to progress as a society, as without them, there would be no challenge to authority or compulsion to see the world differently. Art degrees awaken us to the cultural impact that literature and theatre, as well as other degrees, have on shaping society and political awareness. Art awakens us to circumstances that would otherwise be unknown to us, and compels us to empathise with people and issues which we never would have known of otherwise.

Image courtesy of Man Repeller

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