Does an artist have a responsibility to society? A question with a thousand answers, or just one? For me, Uncle Ben answered it best when he told Peter Parker six words. With great power comes great responsibility.
While it’s true not everyone who claims the title artist has a great deal of power, let’s look at a few name.
J. K. Rowling
Leonardo Da Vinci
Even if you’ve never read or seen a single work by them, or based on works of theirs, you’ve heard of them, haven’t you? Most of us have. That’s the thing about art. Its influence cannot truly be measured like some quantity of flour for a cultural cake. Yet how many hundreds of thousands of people around the world claim a Hogwarts House because that House shares values they hold important?
That’s me, in case you were wondering. Fascinating how so many people of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds have united under a shared concept.
But is it really a surprise?
Influence of Art
I’ve had many moments in life that I’d call non-reality. Most of them involve reading books. It’s the moment went actual life is replaced by the reality of the novel, or whatever piece of art you’re encountering. Some video games and movies are great at this. Which movies is entirely up for debate, because we all experience art differently.
The point remains that whether we want to believe it or not, the art we consume on a regular basis influences us to a great degree.
What This Means For Artists
I’ve seen arguments that state artists have some kind of societal responsibility to inject moral imperatives into their stories. In fact, in a discussion with a fellow writer the other day, I encountered the argument that if sex outside of marriage was portrayed at all in a story, in her mind, that story was not “clean” until the act carried negative consequences.
I disagree, primarily because I dislike holding my own moral imperatives over my audience’s head like a guillotine. I realize some readers enjoy the kind of story she writes. I doubt we share the same audience.
At the same time, that does not absolve a writer – or any artist – of societal responsibility. I often wonder if part of the reason people are encouraged away from artistic careers is the fact that influential artists have so much sway over large audiences. Our responsibility then is not to force a specific set of morals on our audience. Let morality and consequence speak for themselves in our work.
As artists, we must recognize the power we have to affect society, and use it to unify and enlighten our audiences as much as possible.
We have enough strife, enough pain, enough conflict in the real world. Yes, I liberally include those themes in my fiction, as well. I’m a bit of a sadist when it comes to my characters, but not without reason. Humans learn through narrative and story. Look at story problems in mathematics, even. The ideas we embrace through story stay with us far longer than those shoved at us through other means.
In fact, I remember keeping more understanding of loyalty, friendship, relationships, and perseverance through watching the beloved characters of my fantasy books as a kid than I ever did from lectures I got from parents or teachers.
I know this has rambled a bit. Thankfully, it’s also quite a bit shorter than my other posts. The point is, yes, an artist does have a great responsibility. That responsibility is to use their cultivated talents to produce works that unify their audience, that enlighten minds and hearts in some small way. Otherwise, why waste the effort? If all we do is tear down, what good are our gifts?
And if we do become like the great names listed above, those names that people say, I’ve got to make sure my kid grows up knowing this, then isn’t everyone better off if we’re not promoting some strict, specific agenda, but rather attempting to unify people in brotherhood and love? After all, peace never came from drawing lines and seeing who crossed them.