1. One artist’s voice can make a big difference.
Slavery, racism, classism, sexism, war, environmental destruction, and many other social ills have been, while not exactly decimated by art, at least shrunk down to manageable sizes. Look up the biographies of Gustave Courbet, Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Gershwin, Billie Holliday, Annie Dillard, Alan Paton, Ai Weiwei, and Banksy (whoever or whatever Banksy might be), and you’ll see that each exerted a direct influence on positive changes occurring within their environments.
Artists (we include writers, visual artists, composers, filmmakers, and anyone else devoted to making beautiful things) have more power to change the world than many realise. Those lucky enough to have become cultural icons can even, outside of artmaking, use their public personas to bring attention to social injustices, show why they’re unjust, and motivate the public to wake up and do something.
Expressing social concern in the art they create can be even more potent if the art is an authentic expression of true sentiment. Art has a unique capacity to set hearts on fire for a worthy cause and to provide the enthusiasm and persistence needed to launch and maintain big social changes.
Artists who’ve had the courage to respond openly to injustice and oppression despite the risk of personal loss have been responsible for turning many big rigs around. There’s something particularly stirring about artists who lead such mindful lives that they can’t help but be moved to compassion for those who suffer— and who can’t help but manifest this empathy in their art.
2. Social concern prevents the marginalisation of artists.
Art-for-art’s sake often leads to the unfortunate occurrence that the artist’s world becomes insular, elitist, and isolated. There are times when this is necessary for self-preservation, but as a way of life it inevitably leads to artists thinking of themselves— and being seen— as transcendent, superior, separate, snooty, or just plain weird and incomprehensible. None of this bodes well for art, as it prevents artists from connecting with the very social stratum they should be defending, sometimes even reducing the relevance of their art.
3. Social concern can save artists from themselves.
Yes, artists, for their own sake, need to be concerned about social problems. Why? Because the artistic personality has a tendency to implode. As John Cheever said of the writer: “As he inflates his imagination, he inflates his capacity for anxiety, and inevitably becomes the victim of crushing phobias that can only be allayed by crushing doses of heroin or alcohol.”
The artist in general seeks to expand her imagination, to become more sensitive and perceptive. If she’s lucky, she succeeds, but this can lead to depression, suicidal ideology, and a vulnerability to addictions; the expanded, sensitive, perceptive imagination can make existence seem overwhelming.
A social conscience can buffer the possibly harmful effects of the empathy, sensitivity, and imagination necessary to the production of art. And I’m willing to theorise that a social conscience creates a sense of connection with humanity and the earth that can only enhance the inherent vertue of art— the personal, inwardly transforming quality that enters the artist’s spirit when she consents to begin the creative journey.
Conscious compassion for others can also be a safety valve, releasing any excessive burgeoning of the artistic ego.
A word of caution: Don’t expect to be popular for taking a stand. Art consumers and fellow artists alike may feel threatened by your readiness to speak out. Art consumers being sometimes the very progenitors and maintainers of social evils, they really don’t want to hear about themselves.
Fellow artists, for their part, sometimes see social activism as activity that dilutes the purity of art, turning it into a vulgar soapbox. True, when art becomes ranting dogma it fails to be art, but history bears proof that high quality, sincere, and compassionate art is not only possible, it’s something that occurs naturally— for those who let it happen.
This article is an excerpt from The Mindful Bard: Social Conscience and the Creative Self, by Wanda Waterman.
To learn more about how to be a mindful bard, scroll down on this page to find the Mindful Bard Manifesto.