Artists are People

Cross-posted from The following is a response to Patrick Finn’s piece, Artists are Dangerous, and the video below. You should also read Dr. Finn’s response in this week’s Fast Forward.

I am better than you.

I am smarter than you, work harder than you, and am more pure in my aims. What I do is more important and more difficult than anything you do. It also makes me super-sexy.

That’s a pretty insufferable way to start a conversation. It’s also exactly how a segment of Calgary’s arts community is choosing to present itself, thanks to an essay by University of Calgary drama professor Patrick Finn. The piece, titled Artists are Dangerous, was written back in March as part of a series of articles to inspire discussion around Calgary Arts Development’s Arts Plan, and on that front it’s been fairly successful. It inspired a dozen or so supportive quotes on the Arts Plan website, and even led to the creation of a video with some of the most dedicated and talented members of Calgary’s arts community reading Finn’s words.

Unfortunately, while Artists are Dangerous seems to have resonated with some in the arts community, it does it in a way that plays into some of the absolute worst stereotypes held by those outside that community. Imagine the reaction when the type of Sun columnist who holds “latte-lifting liberals” in contempt reads sentences like “Artists work harder than you. They don’t take breaks, don’t have casual Friday, and they don’t have conferences in Miami” — and not just because “casual Friday” only exists when there are formal other days. More to the point, though, there are many Calgarians struggling to make ends meet who will scoff at the notion that “Artists are better with money than you are,” which certainly won’t help sell the idea that “Artists are heroes.”

It’s true that artists work hard. So do construction workers, and EMTs, and oil company executives. Some of them work hard despite hating what they do, because they need the money to provide for themselves and their family. Some of them put themselves through physical and emotional challenges that the rest of us can barely comprehend, just because they know their work makes the world a better place. Artists do not have a monopoly on suffering.

The one phrase in Artists are Dangerous that really stands out, though, is the notion that “Artists don’t need you.” Granted, Finn is talking about money, and it’s true that many artists would work with or without funding, because they believe in and love what they do. As a general statement, though, it speaks to a profound and disturbing disconnect. Because artists should need all of us, in the same way that we all need art. If great art is about communication, it cannot exist without an audience — ideally an audience that extends beyond the same handful of people who are already producing art within that community. Otherwise what is meant to be a conversation about the most profound questions facing humanity becomes an endless monologue, an increasingly insular diary entry written in jargon every bit as intentionally impenetrable as the worst examples of business speak.

That’s why pieces like Finn’s Artists are Dangerous are, well, dangerous. They position the artist as being outside of society, looking down on it with condescension while wondering why those within civilization haven’t wised up to just how wonderful they are. It’s an attitude that instantly shuts down any serious discussion about the relationship between arts and public policy, because it insists that art and society are two different worlds.

Wouldn’t it be better to emphasize connection? There has been a recent resurgence in people’s desire to actually create things with their own hands. Maker culture is probably the best evidence of that — and how strange is it that western culture is at a point where “maker” has become a useful word? — but the signs are everywhere. The tools for creating art are more widely available than ever; the tools for distributing it are so powerful it’s basically ridiculous. If the ability to create and consume art are both attainable in a way they’ve never been before, shouldn’t we be encouraging as many people as possible to take part in both sides of the relationship?

None of that is to take anything away from the importance of professional artists. On the whole, the most meaningful, life-changing works are going to be created by people who have devoted their lives to their craft. The amount of skill that goes into making a professional theatrical production, or a multimedia installation, or a piece of performative art is staggering. But whether they’re dangerous, hard-working heroes or not, what’s most important is that artists are people. They’re inherently no better and no worse than any other profession, and while ignoring that very basic premise might make for a good pat on the back from time to time, it’s only going to hurt the arts in the long run.

*Front-page image: Salvador Dali’s Study for Sentimental Colloquy

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