In 1981, the Hungarian film Mephisto won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of the Year. The story, which begins before the outbreak of World War II, follows the arc of an actor who—when faced with dilemmas posed by the incoming Nazi regime—relinquishes his integrity and compromises professed personal values so that he could continue to practice his art as well as to assure personal survival. In every situation where pressure is brought on the film’s protagonist, he would rationalize that his duty was not to the world or other people but to the continuation of his art.
This is hardly a new attitude. In fact, the role of the artist in society and within its ideological microstructure has long been a point of debate.
The ancient Greeks portrayed their gods and heroic standards in both drama and poetry so as to construct an exemplar for personal behavior.
On the other hand, there is the ars gratis artis approach to artistic creation. Oscar Wilde once described the duty of the artist as being a creator of beauty, maintaining that “all art is useless,” yet he also dedicated his talents to cause readers to become involved in self-examination, if not socially at least individually. No one can read The Portrait of Dorian Gray and come away feeling that there was no point to the work, that is merely “beauty” that is “useless.”
So, does the artist have a responsibility to society or to the medium?
One of the primary problems with the attitude of creating “art for art’s sake” is the limitations it puts upon the artist, forcing the separation of life from the work being created.
Additionally it seems to be an almost recurring phenomena that enduring works of art are those that, in some way, tie into the prevailing mores and attitudes of their sovereign origins.
Franciso Goya tried desperately to instill a sense of national pride within the Spanish people through his art. His portraits, as well as his sketches, prints, and “caprichos,” reflect his attitude and feeling towards the subject of his final product as well as his politics in general.
In his book Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, Fred Licht states, “Goya hoped once—as many artists have hoped since—that the time would come when mankind would reach a level of sensibility at which the mere record of the insensate and purposeless cruelties of war would serve as a salutary warning to all men.”
Of course, Goya’s dream went unfulfilled since the only thing that humanity seems to learn from the redundant lessons of history is that we learn nothing from the redundant lessons of history.
However, this does not absolve artists from becoming aware of the prevailing political, social, or economic climate, and then using their particular talents to point out specific aspects inherent in those institutions needing either recognition or change. The very fact that the artist is, supposedly, more sensitive than most people seems to dictate that it is one’s individual responsibility to contemporaries and to keep society informed of the consequences of particular actions.
Kurt Vonnegut once likened the role of artists to that of the “canary in the coalmine,” the coalmine being society itself. It is, therefore, every bit as important for the artist to understand the contemporary government and people as it is for them to understand their particular medium.
In a 1979 interview with the Paris Review, the late American author John Gardner said, “I think the difference right now between good art and bad art is that good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating out of a deep and honest concern, a vision of life [. . .] worth protecting,”
How does the artist achieve this?
As example, observe Goya’s series of prints he named “The Disasters of War.” Depicting the years of Napoleonic rule in Spain, these prints were forerunners to modern photojournalism. The stark reality of his works—the pain, brutality, surprise, stupidity, starvation, and other characteristics of the art’s subjects, victims really—act as powerful statements regarding a time that Goya felt had to be chronicled in order to be both understood and believed by posterity.
In Human Rights, Human Wrongs: Art & Social Change, a collection of essays and studies focused on the role of the artist in modern society, Robert Hobbs writes, “We need to set aside the notion that art is concerned only with decoration or with ineffable pleasures, with pure delectation of the senses, and with all those refinements that make it rarefied and separate from daily existence. And we need to focus on what art does: it establishes identity, whether that identity be persona, societal, or political, and it also endows groups with power.”
Hobbs later notes how “dictators frequently overthrow the arts of a former regime and then commission artists to create a style for them.”
This reinforces the reality of the emotional, mental, or spiritual power of art over its observer. Josef Stalin understood this well, knowing that if he could control the artists, he would more easily have the allegiance of the people.
The examples revealing this reality act as a warrant to those involved in the arts to become involved in all aspects of life and history.
During the final years of the Roman Empire, several artists found themselves in disfavor with imperial authorities because of the attention Nero afforded them; as Protestantism rose in Europe during the Counter Reformation, the popes of the time used Baroque sculptors as a form of propaganda; Hitler used the architectural talents of Albert Speer to instill grandiose dreams of glory to instill grandiose dreams of German glory; Stalin used the talents of composer Dimitriyvich Shostakovich to promote Soviet nationalism.
The talents of these people were used—sometimes given willingly, other times coerced—as a means of controlling the populace of the time.
“It seems to me that the arts ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living,” Gardner said. “Certainly morality should come first—for writers, critics, and everybody else. People who change tires. People who work in factories. They should ask, is this moral? Not, will it sell?”