We need artists today

23 Jun

In a recent essay on “Creativity,” Eric Kaplan writes that creativity makes something new and that it is a form of love. This helps us understand why art is important in our days of COVID, social protest, and economic hardship.

Newness is something we need at this moment. Brought to our knees by a virus and pummeled by an economic downturn, many people, see nevertheless an opening for transformation. 

But even though we hear talk about a “new normal,” we also see many people demanding a return to the “old” normal. Enormous numbers of marchers have filled the streets of our cities, demanding transformation of our attitudes and behaviors towards African Americans and other people of color. 

Smaller crowds, equally passionate, some bearing arms and making death threats, are demanding that the “old” normal be reinstated. Clearly, we are not united as a people in wanting transformation, and even among the transformers there is not a consensus. 

The creativity of the artist is urgently needed, to assist in birthing the new ways of thinking and living that our times demand.

Sometimes the artist points to newness by emphasizing the negative. Picasso’s “Guernica” has been called the greatest religious painting of the 20th century, because it depicts war’s destructive consequences as the very depth of evil—and thereby speaks of peace

Kerry James Marshall’s paintings often portray African Americans in  settings that are familiar to white Americans and also in homage to the classic tradition of western art. He puts African Americans into the social scene, as in his painting of blacks vacationing on a lake. At the same time, he comments ironically on how African Americans are excluded, as in his “4th of July.” Frederick Douglass made the same point in his historic 1852 oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Novelists frequently contribute to our journey toward newness—in utopias (H. G. Wells), dystopias (Orwell’s 1994), and in their portrayals of the human condition. Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright are among the architects and city planners who envision new things in individual human living, as well as revisioning cities.

Imagining new things and changing our lives is unique to humans. 

Kaplan insists that this creativity expresses love. The artists are in love with their subjects. The street art in Minneapolis has recovered the basic humanity of George Floyd, including panels with “Love Minneapolis” writ large.

This may seem strange, given the sometimes ugly and horrific shape the world takes, but if we are to take the world around us with genuine seriousness, we must grow to love it. Not love at an emotional level, but in the sense that we care for it—whether it’s the natural environment or some aspect of social relationships. We must care enough to want to change things, to protect something, and that means creating something new that will serve the interests of our love.

It is an illusion to think that by changing a system, an ideology, or our external circumstances, things will change. The profound problems of life and society will be solved by love, and love alone.

Artists are immersed in the world and they are caught up in the living love that transforms and renews everything they do. We need them today.

(c) Phil Hefner.   22 June 2020

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