There are artists whether that be painters, sculptors, poets, or songwriters who speak of creating art from a source which originates from a place that isn’t theirs alone as if something is being channelled through them. Socrates once said, “God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his minister.” And it is exactly that: some artists believe their art comes from a spiritual place within them, channelled by God/The Divine/The Source.
Art is sacred yet its sacredness is not as celebrated, ordained or preached as highly as the written word of many religions. It is not that I am comparing the scriptures of John to Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly or the Sermon on the Mount to the works of Egon Schiele BUT, I confidently say that there are pieces of music, literature, paintings, and films which move a person, which stir within a person the same unspeakable but deafening force that makes us have faith in the Divine and make us believe, if only for a moment, that there is more out there than the mortal humanness that ties us to this earthly realm. If art can do such a thing, if art holds such power then what does that say about artists themselves, the significance they hold, and in turn, society’s responsibility to protect them, to nurture them, and shed more light on the importance of art in the world.
I believe that every society has a particular responsibility to artists. A responsibility to admit to the absolute need for artists to produce work in this world, to acknowledge the significance of art to the everyday human being, and through that acknowledgment create the means with which to support artists and provide them with the necessities to build artistic communities, to survive off of their art and create spaces for future generations of artists to grow. The word responsibility is, in this context, synonymous with the word knowledge. Society must admit to the knowledge of what is often undervalued and unexplored; that art is a necessary tool in radical change whether that be structurally or personally. It is to admit to the significance and influence that artists have had throughout history and why this influence has either been minimised, ignored, or policed. Artists are not merely tools of entertainment but are bearers of wisdom, truths, and possibilities that can only be made plausible through artistic channels. If such appreciation and knowledge are felt in society then artists may have more space to thrive within society and have their needs and desires reflect governmental policies as well as societal attitudes.
I remember when I was a child and I decided that I wanted to write books like the incredible writers whose words I had often drowned myself in. I knew that I also wanted to create worlds and share them, write of places that people could escape to, and create characters who felt entirely very real until the final page had been read. As a child, when I shared this desire with people, I began to notice a special expression on the faces of the grown-ups around me, “That’s nice,” one of them said, “but what real job would you like to have when you grow up?” I had frowned. Real job? There were fake jobs…and being a writer fell into it? This expression spread across the faces of my teachers whose smiles felt too placid and endearing compared to encouraging for those who spoke of being doctors, teachers, or policemen. As I became acquainted with the beauty of the song and decided I would also like to be a singer, those expressions deepened, the sympathetic smirk that I believe all dreamers are too familiar with. Since that is what it felt like, that I was simply a being of dreams, dreams that were out of reach or physical enough to warrant encouragement, I started to not only become accustomed to those expressions but give into them. I began to believe that maybe my dreams of being an artist were preposterous and to be steered clear from, that I needed to submit to my reality rather than believe I could become more than that. So, I gave more and more of my time to my academic studies, plunging further realism in order to see life through the lens of what others believed was palpable. It’s a difficult endeavour because so many artists have within them this indescribable feeling that feels as if they are their art and that when they are not practicing that art and exploring that feeling, then something is void inside of them and that neglect can feel like heartbreak or like a longing that persists until it is satisfied. This feeling for me became unbearable despite the fact I willed it away and so I finally returned to being seen as a dreamer as I began to pursue my desires. It’s funny because I believe that the idea of a ‘real job’ lingers throughout the life or many artists that even the people around me who create art for a living and have had wonderful careers still battle with this feeling that they are ‘outside’ of society, that their job isn’t real enough to hold weight at dinner table discussions or is, in a way, fragile, not concrete enough to put all their faith in, that they must always be ready for that infamous Plan B. I don’t think that it is a fault of artists themselves to feel like this but instead a failure on societies’ part to allow such an attitude to exist. It brings to light the fact that society does not fulfill its responsibility to artists.
This attitude is also felt in governmental actions and policies. As we live in unstable and unprecedented times we have seen this pandemic affect so many livelihoods as well as important industries. Yet, we have also seen which industries have had to fight to be more visible than others. I am reminded of the uproar of an image released by the British Government whereby a dancer called Fatima was pictured tying her pointe shoes. The picture read, “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber.” It felt like a call to arms to those in artistic jobs to rethink their job and retrain to a profession better suited to surviving a pandemic. Is a job in tech of more worth to society than being a ballerina? Was the cyber industry more likely to be protected by the government than the dance industry and why? The advert course met with much uproar and reaffirmed to artists that they were not perceived of having any significant importance in society and are instead seen as mere decorations to daily life which is sustained by those with ‘real jobs’. The creative industries have suffered greatly during this pandemic: last year the Musicians Union said that 19% of musicians had left the industry due to a lack of support. Both the theatre and art industries have echoed such sentiments, the need to call for support rather than be assured that it would come, the need to salvage a loss of jobs, and the steady feeling that they are not thought of or cared for as much as they should. Again, we return to the mirage with which artists are seen whereby the importance of their art is either diminished or unknown. So, let me tell you.
In a society like ours, which is skewed and built to thrive against its natural state, it is true knowledge which many of us are socialised to live without. Knowledge of one’s self, of the power of the things which surround us, and the knowledge of love, consciousness, and the many layers of life which must be undone before the change can unfold. You will not find the knowledge of the politically induced rambles of your prime minister, elected officials, and the policies which come of it. You will not find the knowledge of love within the courtrooms filled with lawyers with furrowed brows. You will not find the knowledge of power and revolution in the regurgitated and passed down seminars, sermons, and textbooks which fill the cupboards of your History class. Art is where such truths and revelations have always had reign to be spoken whether it be through a novel or a song. It has always been through art where we have found ourselves, known of the truth, and felt the beginnings of freedom.
So, what is the definition of an artist? In poetic terms I believe artists are magicians, they employ tools within them which are not readily available to everyone and with these tools they create worlds or speak upon worlds already known, painting them with fresher colours. However, in layman’s terms, artists are creators. Now, why do I understand artists as vessels? There are many artists whether that be painters, sculptors, poets or songwriters who speak of creating art from a source which originates from a place that isn’t theirs alone as if something is being channelled through them. Socrates once said, “God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his minister.” And it is exactly that: that some artists believe that their art comes from a spiritual place within them, channelled by God/The Divine/The Source. It is as if a painter were to paint something so beautiful that they daren’t try to paint it again but also wonder, where did that painting come from? and those who see the painting, who it really touches, feel the art in a way which makes them wonder how a fellow human being, just like them, managed to create such a thing. So, in that way artists are vessels, for they carry within them a source of creativity which feeds and frees us all. Just imagine what state the world would further plunder into if there were no artists on this Earth at all?
Artists are historians. When we look at the truth-teller, Fela Kuti, we see his song Zombie as a piece that detailed the realities of his time whereby subservient and cowardly Nigerian soldiers had, without qualm, followed the instructions of an abhorrent government to be violent to its own citizens. Likewise, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Sonny’s Lettah is a fictional echo of a violent reality. Sonny’s tale mimicked the real tale of many young Caribbean boys in London who, during the late ’70s, were targets of the Sus Law; a law in Britain that permitted police officers to stop, search and arrest individuals on the basis of pure suspicion on whether that individual had or potentially could commit a crime. Their own skin was used as justification for interrogation, for violence upon their bodies by the authoritative figures who they are told simultaneously to obey and trust. These artists spoke of lived nightmares, validated them in songs, and influenced people to see the injustice which surrounded them. We use these works of art today to measure how little has changed and also as fuel for us to continue to bear light on the terrors of a system whose horrors are often hidden in plain sight.
In a world built on a warped concept of the logical, artists breathe onto the world the gift of emotion. There are works of art that we consume which are not mechanical or reduced to constructed norms and values but instead moves beyond the evanescent and holds us. This is why we cling to art when we are heartbroken when we are joyous or seek to feel something intensely that we cannot find in our day to day. It is in this way that art returns to being a tool of change because it can be used to permeate our hearts and call upon societal, political, and environmental injustices in ways that the system which produces it cannot.
Yet, outside of the societal realm, the work of artists is significant to who we are as people. As I mentioned earlier, artists are vessels and are able to share parts of themselves and their desires in ways which transform us all. Close your eyes and think of that one album that you felt healed you, that brought you up, whose lyrics spoke too closely to your heart and will always be a favourite of yours. Or that novel whose character reminded you of your own flaws or dreams and loves but written in a way that you once could not describe before, so articulate and precise that you never knew an emotion could be so clearly defined, a character so close to you – someone alive and breathing. Through the artist having lived their own life, dealt their own plights, and searched for their own self, they have managed to impart into the world a sense of clarity and understanding from which we build our universal truths. Personally, I wonder who I would be today if I had never felt pulled to the words of Bob Marley, to its pulsating message to be free and to fight for your rights. He made me want to fight for something and to reclaim a culture that I had not even yet begun to know was stolen. I wonder who I’d be if I had never stumbled across Anais Nin. I remember reading each page of her diary and feeling as if someone had spoken to my own heart, had put words to my own hunger for love, the need to live passionately without shame and to have known life in its pains and its pleasures.
So, let us return to societies’ responsibility to artists. If an artist’s work pours so much into society and the people in it, then in that way society must pour back deep sustenance into artists and provide them with the structural nutrients which are necessary for their growth. Art nurtures the world and therefore artists must be nurtured by communities within society and of course governments themselves. The generalised and poor attitudes towards those who have an artistic flame and wish to spend their whole lives turning it ablaze must change. Art is as graspable as a doctor’s degree and in this way, they are both healers, one of the body and the other of the soul and the body cannot thrive when the soul remains famished. Society Must show its reverence to artists through accessible funding, through surety of work, available universal income, through no longer diminishing the cultural significance of art so no matter what circumstance there are still paths for the future generation of artists to wander.