The Artist's Responsibility Manifesto
We as a human race are not supposed to have an awareness of our aloneness in the world. We traverse out into the world each day and fill it with fleeting interactions and moments spent with those we cherish—both fulfill the conditional need for interaction and validation. Quantity over quality. When those moments of hyper-awareness of our aloneness wash over us, often at night or in times of emergency, we do all that we can to make connection with someone else—to find another means to rise out of this miserable mental state. Loneliness is paralysis.
Thankfully, it is easier now more than ever to put at rest the internal chaos when confronted with our aloneness—to maintain the cement wall that society has constructed to keep personal, internal chaos separate from societal, external chaos. Yet this cement wall between psychological and societal chaos is what keeps humanity moving, according to James Baldwin, and it is largely made up of the art that has permeated society—not only visual art, but literature, fashion, dance, poetry, film, theater, etc. Artists above all are who keep humanity moving forward, even in times when we seem to be moving backwards.
The idea of the artist’s role in society and responsibility to humanity derives partly from Baldwin and his seminal 1962 essay “The Creative Process,” and it has become of high importance in a new American political landscape that permeates our communities with rhetoric that devalues the arts. For Baldwin, artists morph reality so that it is tolerable at minimum—so that we can move forward with our lives without the paralysis that comes when reflecting on reality. If not for the arts, it would be even harder to get out of bed everyday and contribute to a society that we can no longer support.
Baldwin’s eloquent essay on the role of an artist offers a methodical guide for their search to impact or make change in society. Quite like a manifesto, “The Creative Process” is a prescription for artists, composed of the following:
Artists must illuminate aloneness, a state that individuals must always avoid for the sake of growth.
Artists must reveal darkness so that humanity can come to terms with darkness and move forward as a society.
Artists must correct the delusions placed upon us by society and history.
Artists must reveal their personal discoveries of the human condition and all its mysteries.
Artists must not take anything for granted and instead expose urgent questions and answers that are hidden among us.
Artists must examine and cultivate society’s perpetually changing states, as our world is never static.
Artists must fight the war that requires them to reveal overlooked truths among society—however beautiful, ambiguous, chilling, or corrupt.
Yes, art is a solitary practice, requiring one to delve into the depths of the soul and then offer itself to the world. It can also be a product of collaboration, and some of the best art has come from artist collectives or communities, and friendships. For Robert Rauschenberg, collaboration was largely based on friendship and mutual inspiration, and this is especially true of his work at Black Mountain College—for example, dance, music, and painting performance with John Cage and Merce Cunningham as highlighted in his most recent retrospective at MoMA. Largely politically centered, Dadaists formed their own counterculture manifestos, and later, the Black Arts Movement saturated art, literature, dance, music, and ultimately changed the canon entirely. All, however, have served us on a greater social scale.
Today, it is our time to recall artists’ and arts institutions’ responsibilities to society, and society’s responsibility to humanity that we build and nurture the arts in our communities, for what artists and arts institutions do will always saturate society, politics, and eventually history. The arts are not only the most honest documentation of its time, but they have a way of igniting actual, measurable change. We must consider these two elements (preservation and/or advocacy) in the art we make, the exhibitions we curate, the programs we support, and, most importantly, we must cultivate anthologized communities in our ambitions to do better and be better.
EUGENE LEMAY is an artist and the founder of Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, Miami, and Chicago.