Immediately after the attack on 9/11, I had the chance to ask several influential artists in town if they would have any response to the WTC attack. None of them did. As years passed and the US invaded Iraq, established the concentration camp at Guantanamo, turned the Bill of Rights into a museum piece and went on to invade Afghanistan, those same artists—and many others like them—sat on the sidelines, mute, inert and utterly passive to world events. Not a painting, not a mural, not a graffito or even a poster issued out on the happenings of the turmoil around them.
When pressed, some said that they didn’t want to seem like they intentionally polarized issues—which is another way to say they didn’t want to become involved. In reality, few wanted to rock any boats that would turn off collectors and critics and while this is understandable from a pay-the-bills/economic reality model, it begged questions from those who wonder what talent is for and what good is it when it sits idle in the face of tumultuous times?
More recently since the Prop. 8 fiasco befell gay Californians who saw their rights stripped from them, many in the local art scene looked the other way. Though some may not be much in sympathy with gay rights it seemed jarring that the local art community offered silence instead of art as an answer to one of the most egregious examples of discrimination in California in a generation.
This inertia hasn’t stopped many in the art world from establishing themselves on their own terms in their own fields, and nowhere is it an indictment of any individual who simply does not react to current events—even as current events shape the world that may or may not support artists’ work. But it seems that so many fine artists are like lifeguards sitting on a beach, content to preen for the bathing beauties and eat fried chicken rather than keep a sharp lookout for those in distress and answer with everything they’ve got when trouble happens. It begs the question—just what are they doing with all that talent, anyway?
Is painting so dead that it cannot follow the legacy of David, who created a mythos of the French Revolution that captured the spirit of those times and explained the age to the generations that followed? Is Caravaggio so forgotten to art that no one needs to follow his powerful religious imagery that empowered the Counter Reformation even against the rise of Protestant thinking and the modern political age? Does no one care to distill the temper of these times as Remington or even Rockwell did theirs? Why not? Why are the artists on the back bench of the world and its work? Why do so many ignore their power and fail to answer the upheaval of terror, war and depression?
What is the rationalization for having talent and not using it in the contest of ideas that will shape our future?
The world has enough diversions, surely, and no one needs another Snooki, Lady Gaga, Harry Potter or other idiot du jour to take our minds off what’s going on. But it always needs art to reflect the times people live in—if for no other reason than to inspire the best in us and to remind us that it isn’t enough to merely survive; that if life is to have any meaning it must have beauty and the clarity that artists can lend it.