The Role of an Artist in a Culture War
In his book, Culture Care, artist Makoto Fujimura makes the case that artists are tasked with walking the margins of culture and bridging the gaps between divided cultural tribes, a responsibility he calls "border-stalking". It is due to their neurodiversity, their ability and drive to think differently, that artists find themselves on the fringe of society, where they search both for acceptance and for satiation to their insatiable creative thirst. Yet, on the fringe, they have the clearest view of the horizon. They can see what is beyond their cultural border, towards other cultures. Artists who embrace this role, therefore, can walk the borders, push them, and communicate across them to mingle cultures and diffuse the culture war.
In this age of deep cultural fragmentation, the role of the artist as "border-stalker" is particularly important, but I fear there are very few who embrace it. To illustrate my claim, let me briefly paint a picture of where, in my opinion, the mind of the contemporary artist is oriented. In contrast with the Renaissance age, where faith, science and art could coexist for the betterment of mankind within a humanistic worldview, and where art was culturally and academically accepted in the same esteem as science and philosophy (Burne Hogarth, Dynamic Anatomy, pg 56), art today stands alone, excommunicated of its own accord. At some point in the initial tremors of the modern art movement, the artist grew rebellious towards the conservative, historical practices of art. He rejected a proud tradition of form, color and technique, feeling bound by it, and directed his creative energy at the subjective, the emotional and the existential. The objective visual image and empirical realism were mutinied and replaced by a more psychological art form. In other words, art turned from observation of the world outside to observation of the world within.
As a result of the artist's focus on his own psyche, art became exceedingly egocentric and analytical, and it remains as such today. Artists are often more concerned with so-called "self-expression" than empirical realities. Identity trumps objective truth, and societal critique is valued above all else. The great failure in contemporary art, in my opinion, is the artist's indulgence in his self. He has buried himself in a hole and has ceased to walk the borders.
Art as "self-expression" entirely misses the point. Art is a language that communicates beauty and truth, and only through beauty and truth can divided cultures be reconciled. Artists must first set their minds on these transcendentals before they can take up the task of "border-stalker". Then, they may proceed to diffuse the culture war, as Fujimura urges them to do.
Now, artists must have proper training, so to speak, to be leaders in this war. Most of all, they must practice their art incessantly so that they have the language necessary to communicate across cultures. Whether through painting, music, film, or any other medium, artists have the capacity to access collective unconscious truths and transcendental truths, and to put them forth as common ground, but it requires precision which can only be achieved through dedicated practice. They also have a responsibility to form themselves in the virtues. The weapon they wield in this fight, creativity, must be guided by the light of hope and charity in order to expose injustice, reveal brokenness and need, and virtuously engage with the culture. Artists entirely concerned with themselves cannot accomplish this. They must first understand the human condition and then respond to it with generosity. They should involve themselves in churches, communities and family, first to learn, and then to lead. In the process, artists will be required to sacrifice, but they must see their sacrifices as fertile ground for cultivating hope and charity. Finally, artists must receive help. They need encouragement and support from others, but they should understand that those who offer encouragement and support are investing in them. They are investing their time and money, entrusting the artists with this role of "border-stalker". In return, artists must offer gratitude and hard work, to manifest the hopes of the investors, and to affirm their trust.
Artists bound not by self-idolatry but grounded in the virtues can lead the culture towards the good. This is their role. It is not necessarily exclusive to them, but they should embrace it.