The Role of the Artist in Society

What is the role of the Artist in society?

Many of my Arts and Literature friends are out on the street in these hard economic times and I am curious if you think the Arts are even necessary today.  Are our times too dire for the Artist mentality and only hard work and labor matters?


I ask to try to help my friends position their Arts background against what can be an unforgiving “business first” mentality on the street.

I hope to find a dyad that can benefit both sides of the dialogue arc to create a communication circle that heals the rift between commerce and commerciality to satisfy everyone.

Few people realize the life of the Artist is unforgiving and hard:  Most work 18 hours a day 7 days a week with zero vacations and no days off.

Many Artists yearn for a 9-5 job that has specific limits and conditions — but they are hooked into their destiny of trying to bring context to the world — and so they earn the endless days and barter the early graves.

Art creates the standards for perception and cognition for a society. Without great Art, there are no great ideas and a lesser community.

The entertainment business usually does well in times of economic crises as people flee their everyday covenants in search of release and fantasy. The new James Bond movie proved that in its spectacular opening weekends in the UK and the USA.

I wish there were more inherent value placed on the non-commodity Artist by the business community. If you don’t have immediate perceived value — you are not considered, or accepted — as a necessary part of the economic sanctity of the populace.

66 comments

  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Thanks for the header David – what a relief!
    Which cityscape is this?
    I think, a real artist is a communicator of ideas, s/he makes us “think” – only if we want to.
    If we run to enjoy the “Quantam of Solace” – that’s a different ballgame though!

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  • Hi Katha —
    The current Cityscape is “Nashville.” Why is it a relief?
    So the role of the Artist in society is to provoke thought? How do you reach a mind that isn’t interested in thinking?
    I agree the Bond movies may not be high art, but those movies do entertain some part of the brain, I guess.

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  • If the artist spends 10 hours working for “the man” and then still can arrange a couple of hours of time to put out something that he or she can call art that is created for the sake of art, I think it is worth it.

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  • Gordon —
    Doesn’t your suggestion devalue the value of the Artist to part-time status?

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Hi David,
    Somehow this “blue” works like a breather for me, that’s why it is a relief.
    It’s tough to make one think if s/he doesn’t want to, but a piece of a good art has a general appeal beyond mere entertainment.
    I agree this sort of movie has a mass appeal – mostly because it provides escapism.

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  • Quite possibly, but isn’t it always quality over quantity? I’d rather a writer put out one good book every five years than five rubbish books during the same period.
    Thomas. Pynchon.
    20 years it took him to write Mason & Dixon.
    If working at Duane Reade keeps an artist fed and he can still create art, it’s worth it.

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  • I understand about the blue, Katha. The Nashville theme is similar to the Portland theme.
    There must be a way for the Artist to provoke thought, though, or there’s no reason for being.
    The current Bond film is being compared more to The Bourne Identity than a traditional “Bond” movie because Quantum is humorless, violent and filled with chases.

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  • Why aren’t Artists allowed to be full timers, though, Gordon? The question of the day is “What is the role of the Artist in Society?” and you have now claimed twice, Tthe role is one of a part-time worker.” I am disappointed in your responses. I expected more insight and eloquence.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Yes David! The Sydney one was also good, I love water…may be that’s why.
    The black one made me suffocated…I don’t know the reason though!
    David, I understand your proposition but it just can’t be generalized. If an artist can make one people think in a different way or from a different perspective – then I consider s/he is successful.
    I am not a Bond fan and I just hate Daniel Craig; “Bourne” is any day a better option for me for an idle time-pass any given point of time, I think “Bourne Ultimatum” is really a captivative mass market entertainment.

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  • The real problem is that I am not answering the question of what the role is but rather how to keep the artist creating art in a world that demands that he or she pay for a dwelling place and other physical needs. I am writing a little bit from the heart because I spend so much time working and not nearly enough time writing and it pains me.
    I think the role of the artist is to create works of art that inspire and delight us.
    I think the chief problem is that the artist has a major role to play in society but because it is so rare to find people that will support you in terms of having a place to live and food to eat, the artist is forced to do some kind of side work. In an ideal scenario, the artist supports themselves entirely with their art. Particularly now, most artists are not able to do this.

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  • For me the artists role in society is severalfold.
    In plays, films, photography, sculpture, music, painting and literature they can record and reflect our times, capture a moment in history, make social commentary, show scientific development, inspire and amaze us and allow us to escape into another world.
    They can transport us to another time, restore our spirits, make us laugh and even start a pressure group.
    Depending on their product – they will either be doing well at present as they are entertaining us and lifting us out of our gloom – or not so well if they are producing “luxury goods” which are not being invested in so much.
    In the UK not only are people watching their personal budgets – the government is also cutting Arts expenditure in real terms so that money can be routed elsewhere – like the health service.
    I would also ask is this just the business community rejecting artists – or is wider society?
    How many artists have been told to get a “real job”?
    I think there might be a general lack of appreciation and understanding of what art and artists contribute to society and what a bleak place it would be without them.

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  • Hi David!
    True art informs, entertains and navigates and asks difficult questions.
    It seems that the new Bond movie likes its audiences shaken and not stirred.

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  • Hi Katha!
    Yes, I loved the Sydney one, too — but it was “crushed” to a third of its size. I have a fix now from Six Apart that will alleviate that problem from now on so Sydney will look even better in its next performance. I’m not sure what’s so special about this Nashville Cityscape. I don’t see the “architectural wonders” of the other cities…
    The Role of the Artist in Society is very clear and concise. There is an answer to the question.

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  • Right, Gordon, you didn’t like my question, so you invented your own and answered it.

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  • I would like to think I rather just didn’t understand the question however I believe my last comment addressed it better – right? :)

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  • Thank you for directly addressing the question, Nicola!
    I agree the role of the Artist is undervalued in the world society. Once, the Artist reigned supreme in antiquity as the intellectual inspiration and the social guide for morality of the day.
    I don’t think that role exists any longer — by choice and decree of the immoral majority — unless we want to poke the cow and pretend celebrity is the same as Art.
    In my article today, I suggest the role of the artist is to provide context that leads to inspiration and change — and while that may seem general and wide, it is not — because what other dedicated profession is able to form the social conscience with a shared aesthetic other than the Artist?
    The teacher trains the mind, the athlete trains the body, the law incarcerates the soul, the politician provides for the social welfare — and the role of the Artist is to give meaning to them all in a single form.
    Not a simple job, and I believe the reason so many of us are lost and depressed and looking inward instead of outward is because we no longer have a higher, common, aesthetic touchstone that unites us in duty and morality.
    We have no great Art projects now: The state can’t “afford it” and so we have the super-poor Artist suffering in silent anonymity and established “artists” are propped up by big money that express a common taste.
    Is Damien Hirst an inspiration or a pox? He’s a Warholian fake. All money and glitter and zero substance.
    So the truly inspirational art we have — was all created by dead Artists that speak to us from the past but never to our present — we have no current, common, voice guiding us out of the darkness and into the brighter hope of an aesthetic understanding of the complex world around us.

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  • Dananjay!
    Right about Bond — the lowest form of entertainment that plays to our basest instincts — and so where is the higher Art that challenges us to be better, that asks the hard questions and that risks outrage and offending the immature aesthetic?

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  • Gordon —
    Forget money and housing and the part time job and think more abstractly to form your answer:
    How do Artists change how we wonder and how does what they create inspire the world?

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  • The way I see it, artists change how we wonder through their words, their paintings, etc. They make something which becomes available for our interaction and we as people see the creations and are therefore inspired, so to speak, to try to maybe even make our own sorts of creations.
    (Maybe I did need a second cup of coffee today!)

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  • David,
    From what I’ve seen most of it lies in the libraries, museums and national archives and there are also many that stand in all their glory out there in the view of the whole wide world but mainstream conditioning that has successfully numbed our sensibilities doesn’t allow us to respond to them.

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  • Damien Hurst does not inspire me at all – neither does Tracy Emin – in fact I cannot name one contemporary artist who does – and that is sad.
    None of this years Turner prize nominees made me feel anything much at all – apart from what a waste of time and space.
    I also have a horrible feeling that television and film pander to the lowest common denominator and are both numbing society and dumbing it down.
    The conspiracy theorist in me asks if this is all part of a plan to make us lower our expectations of life in general – and to accept our lot rather than aspire and dream of better things?

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  • Right Dananjay, all the old stuff is there. But what of the new Art? What created today will be in museums in 100 years?

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  • Exactly, Nicola! The modern artist has become selfish and self-effusive and self-loathing and none of it helps the rest of the world to understand the world around them. It’s a filthy shame and I think a large part of the problem is the lack of social funding for Artists as children.
    Arts in the schools is basically gone. There’s no real appreciation for history and then creating the new. Politicians today don’t think money should be spent on Art or on training new Artists and so that job falls to the private sector and rich families — and so we have a generation of insular, false, Artists that are untrue and untrained and constrained by the past with no future.
    I do think it is a concerted political effort to create a fundamental change in mainstream thinking because Art requires wonder and challenges and attacks and defenses on taste, opportunity and appropriateness in the mind and in the marketplace.
    Today’s most radical Artists cannot express themselves in their natural milieu and so they are forced underground into obscurity or they’re punished into taking jobs that never satisfy their DNA need to create context for the rest of the world — and they die starving on the promise of a vine that was never properly fed or tended.

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  • Yes, David. But the task of Art now must be to inspire others to reclaim their own true calling and create and realize their own potential. Whether it lies forgotten in museums in 100 years shouldn’t matter.

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  • Hmmm, I guess that was always the case!

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  • It matters, Dananjay, because Art must be regenerative in its core in order to be appreciated by the mainstream mind as an important elixir of life. The old masters have nothing on the new Artists of today and that is our shame, not theirs, that our children as stuck admiring only the the works in history. Dead artists have no role in society except in the one that formed them.

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  • The best art I have seen recently was when I got to visit the Louvre in Paris from the Mona Lisa which I was disappointed with – who else knew it was that small? – to the absolutely massive The Wedding at Cana which is hung opposite at the other end of the hall – the sheer enormity of it and the detail was just mind blowing.
    Are there any modern artists you can recommend?

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  • David, now that so much creative energy is either stifled or repurposed or stunted for mainstream consumption by big business and what is known as the culture industry, the ideal way to reach out is through the same channels of culture delivery.
    And yes, when we consume art that was created by dead artists, our souls may be nourished and our minds may be ignited and our hearts set aflutter but we may never think that it can be done today, by us as well!
    So it’s more important than ever for contemporary art and artists to show us that it can be done now as well as it was done by our dead artists. The path is still there, we only need venture.

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  • Love your story about the art you loved, Nicola! How terrific. I also love your surprise at the size of the Mona Lisa — something few people can testify to first hand!
    I can’t think of any exciting, groundbreaking, Artists — probably because they’re all selling stock on Wall Street or working in law offices instead of creating what they were born to do. It’s hard to follow your genetic code if society won’t make a path for you.

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  • We do need to re-evaluate our valuation of Art, Dananjay.
    The MacArthur Fellows program is the sort of public program we needs for Artists only:
    http://www.macfound.org/site/c.lkLXJ8MQKrH/b.959463/
    But, again, that’s private money doing public business — foundations have tried to step in to fill the void the government failed to support and it is a terrible shame that the foundation of our society does not value the Role of the Artist in Society.
    It will take a lot of money and dedication to set up the next generation of Artists because people do not support the Artist taking public money — but the public also doesn’t want public money used to fix bridges and roads, either!

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  • The Mona Lisa was on my list of things to see/do.
    It is hung in a HUGE hall.
    I did actually manage to get to the front of the crowd all doing the same thing. You are kept about 8/10 feet away by an alarmed rope and it is covered/hung behind glass.
    It measures 77cm x 53cm.
    Contrast this with the Wedding at Cana hung opposite it at 6.77m X 9.94m where you can walk right up to it and touch it.
    Do you think that one of the problems with artists in particular is that digital photography and computer manipulated images are more commercially viable to the general populace and are available at a fraction of the cost?

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  • Hi Nicola!
    I love your Mona Lisa story. I’m right there with you! My first playwriting professor was an old man from Texas and he would tell a story about how, after WWII he was in France and he went to a museum and he “touched” a Rembrandt. It was such a thrilling story that when I moved to NYC, I did the same, terrible, awful, irresponsible thing when I visited a museum! It was the thrill of a lifetime.
    I don’t think the digital revolution is what cracked the back of Artists in America — Ronald Reagan did that by cutting Arts funding and Pell grants. We need big Artists designing buildings, sculptures, sidewalks, cities — we need the consideration of an aesthetic, a daring one, put back in the urban core as a part of ordinary life before we can begin to tend the big Art talents.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Hi David!
    Sydney did look better than Nashville – for me it is the color I guess – not the skyline…the effct is so cool!
    I understand your point as I continue to read the whole thread.
    I also think any art form is an outcome of an irresistable passion to express – a true artist is bound to articulate his/ her thoughts.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    One question about the image David, it seems very familiar…from which play is this?

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  • I am remembering your Cityscape likes, Katha! SMILE!
    A true Artist is bound to improving society through beauty and understanding — unfortunately the majority rarely believes those things are important in a culture.

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  • If you’d asked me two days ago, Katha, I would’ve remembered. It’s a painting, not a play. I can’t remember the artist or the title right now, sorry!

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Heh! Thanks David!
    I agree.
    Majority do not want to think hard, that’s why.

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  • What is wrong with thinking hard, Katha? Why is that too much to expect from each other?

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    That’s a lot of hard work David!
    Most people want to cover the basic, some ambitious people are busy accumulating wealth…but sadly the effort just ends.

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  • I guess you need to be mindless to just accumulate wealth, Katha.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    It depends David!
    What if they are just incapable to identify the void? That’s what it is – I guess.

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  • That’s a lack of proper education, then, right Katha?

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Hi David,
    I think it depends on what people expect from their lives and what makes them happy.
    Let me give you an example.
    In one of our family get together I complimented one of my aunt’s dress once, my uncle instantly replied – “…you should have seen the designer one I bought for her recently!…” Duh.
    He had the most prestigious Engineering degree from one of the highly esteemed school in India. He is educated, right?

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  • Great example, Katha. It’s fascinating what we each find valuable. It’s hard to assume a common values system when we’re so morally cracked across the board.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    I don’t blame him David, it’s just his way of expressing life expectation which doesn’t match with me, I find it a little sad.

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  • Do you mention your sadness to him, Katha?

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    What’s the point David?
    I looked at him, I am sure with a look of sheer disapproval written on my face but I could see through it just went over over his head.
    Why bother? You can only take a second chance with someone who is on the same page with you – I guess.

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  • Katha —
    If you only correct those on the same page as you then when would a correction ever be offered? I understand the situation was static and dead to you, but how do we expect people to learn if some sort of further education isn’t made available? It might be taxing or even embarrassing, but what’s the the other choice? Silence? Let the ignorant status quo rule even though we know better?

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    David,
    I understand your point but changing someone’s value/ belief/ expectation from life – do you think it is possible? Everyone is engrossed in their own “want” – trying to change someone is not only taxing, it is futile.
    Unless the person wants to change himself.
    Do you think we will be able to speak the same language? What is he asks “what’s wrong with his point? At least, he could afford to buy the most expensive dress for his wife and he is content with it…” then?

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  • Katha —
    You are thinking to narrowly and too hopelessly — and that surprises me — let’s consider two things in your possible correction:
    1. Others in the room or in earshot who might overhear, learn from, appreciate, giggle at or be disgusted by your gentle education. The object of your correction is irrelevant in that case — if he gets it, great — if not, there are others who will benefit.
    2. When you retell the story — as you have here — your example has deeper meaning and importance because you didn’t give up on the hopeless cause, you fought it, you explored it and even if you were the only two in the room — that is no longer the case today.

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  • Kathakali Chatterjee

    Well David, fighting for a dead cause is not worth it, at least not in my dictionary.
    The object might be irrelevant but the objective is not.
    Moreover, I don’t think I have to fight with those who care – they would understand and “get it”.
    Finally, managing an unexpected blow from a mere acquintance is easy, but it hurts when it comes from someone known and close. Fighting doesn’t help overcoming the numbness, silence and disappearing does.

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  • I”m sorry to hear that, Katha.

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  • https://me.yahoo.com/a/g_CQ2x8QhMqFxhkREjojp1Z7V_XMMxC22d9w#4fc2a

    I’ve been a painter for 25 years. I have read some of these comments and you are deluding yourselves as to the “real role” of art. Many people say art’s role is to help other realize
    their creativity, or to uplift society in social and political ways. Bull. You all have been indoctrinated by art history survey courses which are told from a progressive art historical viewpoint. What I mean is, art historians’ careers depend upon making others believe art has been a sequence of innovations, from Giotto to Tracy Emin, with an emphasis on modern art innovation in particular. The idea is that innovations “free up” other artists to explore those realms, but the truth is, once an artist “breaks new ground”, other artists aren’t likely to repeat it. So the idea that the surrealists “allowed” us to finally paint in surrealist style is bunkk, because if you paint like that today, it looks like a throwback. Same as if you paint like Picasso, or Pollock. Painting with drips and splashes will make you look very unoriginal. So there goes the idea of “freeing up” aesthetic approaches for “the rest of us”. This idea of art having some sort of pervasive, civilizing effect, or changing society is nonsense. Art is a commodity, and always will be. Even Banksy’s work is being auctioned off, and he’s getting paid. Duchamp killed off avant-garde art exhibiting a urinal, but because the art market is larger and longer-lived than Duchamp, “art history” continues, and products get sold.
    Art’s “role” is that it resonates on a personal, not a cultural/social level, and that it is not intended to help others to get creative, but that it makes us more human. As far as your friends suffering–JOIN THE CLUB. There have been more MFAs pumped out in US Art schools (I’m one of them) than the entire population of Florence during the Renaissance (Robt. Hughes).
    Tell your friends to quit whining. It’s competitive. Only artists who stop partying, drinking, and get down to serious work and start sacrificing will succeed and “make it”. Art school takes your money and makes you believe you’ll be an art star. It’s all a sham. Those who really want to make art will, those who want creature comforts, family, house, travel, etc. will slowly morph into art “patrons”. Either that, or they will rely on their social skills (instead of art skills) to get their mediocre foot in the gallery door, which is why there is so much mediocre art in galleries these days. What shows are artists who are really good, or well-connected MFA students who know how to kiss ass.

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  • oyetunji adeola

    The role of artist in the society is to reflect the true image of the society in his artistic work so as to correct the ills of the society

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  • hey hmm… now actually my school is doing a project about ‘the role of the artists in society’ and your website is awesome! i already got some information for my project and now i know alittle about it :).

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  • This is really helping me too, David W. Boles!
    I’m an illustration student doing an essay on modernism and a key part of my research has been to look into the new spirituality/ religiosity that has become associated with modern art, and about the role of the illustrator in such a society. I agree with art being a force with which to see the world and know it; a spiritual force, if you will, i just think that as with religion, if individuals don’t want to know it, they won’t see it.
    Nicola Brown, I’m with you wholeheartedly on the Mona Lisa issue. The best artistic period of my life was the half an hour i spent gazing lovingly and in awe at ‘the young martyr’ by delaroche, which hangs in the gallery just next to the mona lisa, once you’ve managed to escape the seas of cameras and phones in the air. it was so beautiful! And aslo quite big and impressive, compared to the mona lisa, which i personally think is quite dull anyway. I think a lot of people fight to get ‘close’ to the mona lisa based on how exciting the dan brown book was, rather than actual interest.
    a lot of the hype and religiosity is based on possession nowadays anyway. Everyone wants to possess beauty, which is done by leaving a mark on something or by taking a photo of it. Hence, originality is worshipped, as is the case with the new da vinci exhib at the national gallery, which sold out in minutes, apparently, at least for the the first batch of tickets.
    any additional thoughts would be very very welcome. I’m still writing this thing and it’s consuming me. Anyone know any good books?

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  • @https://me.yahoo.com/a/g_CQ2x8QhMqFxhkREjojp1Z7V_XMMxC22d9w#4fc2a (whoever they maybe) – i have just sat and read every single comment on this and up until this comment I, as a soon to be graduate of both the history of art and design and fine art, had lost faith in the notion of being an artist. I am by no means to beholder of the answer to the question at hand, but I believe the way in which the role and nature of been an artist has been reduced to a set of criterion by which they should abide, whether this be the romanticized notion of the bohemian way of life, or the slogging your guts out 9-5 job, which I do, i’m in my 5th year of university and I work full time, this does not tarnish in anyway shape or form my work and its presence within society. regardless …i think your comment completely summed up the new wave of contemporary art practice that we are soon to undergo, especially as we are in the midst of entering the turmoil that the United Kingdoms society entered nigh on 30 years ago, a society which lays heavy emphasis upon the hard worker. The artist’s role will become a laborer of love, in a constant state of flux as the societal order changes, for the better or the worse. Maybe i’ve missed the mark with my response, essentially this is just a way of venting and attempting to comprehend what i am writing my dissertation on, regardless at the age of 22 i am terrified,terrified of the pressure of having to continue this sub-cultured idea of what an artist is, and should I move in a direction which challenges such notions…well what would be the result? Failure? There’s me thinking that art was the one constant that i could rely on.

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