As it happens, I sometimes get lost in a daze of reading Goodreads quotes for hours on end. One such person that I’ve been interested in lately is the writings of James Baldwin. In particular, I came across the above exchange and it’s one of those things I couldn’t help but read a few times because it resonated with me. And when something resonates with me, especially within the area I’m interested in — writing — I have to…write about it. Here we are.
This is just my own musing, but it seems to me, especially within the last decade or so, the role of the artist in society has been devalued and underplayed to such a large degree. If you go to college and major in any of the fine arts, you’re lambasted for being fucking stupid. “Why would you waste thousands of dollars for such a meaningless degree?” If you say you want to make a living being an artist, people either patronize you or outright tell you how foolish that is. The days of the romanticized life of an artist are over. To be an artist is to be stupid. Go be an engineer. Go into politics. Jesus, do anything other than artsy shit. What are you, a loser?
But Baldwin gets at the reason artists are so vital to our society, whether we’re talking painters, musicians, writers, filmmakers, comedians, whatever medium you want to discuss, artists matter. They shake up the established order, the status quo and speaking to Baldwin’s point about the illusion of safety, they say, “Dude, wake the fuck up and check this out.”
Artists are risk-takers, their canvas a megaphone and what they produce “disturbs the peace.” Disturbs this illusion of peace. Where we would be as a society, as the human species, without artists? Am I hamming this up too much? Over-exaggerating? I don’t think so.
I especially find his point about the connection forged through art salient. Inevitability, given who we are as creatures, we believe every problem we have to be personally our problem, without being able to see that a great many people alive, dead, also suffered through those same problems and some even spoke to it in their own way; it’s the human condition.
As to the point about artists using their work as a sort of “confession,” he says it even more forcefully here, “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”
Right? Maybe I’m romanticizing it too much, but the true mark of an artist to me, the true measure of artistic excellence, comes from the artist bearing all. They fucking bleed on to their canvas. They give it everything. Nothing is left untouched because only when one is willing to bleed does the “illusion” break down and we start getting at the grit of the human condition. That grit that we try to avoid with our 9-5, our IKEA furniture, our Starbucks coffee and then BAM, motherfuckers like James Baldwin come around and say things like, “The American idea of racial progress is measured by how fast I become white.” That smacks your historical and present-day illusions right in the face. I love it.
I’ll end with one more quote from Baldwin:
“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”
Poignant as hell, but that’s what I want to do. I want to use art — writing — to autopsy the the goddamn conundrum of life, the burden of living. I’ll see what I can do to bring a little chaos to the world, to disturb the peace. To earn my death.
Working in comedy and having many friends in comedy and theatre, we have noticed recently many incidents of people complaining that they are ‘offended’ by art works and/or performances. Of course I am sure that there were some cavepeople offended by the first cave drawings too.
Dylan Moran does a great comedy bit about “Religion is a formalised panic about death.”
I like Lord Reith’s quote: “There are some people whom it is one’s duty to offend”.
Keep (artistically) disturbing the peace!
Well said! Lord Reith’s quote is spot on. I firmly believe some people need their sensibilities shaken up.
I disagree with only part of his statement the “has to”.
Not all art ‘has to’ disturb the peace; some can enhance it, some can create the peace. Some art can make people life…there is no singular summation of what art has to be in my opinion.
I enjoy works that make me think, I enjoy ones that upset my world view. Sometimes though I also enjoy ones that makes me dream of better places than I’m in.
Quite well said, Bob and thanks for commenting. You’re absolutely correct. Obviously, I have a slight preference for art that pushes boundaries, but there’s certainly room for other types of art.
Artists exist to art. If art was a verb. Some artists disturb the peace like Ludacris. Other artists comfort people during tough times such as Taylor Swift when she sings the “Shake It Off” song. Artists have their unique reasons why they make art.
The people have their unique reasons for being condescending towards others when others want to be artists. Abusive parents that want their children to become doctors, lawyers, politicians, engineers, teachers, C.E.O.s, etc. rather than let people chase dreams are expected. Society’s herd mentality is strong after all. Gotta have enough people doing various jobs to strengthen the economy anyway, right?
Intellectuals and artists that don’t follow the status quo are outcasts. Socrates was killed for thinking for himself. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by an assassin because black people were starting to think for themselves. John Lennon was killed by an assassin for trying to make people think independently from the “Working Class Hero” song. Bob Marley was killed by an assassin for trying to make the world become peaceful. John F. Kennedy was killed by an assassin for exposing secret societies and corruption in America. Kurt Cobain was probably killed by an assassin for telling the world to not believe in everything you read. Edward Snowden left America to protect himself. Julain Assange left America to protect himself, too. Greydon Square is not a popular rapper because he is not some sellout doing what black rappers do stereotypically. Radio stations, media companies, popular music record labels, well-known film studios, and other things are controlled by powerfully wealthy sellouts caring about profit more than art including intellectualism.
Sticking out like a sore thumb is when an artist shows their true mark of artistry. Not being a hipster nor completely ordinary. Most of the modern female “artists” in the entertainment and music industries are mostly unoriginal prostitutes selling sex from very dumbed down repetitive lyrics rather than art. Cardi B. and Nicki Minaj are dumbed down sex clowns that don’t hold any candle to Lauryn Hill nor Queen Latifah. Ariana Grande doesn’t hold a candle to Mariah Carey nor Whitney Houston. Dimash Kudaibergen is a millennial that has more musical talent than people from generation Z. Generation Z is lacking musical talent and artistic innovation that previous generations had. The rise of snowflakes, feminazis, woketivists, hipsters, collectivists, internet censorship, hate speech rules, political correctness, and cancel culture exist in generation Z compared to previous generations. Which prevents artistic innovation and intellectual growth. Artistic innovation is being threatened as a result because of dictators that care about money and power more than artistic freedom. James Baldwin was living during a time when there much less snowflakes, feminazis, woketivists, hipsters, internet censorship, hate speech rules, gun control laws, and so forth that allowed more artistic freedom. Now, artistic freedom is being threatened because the dictators are indoctrinating people with propaganda, collectivism, self-censorship, fearmongering, and anti-intellectualism.
Perhaps these music videos from true artists rather than corporate sellouts selling sex, drugs, money, and whatever else benefiting profitable companies will wake your mind up: