Do Artists and Designers Have an Obligation To Be Political?

by Grace Chin

During the chaos of the past year, the most helpful discovery I made was “Up First,” an NPR podcast that condenses the day’s news into 15 minutes or less. It’s a godsend for anyone who feels fed up with the 24-hour news cycle, and with the constant commentary that accompanies it. By reducing my intake to a few minutes of the most important news, my day is less likely to involve drowning in the clickbait-and-thinkpiece maelstrom that’s become the topography of the Internet. Though this eliminates some distraction, I can’t help feeling overwhelmed by the current volume of political and social strife, a sentiment I know I’m not alone in having.

Amidst increasingly troubling news, I noticed that more artists, whose feeds usually focused on aesthetics, were using their platforms to speak out. I felt a sense of solidarity knowing I was in the company of creatives who understood the impact their voices could have, but it also led me to a larger question:

We can’t all be Ai Weiwei or Swoon, but I believe artists should understand where their work stands in relation to the contemporary political and social environment. Everything that we, as culture producers, create is cultural data that others consume. Regardless of a maker’s intentions, art is political once it is available to any audience. Even something as seemingly neutral as a chair has political implications.

In our capitalist, consumer-driven economy, the prospect of saying something divisive is daunting to artists whose livelihoods depend on a loyal following. We’ve been fooled into thinking that artists are beholden to their audiences, but the opposite should be true. Art is disruption. Art is seeing opportunities to intervene in the surrounding world and daring to imagine it differently, rather than accepting it as it is. Good art pushes the boundaries of public opinion, leading it to greater knowledge and greater empathy. Artists have that power; we should own it.

In times of moral conflict, silence is just as loud a response as speaking up. Inaction suggests that a maker has enough privilege to ignore injustices occurring right under their nose. For example, many of those artists who began speaking out on social media were inundated with comments expressing disappointment that an artist-maker would dare to express an opinion about anything outside their work (the audacity!). As unfair as these reactions are, it’s also fair to point out that based on previous content, perhaps the audience didn’t have any way of knowing that particular artist’s views.

I’m not advocating for every artist to create material solely about current events. Frankly, that’d be exhausting. It’s also impossible to entirely control a viewer’s reaction to artwork. I do think there are measures that can allow an artist to more effectively navigate the space between the studio and their audience.

1. Learn to see what’s been made invisible to you.

Larger systems of oppression rely on the complicity of those with power. It means that majority groups aren’t taught to see the ways they are overprivileged and ways marginalized groups are underprivileged. For instance, reading this article is indicative of several privileges that are hard to see: literacy, access to the Internet, time to read it, etc. Historically, minority and disempowered groups have had to work much harder to make privileged parties see inequity (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement, any suffrage movement, Black Lives Matter). When minority groups are expected to fight to convince even their allies to believe them, activism becomes emotionally draining. Ideally, an ally will be proactive and find ways to do their own research without creating more labor for the group they’d like to help. It’s an uncomfortable experience to learn that you’re part of the problem, but it’s not nearly the same discomfort someone feels on the other end of the problem. Unlearning privilege as the default is difficult and ongoing, but it’s necessary work if one expects to make real change.

2. Know when to listen, know when to speak, know when to amplify.

Once an ally has gained some understanding of an issue, it’s time to put that knowledge to use. When you see opportunities to stand up, especially when you’re speaking to people with similar privileges, make the effort to share what you’ve learned. So often, minority parties are expected to jump into the fray, even when there’s a large power disparity. Minority parties should have the choice to walk away from these exchanges, since it’s already hard enough living with oppression on a daily basis. On the other hand, it’s important to distinguish between times to stand up, and times to support. If you’d like to use your work to speak about specific issues, make sure you include the voices of people who are directly affected by the issue (and compensate them for their labor). If there’s already work that speaks to that experience, maybe it’s time to step back and use whatever platforms you have to amplify those voices. It’s a fine line to tread, but speaking up is not the same as speaking over. Know the difference. Craig Ferguson’s advice is helpful here: “three questions to ask yourself before you speak: does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me now?”

3. Monitor your intake to improve your output.

The creative process should consider if the work (output) challenges the status quo or reinforces it. Part of that process is being aware of what sort of cultural data you yourself consume. As Nora Ephron so aptly phrased it in her magnum opus You’ve Got Mail, “you are what you read.” What are you reading, listening to, seeing, or experiencing? What aren’t you? Who do you spend time with? All these become the ingredients for your work. Like any good cook, artists should ensure that they are seeking the best ingredients they can to craft the best meal. Your output might not directly tackle an issue, but one way you can help is to be cognizant of what your work is doing to be inclusive, how and where your materials are sourced, ensuring your work is not appropriative, and compensate labor fairly.

It’s guaranteed that as makers, really as people, we’ll do or say the wrong thing. However, the fear of making a mistake shouldn’t keep us from trying. It’s a far worse mistake to be passive when times call for action. Artists often become the loudest and defining voices of their generation. It’s our duty to know the nature of the change we catalyze, and in so knowing, speak up!

Grace D. Chin graduated from the University of Kansas in 2012 with a BFA in printmaking. She is currently based in Lawrence, Kansas. You can view her work and shop here and follow her on Instagram here. (photo credit: Kelsey Hunter)

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  • Grace, your essay is a wonderful description of how mankind should behave. We all value a free, equal and well functioning society. The issue for me is that the majority of those individuals who occupy positions of power and authority in government, the legislature, finance, banking and corporations do not have your mindset – these individuals are dishonest, corrupt, manipulators, dominators, and, more aptly described as psychopaths and not interested in achieving what you describe. Psychopaths are often thought of as serial killers, they are not. Psychopaths are extremely intelligent, charming, extroverted individuals and have a tendency to gravitate towards and occupy positions of power. And, at a societal level the results are disastrous (this is evident in our world today – wars, poverty, persecution, discrimination, civil unrest, unemployment, destruction/pollution of environment, substance abuse – the list is endless). And, this is the key issue – the foundation of our society (government, the legislature, banking, big business) is corrupt and self-serving. Society can only be free, equal and well functioning when its foundation is based on honesty and occupied by individuals who value such a society and are not motivated by greed and heaping riches unto themselves. In today’s society, all suffer – the majority and the minority. Your fight is not one at an individual level but against principalities and powers. And, that is and will be a difficult fight to win.

  • I don’t have anything to add because Grace said it all so well. Just want to say thank you for content like this.

  • In my opinion it is the responsibility of everyone to work towards Equality, Liberty and Togetherness. We have to speak, and we have to be silent and listen; and we have to quieten the room so that those who can’t be heard have space to speak.
    We have to educate ourselves and really challenge all our preconceived notions of our ‘goodness’.

    Better to Do humbly than Be smugly.

    Thanks for this.
    I never thought designsponge.com would be where I would find solace in these times. But it is. Thanks again.

  • This essay is great, thank you for sharing! Sometimes I have a hard putting into words when I’m discussing privilege with friends how important it is to do our own work to show up as allies. You said it beautifully…also I believe on IG Grace Bonney asked what consumers think. As a consumer, artists who take a stand really matter to me. Some brands and people I follow who haven’t been speaking out, I left. While others who to an active and allied approach I gave more support. It doesn’t have to be all the time, as you mentioned above. But it’s good to know I’m supporting people who are thinking about these issues and at least in small ways, are working to disrupt the system.

  • Great post about a very important topic. I cannot consider myself as an artist as all I is some photography and travel writing. I however still thought about the issue a lot especially lately. The World is going through a strange phase, so is my own country. I live in Istanbul, Turkey. There are many people like me who are dissatisfied with the ways of our government and worry about the troubles we went through in the last few years including all terror attacks. I in the past asked myself whether I had the duty to use my photography and blog as a way to manifest my political views and challenge the government. Pretty soon, the answer came up so easily for me. I felt like everything I do, I think, I say, I write had already some sort of political aspect. I involuntarily channeled all my political criticism into my photography and travel writing. At times like this, I feel like there is no way to separate your output from your political standing – no matter what you do. If you are effected by it or worried about it, it will naturally manifest itself. If not – as you said, you are probably privileged enough to not get effected or worry.

  • I find it so strange that people are surprised that someone is political too. It’s like we can express our opinions only about our field of work. That we can know enough about something to talk about it only if we specialize in it. It’s basically equating who we are with what we do. Being political to me means being a human who cares. It means you care about someone/something else then just yourself, people you know personally, your (field of ) work and your house. It means you care about other people too (your global brothers and sisters) and this planet (your wider home). If you are a human on this planet and live in a society then you have a right to be political. And if we supposedly live in a democracy then we have a right to use our power more than just by voting (not by violence of course). I mean do something to start the change since politicians are often busy with so many (usually money related) things. Be a peaceful warrior!
    And art especially has a history of being political. I live in a post-soviet country and I know well that it was used on more levels than just being pretty. And it helped that censorship often didn’t see past that. For example there was no need to censor poetry about nature but it quite often was not only about nature! They were speaking what we often couldn’t.
    I personally like knowing people better and more then just what they do. D*S has a part of opening my eyes and mind that I can and should go outside my personal bubble.

  • Really beautifully written essay! I began it thinking it was suggestion that all artists should be political with their work which I don’t agree with but artists should hold a mirror up and show us things we might not otherwise ‘see’. I wouldn’t say artists should be ‘obligated’ to do this or that – they have to be free to operate in a space without boundary or expectation. I think making space for thought and knowing when or how to say something that it has an effect on our consciousness is the ‘art’ of an artist. Thank you for sharing this essay – really great reading!

  • I thought this was a really well-written and thought provoking essay. I’ll admit that I just haven’t given this topic much thought – thanks for broadening my horizons. Also, loved seeing a fellow Jayhawk featured in such a great space!

  • What a timely and thoughtful piece, thank you so much for sharing. As an artist, this is something I’ve struggled with lately. My work is directly inspired by my ecofeminism and my relationship with the woods I live in, but isn’t overtly political at a glance. I know I’ll be referring back to this essay moving forward!

  • Love this essay. It’s important to remember, too, that “political” doesn’t have to mean partisan, per se. We’re in a hyper-partisan environment right now, where parties on the right and left seem to share little ground. But individual people are thinking about issues and appreciate the nuance that artists can bring to their considerations of an issue. And, situations change – adding voice to an issue can be valuable, even when the present situation seems immutable.

  • Yes yes yes to all of this. It’s easy to think that we exist apart from politics or apart from events happening in other parts of the world, but we cannot escape our connectedness and we don’t live in a vacuum. Thank you for putting it all into focus!