What Is the Role of the Artist-Intellectual in Society?

by on November 29, 2009 · 15 comments

in History, Labor, Media

art society

Pieces of Phor

Some Musings ….

[Reposted 06/29/08. Originally posted 11/08/07]

What is the role of the artist – the intellectual artist – in modern society? If the role of the artist is obviously and intrinsically tied to the role of art, then what is the role of art? In modern society? Or in any society?

Art reflects reality at the very least. Art is humanity’s attempts to recreate reality, to create reflections of reality – and imagination & creativity are part of reality – thus also reflections of imagination; but then what is ‘good’ art? How is it separate & distinct from ordinary or ‘bad’ art?

The role of the artist then is connected to the role of art, in whatever medium – oil on canvas, watercolor, charcoal, pencil, colored pens, other canvas work, photography, computer art, sculpture, performance art, theater, movies, TV, poetry, novels, literature, music, dance, …………… cave paintings, ………

The artist creates the art – but not out of thin air – but within a societal context, supported and buffetted by the conditions of the time – the resources, the technology, the intelligence, the knowledge, the economic, political, social, cultural and religious / philosophical conditions of the moment of the creation of the art.

What is art? Is everything the artist creates art? Is there bad art and good art?

Why does art reflect reality? Is that all it does?

Art projects back to humanity knowledge and awareness of the reality – which in turn allows humanity to understand reality better – better than what? Better than it did before the art. The essence of good art then is that it does this in a qualitative different and higher level than bad art.

Within the context of the conditions of society at the moment of the creation of the art, the artist as a human then through the creation of his or her or their art creates something that if it is ‘good’ art is able to reflect the reality of the artist and the community and project back to that community communication about reality that allows the community to better understand that reality.

If the reality is not a good reality, then the art – the good art – is able to communicate more to the majority of the community than simply an awareness of the reality; it can project ways and avenues to change that reality. Or at least project back to the community of humanity that reality needs to be changed for the good of the community.

What is reality? Is this beyond the question before us? If art reflects reality and can be used to change that reality then we must know what reality is? Art reflects the human conditions of the time – if those conditions or part of them are inhumane, then art can be instrumental in changing those conditions for the better.

Human conditions include the material objective context that humanity finds itself living in, the environmental conditions, the economic, political, social, cultural conditions of the moment, what humanity knows, the knowledge of the time. Of course, humanity does not live in a moment alone; conditions are constantly changing. But there are sufficient time-place equilibriums to be able to say there are historical moments.

The Role of the Artist

The artist then creates the art – in whatever medium – at a historical moment; the art not only reflects that historical moment, it is a reflection of that reality, that historical moment. Through the creation and presentation and then absorption by others within the community of the art, the artist is able to reflect the historical moment and project into the community an awareness of the moment, an awareness of the humane or inhumane conditions of that moment, and an awareness that the inhumane conditions need to be changed for the better.

What about the artist who does not do this, who does not understand this, or does not try to do this – say, the artist who creates commercial renditions of an original purely for financial reasons? Is this an artist? Does one have to create original works of art to be an artist? Is this person not an artist or at least a bad artist who creates bad art?

The role of the good artist, then, is that of one who creates or helps to create good art, that reflects reality, projects an awareness of the inhumane conditions of that reality, and ways to change those conditions.

Is the Mona Lisa good art?

Now we have to qualify and quantify. How does the Mona Lisa project an awareness of “the inhumane conditions of reality and ways to change those conditions”? How can we say the Mona Lisa is not good art? In fact, isn’t it great art that has stood the test of history?

The Mona Lisa is excellent art because it has stood the test of time, that it projects the awareness of the history of humanity, how an ambiguous smile is able to remain so over hundreds of years, projecting back to us an awareness of the history of humanity, that a smile was a smile five hundred years ago. Not all good or great art has to project back to us how to create barricades and topple governments.

If art to be great, only has to remind us of our humanity and our history, then wouldn’t a lot of artifacts and daily instruments of former times amount to that ?

The more the art projects back to humanity its conditions, the more humanity is able to understand its conditions. And if they need to be changed for the good of humanity, then good art can instruct.

The role of the artist then when confronted with inhumane conditions of humanity is to create art that is instructive to humanity so the members of the community can change those conditions. One way to achieve that is to reflect an awareness and understanding of our own humanity, to remind us of our beauty, our fragility, our limitations, our temporal experience, our strengths, our fears, dreams. The Mona Lisa does this – despite a label of solely being a portrait of a ruling class woman – because it does these other things – reminding us hundreds of years of the ambiguity of life.

Why is a movie like “JFK” by Oliver Stone good art?

It reflects a reality back to us – the assassination of a well-liked president – and an awareness of the forces that conspired to pull it off without repercussion. No one ever went to prison for the assassination. Oswald was dead. End of story. Those responsible for the assassination got away with it.The movie delves into the controversy and helps to educate the American people as to who killed their president.

The role of the artist is to create art that helps us to understand our humanity and the historical conditions we live in, and to help us understand that we need to change those conditions and helps us understand even how to change those conditions.

But what about all the different kinds and types of art? How can a simple sculpture, for example, help us to understand that we need to change our conditions?

One object of art need not do all of those things. If a sculpture helps us have a deeper understanding of our own humanity, and/ or of our history, then it is good art.

The role of art is to remind us to reflect on our reality and history, and even to draw conclusions on whether our reality needs to be changed.


Pieces of Phor

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

BillRayDrums November 30, 2009 at 4:01 am

As to “our role”…sometimes I wonder. It’s difficult being a creative. Between the ever-changing medium of “reality” and “digital” things become a blur.

In my professional “drumming life” 100% of what I create is “analog”. No machines shall sully my drum tracks! But in my “digital life” (my web design talents that I tend to monetize) it’s 100% digital. One could wager that somewhere there would be a point where the two would collide, and a “waterline” be achieved. Notsomuch…

Instead, I went into Spotless Studios in OB and did Peter Halls’ new record “Schwagtown”. At the end of the session I begged a few minutes of “flight time” from Sean (Power, co-owner) to just let loose with a drum “performance” and the result turned out to be the base drum track for the song “Forever Obecian” on the WAVES CD, available through the OB Merchant’s Association. http://oceanbeachmainstreet.blogspot.com/2009/08/get-your-wave-on.html

Of course, I went on to do more cool stuff. Different artists took the ball and ran with it.
My friend Neil Macpherson from the now broke-up (NEVER DeFUNKT) band TUBBY did an entire album with tracks that I created in such an extemporaneous nature.

Also…..Bill Cornish of El Cajon created a freakin’ MASTERPIECE with the tracks. Check out http://oddgeteven.com.

And there’s album #2 on the horizon with The Odd Get Even.

So….if any of youse want to “get freaky” with the tracks, go to http://ccmixter.org/people/BillRayDrums and start contributing!

Or…if you wanna actually give me some $$$ for my efforts…..

Happy jammin’.


Sickboy November 30, 2009 at 8:19 am

Thanks for re-posting this, Frank! I didn’t catch it the first time around. These are the kind of musings I love to see! Coincidentally, I have been kicking around some thoughts about art and existence myself lately. Cheers!

The Ar(t)chetype>


Frank Gormlie November 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

Sickboy, may we post the first few paragraphs with a link to the (long) remainder? And thanks – I wrote it actually to myself before we put together the blog as sort of a guide for my own peace of mind.


Shawn Conrad November 30, 2009 at 11:15 am

I totally own this place from 9 until 5.


lane tobias November 30, 2009 at 3:19 pm

art is one of the key elements in a community. If there is no outlet for members to express individual and group ideas, then the repression will lead to a lack of positive change in that community. Whether you consider it on a grander scale or on a smaller one, art is essential to the human element of our world. Without self expression, what makes each person unique? Not very much…

thanks frank!


Sickboy December 3, 2009 at 6:52 pm

That was a first draft of a recent submission to a (not so?) short story contest being sponsored by an independent newspaper here in the City of Brotherly Love. If it’s selected for publication and readers in Philly start asking if OB is a real place, then I’ll definitely send you a link.


future walls February 24, 2010 at 5:11 pm

I consider art as creativity (good or bad it’s all relative) to be about change, albeit positive change, growth and a shift within the cultural paradigm or scene. Art/creativity is about exhibiting to humanity through many means (music, visual arts, science, mathematics, medicine, agriculture) an awareness of stagnation and constriction within it’s boundaries. Boundaries that are ripe and ready to be outgrown or to be fruited. But very importantly art /creation can not exist unless it has those boundaries to push from.
I like your key Frank.


veronica May 15, 2011 at 1:36 pm

this website was so helpful for me thankz!


ibrahim May 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm

thank you for helping me with my project


Bengat Garang deMabior August 10, 2011 at 1:31 am

Art is an emotive wind that shakes our creative nature to reality,sending us the spectacle sight we are always aware of yet fail to admit till the crest of linguistic encryption rolls us to the tides of matching ‘what is to what is not’ This in itself distinguishes our ability to appreciate the aesthetic function of art and changes the mirage of the ever elusive ideal world to that of realism encoded in the beauty of carefully selected words; which in themselves are ideal but express reality.


Eilya Saadati November 10, 2012 at 12:31 am

Art has always played a role in that manor .Art is usually a criticism of the world as it is and a vision of the world as it might be, said Stephen Weil, deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

“A characteristic of good art is that it engages individuals in a very deep and personal way, and in ways that may not be shared by every member of a group,” Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for the New York Times, said. But art also can forge common bonds among groups, he added. …
Thanks Frank


lyne max November 11, 2015 at 9:17 pm

art portray a true artist who is able to contemplate the world estatically


Janet Bleicken December 5, 2016 at 10:11 am

My primary direction in painting is to ask myself firstly, and the viewer subsequently, why we believe something…and maybe it’s time to rethink. Please go to my website and look at the paintings series titled, “Why do girls want to get married?”


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