mini manifesto on artist morality

view from my window in Toulouse, where I wrote this a few years back

I have been reflecting on the role of the artist in society, and I hope that they/we will feel obligated to be advocate-warriors for both the planet and for the oppressed.

Really, it should be everyone’s moral obligation to commit to both, as we are all intrinsically tied to the fate of both. In the case of the planet, we truly are all in this together, and in the case of class inequality, there is no liberation except the liberation of all, in terms of class, race, gender, sexuality, ability, and at all their intersections.

In what way are ‘artists’ ‘different?’ For the large part of the twentieth century, superstars of the radio and the screen were deified, assuming an elevated sanctity, even sainthood, taking over from religion in the increasingly secularised western world. We looked to them as fashion icons and lifestyle examples, to make sense of the world, to say what we wanted to say but better, for solace and salvation.

Now, artists are becoming more humanized every day through the democratizing platform of the internet, with independent musicians like Chance the Rapper and Princess Nokia achieving widespread and even mainstream fame through posts on Youtube, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp, and through an effusion of media content, such as Pitchfork’s ‘over-under’ videos and Noisey’s mini-documentaries. Social media brings us ever closer to the every-day life of the artist.

The result: today, we can all be artists, we can all be famous, if only fleetingly, and our ‘content’ has an increasingly politicized role in steering discourse toward important social/systemic issues through beautifully-communicated personal expression. Our own stories are more potent than the most highfalutin theory—we don’t have time for theory to trickle down through the academy and into ‘the masses.’ Neoliberal academia is not going to save the planet or topple big oil and big banks, and neither are the politicians—we are. Popular art has long been a more potent force for material and even policy change: either fomenting a revolution in pre-democratic times, or influencing a majority who will elect sympathetic politicians (sympathetic enough at least to get elected), who then vote sympathetically. Let us all fill the world with deinstitutionalised, personal, collective, radical, feminist, underrepresented, anti-colonial, emancipatory art, and create into being the world we would have to inhabit.

To prescribe morality to anyone would be presumptuous, and wouldn’t lead anywhere good. To say that a focus on personal fame and fortune equates to complicity in the destruction of the planet and the continued subjugation of the working class would be reductive (though this may well be the case). If anything, it is more understandable now than ever why the ‘pop champagne’ strain of hedonism is so common in popular culture—the young are inheriting a world that is more unequal than ever, and which is dying before our very eyes. How can we not be depressed? Why not just Netflix and chill? It will be an uphill, Sisyphean battle against giving up in the face of unlikely odds. So I guess this is my little bit of optimism: artists can lead us to a better future, and I hope they/we do.

Originally published at on 1/20/18

teacher, writer, photographer, and independent researcher in the fields of critical & queer theory.