Artists answer: What's the role of the artist in contemporary culture?

We've invited former Featured Artists to answer a series of questions about being an artist and to highlight a new work made since the time of their interviews. Some questions are practical; some are philosophical. These compilations will be interspersed with new Featured Artist interviews every month and will include links back to older interviews. And don't forget to sign up for the monthly blog digest if you prefer to get all your Featured Artist action in your inbox once a month.

Erin Washington | Read the Interview

Untitled (take care of yourself), 2016. Chalk, acrylic, gouache and found object on panel. 16" x 20"

I struggle to define this (although perhaps it is a justification in my mind). The days of teaching right after the American election results were a trial. How to define the role of the artist in contemporary culture when I myself am unsure how to justify making art right now? How to digest that conversation and regurgitate it for students in an appealing, easy-to-understand nugget?

My students guided me more than I was able to guide them. I am still not sure if this was coincidence, or a reaction to everything, but one student pursued sub-conscious drawings: he drew his stream-of-consciousness while blindfolded. We worked out a system where people would switch paper for him so that he did not look at the finished drawings. He stated that he did not want to see the drawings, did not want them to influence each-other. I wondered if there was also a desire to not have his id revealed to him. I've definitely accidentally made political drawings after the election, and have been shocked/embarrassed/frustrated that my id-anger is seeping into my most vulnerable drawing-practice. I also want to close my eyes to that.

In another class, I asked the students if they wanted to talk about what was happening, or if they would prefer to just make work, to take agency in one of the few environments that they have lots of control over. They chose the later. One student remarked, "now we need to work more than ever...times like these is when making art is important." I am slightly more cynical than that statement, but it was what we needed to hear, and I appreciate that she said it.

Gwenyth Anderson | Read the Interview

A2O, 2016. Snow melt, vessels, animation projection, audio

"Contemporary culture" is so vast… Art probably plays a different role depending on where in the world you are, and even then from person to person. In regards to the cultures I participate in or regularly encounter: I think art's role today is a collection of confused or uninformed rituals and tools. Abstract thinking, forming an experience for an audience, guiding material into a shape, creating moments out of sound, representing research with imagery. These are powerful vehicles for experiencing surface and stepping beyond it. But that stepping beyond is rare in the everyday. After I've left a gallery, or stopped listening to/watching something: it often becomes a memory or reference point, not embodied and lived in by us collectively. That’s why it feels confused.

So, I guess the role of the artist is to dip peoples’ toes into a pool of something profound, without fully understanding, or while people tell each other stories about what’s happening.

Molly Springfield | Read the interview

spun between the sun and, 2016. graphite on paper. 34 x 25.5 in (2 panels, 16.5 x 25.5 inches each)

I've been thinking about these questions within the context of our country's current political climate, which I find extremely disheartening. It seems like a large part of our population is completely uninterested in understanding the experiences and viewpoints of people who are different from them. I don't want to believe there is this much lack of empathy and moral imagination, but lately it's hard to feel otherwise. But I still believe in the ability of art to help bridge these gaps. I don't consider the work I make to be political. And I think it's very hard to make good, effective political art. But all art—of whatever form or discipline—helps us to inhabit other people's minds and other people's worlds, and in that way helps us be better humans.

Darren Jones | Read the Interview

#hell #wordsmyth #alphabeTART #TEXtart, 2016. Text photo, Dallas

I'd answer the question with another: DOES the artist DESERVE a role in contemporary culture?

Not automatically, not necessarily and in the majority of cases, no.
The work of most artists does not justify the presumption of a role in contemporary culture, because most artists do nothing to warn, evolve, highlight, critique, call-out, agitate, or connect to, contemporary culture, effectively. The recent election is an example of this failure. Being offered a position within the vanguard force at the spearhead of society is a privilege that must be earned. Few artists today, qualify.

Abdul Abdullah | Read the interview

Why can't I be angry, 2016. Velvet banner, embroidery and ceramics. 120cm x 120cm

The artist has many roles, but the role I am drawn to is that of the critical, indulgently subjective interpreter of the world around me. I sometimes feel I act in the role of a journalist who has an unashamedly flagrant disregard for the rules.

Snow Yunxue Fu | Read the Interview

Pool, 2016. Video Still 7

I believe artists are a special group of people who are blessed to see, hear, and feel a little more for their generation and time so that they have potentials to keep the society and humanity in check.

Bianca Kolonusz-Partee | Read the interview

Welcome to Ceylon, 2015. Recycled product packaging, colored pencils, map tacks & adhesives. 15"H X 43"W

Artists are invaluable for really investigating and revealing points of view that are not mainstream and for bucking the status quo. It’s important for me to use the visual language to pull the viewer in but expressing what I see as the pivotal issues of right now is key for me. People are becoming numb to realities of life with our digital world, to global issues and just connecting with their place. That is hard to compete with, but if I can get folks in front of my work I'd like to try.

Judith Levy | Read the interview

SHADOW, 2016. Video Still. See film trailer

The artist tries to make sense of the complex world in which we live and to understand how we came to be the way we are. We make art, because we want to communicate these ideas to others. Artists are commentators, meaning-makers, and troubadours of change. Artists create art to answer questions that may not have answers but need to be asked. We make art to share our questions and reveal our attempts to answer them, even when we are filled with self-doubt. Artists take the kinds of risks that require integrity, self-examination, courage, intelligence and some tomfoolery. The art we make shows, in a new way, something important that we believe has universal application and necessity, and we seek innovative ways to reach our audience. Artists tackle contemporary dilemmas almost always without cynicism, since the making of art demonstrates that it is worthwhile to connect, create dialogue, ask for engagement and seek revelation.

Rebecca Potts | Read the interview

The Magician's Assistant is Actually in Charge, 2016

Interpreter, perhaps an inventor of a third language in which two other languages can both communicate.
Interloper, a thief stealing in and out of other worlds bringing back whispers for those who care to listen.
Investigator of rules, of properties of matter, of form, of light, of cultures, of secrets.
Identifier of undervalued or untold stories/systems/forms, of the future.
Iconographer, a coder or decoder.
Illustrator of our time, our place, or our lack of placement in it.
Informant, always a risky position to hold, but a necessary one in which to keep momentum.
Inker, one who is bound to the marks made, unlike the slipperiness of the spoken word.
Investment, to some, unfortunately not all for the right reasons.
Interior Decorator, see above.

Caroline Carlsmith | Read the interview

Jericho Labyrinths, 2016. Ink on paper

The role of the artist is to contribute to a conversation that has been taking place for longer than we can collectively trace. Like any conversation, the caliber of a statement might be subject to criteria like relevance, interest, style, and whether it might lead to new insights and discussions. An artist might choose to make any kind of statement, whether of good quality or poor. Their role is that of speaker. But any good speaker is usually a good listener as well.