Why We Continue to Create
What is the role of the artist in society? This question is too broad to answer in anything approaching a holistic manner. Despite the diverse motivations and mediums adopted by different artists, there are connected by a common thread.
Art is, at its essence, a means of communication. We communicate the facts of the world through conventional language, statistics, and science. We communicate emotions and feelings through art; we express our humanity through art. The dichotomy between these two forms of communication is not inflexible—factual and emotional communication often overlap, particularly with photography and documentary.
Furthermore, some art is less based on emotions than others. For example, the gestural flourishes of Abstract Expressionism are intrinsically about emotional expression. On the other hand, Minimalism is about investigating the most foundational elements of painting and sculpture (a more scientific abstraction, one might say). Still, both movements reflect the internal states and interests of the artists and the audiences their work draws.
We can understand the scope of a catastrophe through statistics and facts, but we can only access some parts of what the tragedy felt like through art. Of course, eyewitness testimony is one of the best tools to understand the experience of another. Still, it is at its most potent when woven into the narrative and context of a documentary like Shoah or The Act of Killing. Documentaries like these and paintings like Guernica allow us to draw on the universal overlap of human emotions to understand what we have never experienced.
Human experiences vary wildly, but emotions maintain a commonality. If we find a way to highlight those connections, we can walk a mile in someone else's shoes and hopefully find empathy. Now, you might be reading this and wonder, "what about the artists whose work is rarely seen and who do not focus on calamity and politics but on forms and colors?" well, these artist's work is equally important and necessary because without them art would become too dreary and utilitarian. Few people visit museums just to see art about war and struggle. Art's unparalleled preoccupation with beauty and the articulation of the personal lends it an authenticity that gives weight to the subjective narratives of any subject it tackles.
If artists only painted war scenes and never flowers, people would be less in tune with the emotional resonance of any art form (and there would probably be a smaller audience). Perhaps most importantly, artists' dedication to their craft legitimizes it in the eyes of the world. If people thought artists' only goals were fame and wealth, they would be treated like practitioners of any other business. But the fact so many artists continue to labor away in obscurity proves art is a calling and not only a job. Some artists would probably love to abandon their brush and leave the damn thing behind once and for all, but an independent force drives them to create.
The role of the artist is to create, remain faithful to themselves, and, by doing so, establish an honest rapport with their audience. Comfort and validation can be tricky things to come by for an artist, but they pale in comparison to the sadness of ignoring one's creative impulses.