Art Talk | Do We Need Artists in the City?

As an arts researcher and visual artist, I felt compelled to debunk some of the stereotypes and standing myths that were raised by the public about what it means to be an artist.The article We need artists to solve the challenges of this century, published in the Globe and Mail on June 12, 2012 and written by OCAD President Sara Diamond, generated a variety of mixed comments, the majority of which reflected stereotyped perceptions of the artist. Some of which I address here.

The majority of those who commented online interpreted the author’s claims, generalizing what it means to be an artist. Various commenters disagreed with Diamond’s claims that artists are designers, thinkers, or innovators, and I share this disagreement at times, since nowadays, anybody can be called an “artist” regardless of their artistic skills. The importance of the arts and culture get lost in translation. Consequently, these conflicting views produce mixed messages on who is an artist and who is not, and what is art and what is not.

The stereotyped personality of the artist was critically raised. There is a pervasive myth that artists are bohemians who do not want to have a 9 to 5 job and depend on government funding in order to make a living. However, my research and interviews with local visual artists has allowed me to prove the contrary and to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be an artist and what it takes to make art. There is a universal consensus that being an artist is the toughest job on the planet (ask Charles Saatchi!), it is not only mentally and physically exhausting, but it is also often unrewarded. It is a constant struggle just to survive in the field. The majority of local artists carry financial burden, face time constraints to create (as most of us hold second or third jobs), and lack, most importantly, the recognition of their community. The majority of local visual artists and musicians I interviewed actually held 9 to 5 jobs, were highly educated, and lived within their means in order to be able to keep producing art. They were humble, excited about what they do, and worked harder than the average person—that is, longer hours without compensation—just to support their creativity and their passion for the arts.

My personal journey has been to understand what it means to be an artist, and my research has allowed me to conclude that artists have one common key attribute—that is, the need to create. It is not that simple of a thought; in order to create, one needs to think, to imagine, to design, and to work very hard to achieve this goal. Thus, I have to concur with Diamond’s assertions that artists are designers, thinkers, innovators, and imaginative, although I believe that this is true for the most part. In fact, artists are constantly exploring and seeking out the next “new” idea. Indeed, they are the catalyst for innovation, as eloquently explained by Diamond throughout the article, and this leads me to believe that our local artists have the potential to “solve the challenges of this century” if only they are respected by the community and given the opportunity to create and make changes in the status quo society in which we live. From an artist’s perspective, I strongly believe that art is not just a leisure activity (“or at least not always”); it is an outlet for creative thinkers.

One of the manifold challenges artists are faced with is alienation, both from society and from the community. They take a gamble by living a life of economic austerity, with the hope that they will someday gain the recognition of society. For centuries, artists have been trying to gain acceptance for their efforts and talents, and thus have had to rely on elitist groups (patronage) to support their craft. We live in a capitalist society in which the only recognized artists are the ones that are able to commoditize their work and make it to the top. Although it is much easier to get exposure thanks to technology, it has become increasingly difficult to be picked out of the crowd, as competition is fierce. We idolatrize celebrities as “Gods”—a great deal of people worship, for example, Lady Gaga, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, amongst others, regardless of what and how they contribute to society, if at all. Above all else, we have missed the true meaning of the arts, and the value of our culture and our community building.

I wonder, why there is backlash against our local artists, why our community is skeptical to give artists the chance to excel in their craft in order to engage us all and foster our local community with creativity, love and passion. Why do we have the tendency to idealize fame and fortune, support celebrities that don’t represent our community, and make the rich richer, rather than support the ones with the potential to better our city. I empathize with some of the public comments in Diamond’s piece that artists are “not all that,” but they hold a very important quality shared by the entire human race:  the passion within and the urge for change. I believe passion not only moves mountains but also compels action, which is what our city needs. Numerous visual artists continue to practice their art, despite their financial shortcomings. In a sense, what every artist wants is peer recognition, flexibility and community support–financial gain is a bonus but is not all-important (Richard Florida, 2012).

I am not trying to convince you that what the city needs are artists; I am sharing what it means to be an artist, and the importance of respect from the community. One commenter stated, “We have no respect because most artists today – contrary to the author – are uninspired poseurs at best, and mentally disturbed hacks at worst.” Instead of an artist being stereotyped as the modicum of eccentricity and being perceived as a disturbed second-class citizen, artists need to be acknowledged for the contribution they make to their community, or at least for their innovation and cultural building. It is understandable that the arts and culture have been viewed as a part of leisure and entertainment, and that is perhaps why many Torontonians are reluctant to support the arts, and consequently, the artist. I imagine not accepting or believing in the artists in your community translates to not believing in culture at all.

In the art world the question of taste raises consideration. Whether one likes or dislikes a particular art work is a matter of taste, a personal choice, the work of the artist should be respected nonetheless. We all like different songs and different types of music, different clothes, and different forms of entertainment. One needs to hold an optimistic view on the possibility of embracing the arts and welcoming the artists in your community. In a fascinating and eloquent book about taste by Carl Wilson entitled: “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3)”, Wilson questions why millions of people love Celine Dion, whereas millions of others can’t stand her. It is just a matter of taste, isn’t it?  Although I am not a fan of Celine Dion personally, am indifferent to her work, I respect her as a representative for Canadian artists in the global arena, an area in which Canadian artists are lacking.

What does it mean to be an artist then? It means to work for the economy of love; it takes hard work, multiple skills, commitment, community, strength and focus—all in the aim of a passion that could result in innovation. Most artists have a flexible mind-set, are willing to question, and go the extra mile. Visual artists, in particular, observe their surroundings through a different lens, bringing a rich and diverse perspective to problem solving, as their mere goal is creating and innovating. In several occasions, they aim to create something better, a world restored with hope and enthusiasm. Why not add an artist to your team? Why are we discouraging talent?

Competitiveness and capitalism are the main challenges of this century, where society demands the use of our skills in order to gain profit. As such, most of us go to work to use our skills in order to make a living. Artists are no different; they put their skills to work, hoping to use their creativity to enrich their community. Perhaps, as one commenter stated, artists are not “special,” but they are essential to our community. Artists work for love, passion and innovation not necessarily to serve economic demands or neoliberal agendas. One would hope that great things would follow if we gave them the support they need. We have already lost a handful of talent internationally; for instance, Berlin is supporting some of our Canadian talent. In our community, if we do not support, respect and recognize our local artists and encourage them to create locally, we will never find out if we, as a community, missed out on the opportunity to build upon the next generation of cultural engineers that will make our country stand out in the globalized community in which we live. We need our artists in the city and we need to support them, as they may hold the key to solving the challenges of this century.

38 thoughts on “Art Talk | Do We Need Artists in the City?

  1. Art is culture, our art is our culture, our culture is who we are,who we are is our history, our artistic history is still young, we have a long way to go, and maybe in another 1,000 years the artists of our city will finally be appreciated. Thank you for support and insight.

  2. I am an economics major whose primary interest — in some abstract way — is practical art. I do graphic design, I’m trying to break into product design, and one of the things that I have been always unable to figure out was the inherent worth of art. It’s good to see someone looking into this discussion. That being said, I think a lot of art — not necessarily the majority of art — is worthless in respects to advancing creativity or having actual applications. I think it is necessary to challenge the legitimacy of pieces of art and not give everyone and everything a pass by saying anything is or/and can be art. For example, to paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, asking what the melting point of the number seven is a stupid question. Just because a question can be asked does not mean it is a valid question. Similarly, I think just because something can be done and nobody has done it in years past is not a reason to consider it art.

  3. I think “art” doesnt always make its way into a city or anywhere with a blinking sign saying “Look at me, I’m art…Sponsored by you and the taxpayers of Whateverville”. Not to say this cant be a form of “art”. I just think some art appears on a more subtle basis. Does a city need artists? It will happen whether or not it is someone on a payroll or if its the kids in the community that come together to create an aesthetic movement. Should we fund it more? How much money goes into an art project doesnt necessarily (this is my opinion here) guarantee any “worthy” art. What I do hope is that people keep an open mind when it comes to funding or accepting art in their community. Sometimes a city/community should be open to taking a risk. Question is, who determines it as “art” and are we open to change how we look at the world? Great post. Loved it.

  4. Most artists are predominantly right-brainers that most left-brainers cannot see eye-to-eye with. Artists on the other hand, full of imagination and often empathy, can see eye to eye with their opposites. Artists work from the heart, left-brainers from the head. Often, left-brainers are in charge of how a city, country, and therefore the world, works. They have a gift of the gab, are go-getters and go over dead bodies, so to speak (and sometimes literally) to achieve their goals. In their eyes, there is no room for artists when it comes to making a city, country or the world function well. The problem is, it’s a disaster!

    In order to have more pull, artists have to be united, have spokesmen and people with money on their sides. The story of the suffragettes attest that.

    Who knows… no-one ever thought that women would get voting rights either.

  5. Arts is really critical to me, especially that performs in the city. It is common that there are some artists tempt to deliver their ideas and thoughts about the world through some kind of ‘arts’, such as the bloody scene, naked body etc. I am always wondering, do all people understand what the message and why this behaviour? Should the artists consider the feeling of the public? Or should the public need to tolerate all kinds of performance which even be offensive?

    1. Offensive work should not be tolerated. That’s my take… For me, Art should enhance life, culture, and the community….Unless we’re talking about political art, which could be offensive for some…

  6. Thank you for your great insight. I haven’t read this article in the “Globe and Mail”, but it is so true that art in Ontario is not appreciated.
    I used to live in Europe until 2004, and I have to admit, the art scene is very different over there. I can also see that art attracts more buyers, collectors and simply people who love to decorate their surroundings in the States, in Quebec (just visited) and, for example, in provinces like New Brunswick.
    I completely agree with you. Lots of misconception.

  7. I never believed I was an artist until an artist told me I was. She is successful, sells lots of her work at high end galleries and shops and was both my biggest supporter and a wonderful mentor. An artist gave me confidence, an artist gave me guidance and an artist made me come alive. I will forever be grateful for that one person who wrapped her arm around my shoulder and whispered ” run “.

  8. I think a certain amount of art is required as it can attract some people to the city and it uplifts the people who are in these centres daily going to work and so on. But each council should limit what they spend so that more moeny could go into extra infrastructure that would benefit people in that area in a more constructive way.

  9. Excellent points all around. I am a visual artist just getting my start professionally, and the biggest problem I currently face is how to balance my “day job” and need to eat with my need to create. People really want to strip the word “artist” from you as quickly as possible. “Oh, you’re not an artist, you’re a cashier/substitute teacher/etc.” They seem determined that it must be a hobby, and that is very discouraging. My family is just beginning to come around on the subject.

  10. Very interesting point of view!

    It is very true about taste. I am not a fan of censorship, but I also think we the people shouldn’t post things that make people want to censor it. Its all about taste.

  11. Thank you for your point of view, I have spent my whole life struggling as a visual artist and still struggling. Recently, I have made self discoveries about why I want to keep struggling as a artist.

    Here is my point of view:
    In our current and past cultures the majority of people live by way of systems and structure. An artist views don’t fit these systems, this is why we struggle. Most artist from past to present want to express their opinions and views about these systems and structure in place. Expressing through art like singing, movement or by a visual piece of work is how we artist do this.

    Among my social circle I have been labeled this stereo type you write about. I have asked myself for years why struggle and just get a real job. I can’t, its how I truly communicate and show different views other than the people around me. I’m a great communicator through my visual perceptions. We are all communicators in some way. Some do it better than others, the ones that do it better are artist.

    An artist making a living by this way has to turn their art making into a way to support their living. Heres is where systems and structures make us artist struggle. Artist from the past had social circles to struggle with, our modern societies gives us artist struggles like mass marketing, one hit wonders and so much more that can be talked about. These ideas give our cultures these false ideas of what good art is. All i know is I look around me and everything has an artistist view or idea that was communicated. Art is the strongest way we communicate with. What would our world look like without a struggling artist views? You are the artist who wrote your blog and for that we can see a different view that no other has on this topic.

    Spramani Elaun

  12. Thank you ALL for your feedback, the business of the arts is complex, and to be an artist is tough! I would like to hear more from all of you. Best.

  13. I found it on freshly pressed.Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to mention that I have really loved surfing around your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing in your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  14. I really enjoyed your post. It is very insightful. It can be hard to decide who or what is an artist. I like your definition of someone who creates. I have been thinking that an artist is someone with paint under their fingernails, paintings in the bathtub and every other conceivable blank space after my own painting efforts. But then again, art isn’t just about painting.
    I did a post on my blog called Battery People you might interesting, which looks at work and the value judgement of paid and unpaid work.

  15. A well-written post. Congrats on being FP. This summer in Chicago we’ve had an outdoor art installation where a busy, downtown intersection’s 4 corners were engulfed in bright, solid colors. The artist used paint (on the sidewalk and light poles) and placed semi-transparent, solid-colored fabric on portions of the buildings (extending about 4 stories up). It made for a dramatic exhibit you could walk on and touch. I think Chicago puts forth great effort to make outdoor art available, from our long-present Picasso to a very recent addition often referred to as “the bean.” I see tourists and city-dwellers enjoying the often light-hearted, sometimes interactive (2-story tall glass-block fountains bearing projected human faces) art displays in downtown parks. I hope we see a continuation of this Chicago tradition of supporting/maintaining existing art and placing new installations.

  16. Very, very well said, Miss! My hat comes off to-ye!

    As someone who’s about to finish off a law degree only to let it rot at the back of the cupboard to pursue writing, I can relate to what you’ve-ah been sayin.

    Also, to add my-2-cents, I think the same should be said for scientists. Pure science is, I believe, just as much a form of art as is music or writing or painting.


  17. A very interesting post here, thanks for putting all your time into it.

    I’m a Freelance Cartoonist.
    Cartoonists seem to have been filed into the gray world.
    Some people acknowledging them as artists, and others saying they are not artists.

    Cartoonists create, work strange hours, contribute to the community, and starve just as well as any potential artist.

    Also, there’s that small percentage of cartoonists who have been in the right place at the right time, and subsequently, have been placed high on the pedestal and worshipped by the public.

    There are many cartoonists who are equal to or even better than those on pedestals, but they weren’t in the right place at the right time, and so they starve!!!

    So, are cartoonists artists ? I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder, or the tingle of the funny bone.

    My blog has 4 sections of my cartoons, which may (or may not) help to put it all in perspective.



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