Do artists have a responsibility to engage with social issues?
As an art writer and political organizer concerned with the critique of socially engaged art this question is perennial.
Every person has, physical and mental conditions permitting, a responsibility to engage in social issues; what is less certain is whether all artists, as producers of art, explicitly or implicitly have to concern themselves with social issues and social change. If we consider the artist’s impulse to make art (no matter how abstract, obscure, or esoteric) always a social impulse, a fait social, and part of the historical process, the question about whether artists should feel responsible to engage in social issues, first, would need to account for an understanding that all modern (and this includes any classification of “post-modern”) art is the critical negation of society, a compulsion to protest against the status quo. Art is an act of negation of what exists. As Adorno put in in Aesthetic Theory, “artworks have no truth without determinate negation”.
We should want to explore further how artists have increasingly come identify their role as one of social responsibility, of commitment to social issues and to the improvement of the community, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. To better interpret engaged artistic practice in the present, we appropriate the concerns and the language from the historical avant-garde, along with a reconsideration of the classical Marxist standpoint on art and politics. This approach is important because it is a reminder that if we lived in a society were all artists were required to address social issues art would cease to be art, and be all-too-similar to the socially committed art of Stalinism, and risk being reduced to propaganda. This approach would also allow us an understanding grounded in the developments of the 20th century, and consider the potential effects of historical regression in art.
In the first page of Aesthetic Theory, Adorno states: “The sea of the formerly inconceivable, on which around 1910 revolutionary art movements set out, did not bestow the promised happiness of adventure. Instead, the process released at that time has eaten away the categories in whose name it was begun. …. Art’s autonomy remains irrevocable. All efforts to restore art by giving it a social function – of which art is itself uncertain and by which it expresses its own uncertainty – are doomed.”
This raises several questions, but of crucial importance for the author is whether it is possible to abandon a purely affirmative analysis of contemporary social art practice—to allow critics a role distinguishable from curators, educators, and promoters of art—and not be assumed the intention is not of dismissal or rejection of the art?
The critic’s task is to grasp what has not been grasped about contemporary art. The question should not be whether artists are able or obligated to address social issues, but a question of how they do.