The Artist As Citizen... now more than ever

  John Ros  
  New York, NY  

November 2016

An artists studio practice is defined by space and time. If you devote four hours a week in your bathroom to your practice, then it is your studio. Furthermore, you should never feel embarrassed or feel the need to apologise for this fact. Any space where you dedicate time to your practice is your studio. How we engage our practices with a post-brexit, Trumpist reality is crucial as we move forward.

It can be difficult to escape the understanding and protection of the “Art” bubble we create for ourselves. As artists, we must get out of our studios and get to know our communities. We must enable ourselves to discuss visual culture and our participation in it with people from all walks of life, including the non-art-goer. Though conversation with the like-minded, art-speaking types is encouraging, this continued back-patting and propping-up will only continue to separate our voices. We do this without knowing, and in doing so, we help neuter ourselves, rendering us irrelevant.

What is important here is realising, though it may be difficult, that we do not exist only in our little bubbles. From the individual artist in his studio to the New York City or London art scene; from a graduating class to an art organization: We are all facing tough questions in our communities today, questions on sustainable income, on human rights, on the environment, perpetual war, inequality, etc. The only way we are going to develop new ways of dealing with the constant demand of democracy is by coming together, by forging new relationships with our fellow citizens in order to create a lasting and sustainable future for all. Increasing income inequality is seen as unstoppable. We must not fall into the power elites’ hands, fighting among each other, dealing with symptoms as opposed to causes and solutions. We must fight for a more equal playing field for all. This is not utopian, this is democratic.

The easiest thing to do is to pretend that all of this doesn’t affect you. Whoever we are and wherever we live, we have a role to play. We have to start by playing a more active role in our own local communities. Get to know our neighbors, have discussions, especially with people with whom we disagree. We must accept that we will never fully understand where a person comes from, what they have been through, and how those sum experiences determine their standing. We also have to be careful not to push our own experiences and expectations on each other. This goes for prejudging someone based on their external or internal, stereotypical characteristics. Empathy and compassion for one another will allow us to find strength in our differences and work together as one community built by the diversity and individuality of all of its citizens. Momentum must come in the form of solidarity.

The accelerated rate at which we receive seemingly infinite information is not only making it impossible to keep up, it is creating a cacophony of visual, written and audible noise that becomes indecipherable. It often seems our only hope is to retreat into the growing digital sanctuaries of distraction that have been so carefully curated for us. The constant clamoring of our devices gives us the illusion of being more connected, when in reality, it only keeps us distracted. A recent study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that algorithms associated with News Feeds such as Facebook actually made us more narrow readers of information as it gives us news that we find favorable. Despite the world being at their fingertips, the study found that users “tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization.” Decisions are more regularly made for us and we welcome this in our seemingly more complicated lives. The speed of technology along with the insatiable corporate takeover of our globe is interconnected in a way that is destroying the foundations of neighborhoods and the sanctity of life for the vulnerable: those deemed expendable.

American capitalism and the global corporate expansion are destroying our democracy (along with our environment). As long as we still live in a democratic society we must act as democratic citizens and be active and passionate about the policies that are being made that affect us every day. Failure to do so will not only destroy our democratic system but will ensure our continued slip into the oligarchic global corporate capitalistic culture. Make no mistake, corporations do not only have more clout than people (from actions such as Citizens United); but, unlike people, they are unbound by a nation-state, and increasingly so if the TPP passes. They have no loyalty except to unfettered capitalism, which has become their religion and form of government.

The answers ahead will be difficult, most certainly because we cannot rely on anything that has worked in the past. This is a new time that will require new solutions. Our local communities are where the answers lie. They will be unique to each community and will require the involvement of all. We can come together as a binding force, but we must take that energy to our own communities and make them work for us specifically. Together, not only can we fight it, we can support each other and bring back our local vitality.

Remember, everything we do is political.
We have to turn everything on its head and start fresh. We have to come up with new solutions and begin to change the culture of celebrity and over-abundance that is propagated on every corner we turn and on every screen in front of us.

We must begin to change our culture of consumption and start to discuss alternatives of fulfillment, success and need that exist — for all of us, not just the few. You vote every day with every dollar you spend. Be a wise consumer. Do research. Learn about a company’s practices, worker-relations and political leaning. Seek out ethical companies that invest in their employees and promote sustainable environmental practices. Make sure your hard-earned money is going to companies that support your values.

Stay informed. Resource multiple and various news sources and be sure you are learning the whole story. Too much of our “news” is made up of emotion-based, targeted sound-bites; press-releases cloaked as news; and corporate-touting propaganda meant to coerce the public into abiding citizenry. Talk to people that disagree with you and have substantive discussions about life and the issues that are affecting your community. Wedge issues are deployed as a way to divide. We are not all going to agree, nor should we. We must come together in acceptance of our differences as opposed to living in fear of them. Vote, especially in local elections. Your local, city and state governments control most of the policy that affects you everyday. Contact your state senators and legislators and local elected and appointed officials. Let them know what is important to you and your community. Stay connected with your local happenings. Attend city hall meetings and community advisory committee hearings. Use open-source and non-proprietary software. Support the creative commons and share your knowledge.

Being an artist is about so much more than being a maker-of-things. Even when it comes to the vocation of being an artist, ideas do not fall simply in line. It is a messy and personal journey. Artists are the makers of trends, not the followers of them. We must be critical thinkers beyond our studios and invite inclusive discussion about civic action through art. We must compel other artists to question how art is exhibited and how it can be disseminated for the benefit of all. We must continually evolve and look to each other and our communities to challenge our ideas.

We are artists, but we are citizens first. The problems being faced by the world today will require new solutions. Because of the vast change in technology, and the spreading of the new global culture, creative thinkers will play key roles in helping to solve problems. We must take the power we have and apply it to every aspect of every day. We must speak for justice in our search for truth. Culture is not a privilege: it is a right that each and every citizen is born into. We must become better at understanding our individual role in how we complete our community and we must begin to shape the future for ourselves and all our community members. s

  This is an abridged version of an article published in the Spring 2016 edition of the Sluice_magazine.