I notice that people tend to attribute a morality to concepts. We feel that things like nature, democracy, sports, and art are in some way moral on their own. In fact they are moral vacuums. As a result we ascribe our own personal morality to them. Some believe that nature is governed by a fuzzy harmony uncorrupted by greed while adorable animals murder the young of their competition. Many believe that democracy is a shining light in the darkness of human oppression while oppressive tyrants get elected around the world.
The belief that concepts are inherently moral allows us to ascribe our individual or tribal values to them. We see this in sports in the United States, onto which many have imposed a post-World War II military ethic. Many say that sports are supposed to be apolitical, but in a way that reinforces the status quo. That is only one way to look at it though. People can give political, religious, or frankly, commercial meaning to sports. It doesn’t have to be one-way.
This applies to art as well. People talk about art being a force for good. But, art can also be a force for evil, a force for beauty, or a force for money. It is just a force. It is up to the artist, the critic, or the art consumer to decide how to use that force. Most people wouldn’t find an engineer to be shirking their moral obligations if they are designing luxury automobiles rather than finding ways to deliver safe water to people.
Artists should be lauded for using their work to stand up for what they believe and to affect change in the world. We need this work. However, I don’t believe artists should receive any greater criticism for focusing on whatever subject matter that they choose. Pressuring artists to be political, especially catering to a specific ideology is not productive. We all have a responsibility to be the best we can be; it’s not something that people can pass on to artists.
Note: This was written by a painter whose work currently consists of non-activist landscapes.