The Audacity of Being An Artist

A quick google of the word audacity immediately pops up “audacity of hope” in the most common search terms, referring to President Elect Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Vintage) . In a society where pessimism – or in the online world, “snarkiness” – sells newspapers and keeps eyes glued to television or computer screen, hope and positivity aren’t popular and can border on the outrageous. Who hasn’t found a moment to scorn the latest self-help book, or heard about a new age guru who is so cheery we want to smack him and tell him what life is really like. Just witness the hidden personal tragedies of the motivational speaker as portrayed in the movie Little Miss Sunshine. As viewers, we revel in the irony of the broken man behind such a sunny facade.

Artists can be snarky too; in fact, how many of us feel we have a pessimistic world view? We often see ourselves as public Eeyores with an eye for sharp social commentary, but I think that in reality being an artist is an act full of hope and optimism. We may not paint pretty pictures or write music that is calming or even pleasing to most ears, but even our representations of the utmost ugliness are a kind of transformation. Sometimes our work draws attention to the beauty in sadness or anger, and other times our depictions of all that is wrong in the world is jarring enough to inspire people to change themselves or the world around them. We persevere through all sorts of conditions to create these works, and believe we have something to say. Is that not also extremely audacious?

With the election of Barack Obama, the United States has turned away from the darkness of the last eight years – a darkness we have all experienced as Americans, regardless of political party. This isn’t a political blog, but there is no denying that politics affects the artist. To see so many people inspired by Obama’s positive message and call for individuals to take responsibility for making the world a better place is possibly the most significant event I have witnessed in my lifetime. In the campaign season, we haven’t heard much said about the connection between the arts and our electoral choices. I was surprised and pleased to see that documentary filmmaker Michael Moore had this to say about Obama’s election and the arts: "We may, just possibly, also see a time of refreshing openness, enlightenment and creativity. The arts and the artists will not be seen as the enemy. Perhaps art will be explored in order to discover the greater truths. When FDR was ushered in with his landslide in 1932, what followed was Frank Capra and Preston Sturgis, Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange and Orson Welles."

I would argue that in times of growth in our country, art simply becomes more visible to the public – the artists are always there no matter what political climate – although certainly a government that values art helps more work come to fruition through government funding and the encouragement of the support of art by the private sector. But I do think that Moore is onto something – the “sea change” in politics as described by the media with this election also bodes well for the celebration of artistic expression.

After I watched Obama speak on Election night with a group of volunteers and townsfolk who gathered at the local tavern, I found myself strolling the sidewalks of the city where I live. Though it was past midnight, people were in the streets celebrating, honking their horns at intersections, skipping and dancing. A Church bell rang out in victory – a surreal experience at once marking history in the making and reminiscent of past events of monumental importance.

Throughout his speech, it was clear that Barack Obama is a man who has fought his way through many obstacles with grace and integrity when it would have been easy to become bitter or vengeful. As we go to work in our studios, darkrooms, practice spaces and quiet coffeehouse corners in the coming months, perhaps we can learn from his approach. By embracing the idea that our art is deep down borne of optimism and hope, we can more often find the strength to grapple with the difficult issues and conflicting pressures of being an artist, spurring creativity and bringing a new depth and focus to our work.