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bear by san

December 2021



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david bowie black tie - sosostris2012

What my job is not.

I've been thinking lately about my job as an artist, and what it is and isn't.

This is going to get a little theoretical, and sound a little arrogant, but bear with me: I'm not asserting that I'm perfectly competent at this job, or that it's an easy one. I'm just saying what I think my job is.

My job as an artist is to make you squirm.

My job as an artist is not to console you or distract you from the things in the world that make you unhappy. That's my job as an entertainer, and often it's in direct conflict with my job as an artist--but conflict is what makes narratives interesting, so that's okay. My job as an artist is not to give you characters and stories you care about and invest in and want to spend time with. That's my job as a storyteller, which supports and informs my job as an artist.

My job as an artist is not to propagandize for anyone or anything, because that would mean I have the answers, and my job as an artist is to point out that there are no total answers and no moral certainties and that the ones we think we have mostly are broken and flawed and kind of suck. My job as an artist is not to rubber-stamp anybody's belief system, including my own.

My job as an artist is to keep hanging out the reminders that it's always more complicated, that the human condition is fraught with contradictions and compromises and crippling choices, that we make mistakes--sometimes terrible mistakes--and that's okay, but also that we are capable of so much more than we aspire to.

My job as an artist is also to stand on the corner with a sign and say "Have you looked at this? This is pretty fucked up, right here." My job as an artist is to point out that ideologies are flawed, that absolutes are nonsense, that cultural expectations are relative, and that we are also deceived by the lies we sell our children.

But I also know that my job as an artist is to point out that we human creatures have as enormous a capacity for kindness and compassion as we do for creating misery, because that thing--it's always more complicated--isn't one-sided.

If you want somebody to tell you what you want to hear, to hew to a party line, or to spread some kind of gospel, you probably want some other kind of artist. If you want somebody to proselytize an ideology, you definitely want some other kind of artist.

I am not here to comfort you.

My job as an artist is to tell you what I see, not what I wish I saw. My job is to tell as much of the truth about the world as my tiny flawed inadequate little brain and art can encompass. And the truth--even the tiny, fragmentary, self-contradictory truths that are all I have to offer--the truth will make you squirm.

It makes me squirm too, and flinch, and want to go bury myself in puppies. The truth is like that.

I know this job is hard. Better women than me have complained of how hard it is. I'm not even saying I'm particularly good at it, but that's okay, because the job is too hard to do well.

But I know what the job is. And what it is not.

To be an artist means never to avert one's eyes.
                                --Akira Kurosawa


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Ooh, very nicely put!
That Kurusowa quote is a great one, too. That kind of brutal honesty, not just toward one's audience, but toward one's self, is important, I think, in a really powerful artist. Not that they always get it right, but that they are always willing to look with open eyes and unromanticised scrutiny at the world and at their own beliefs.

I've been watching Scorsese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home this evening, and I think that's the vision that comes across from that film of Dylan; he's not perfect, but there's a kind of quixotic honesty in his examination of himself and the world.
And yet, I think the exact opposite.

I think as an artist, and a human being, the moral cowardice--what Ursula LeGuin calls the treason of the artist--is to soft-sell, or to simplify. It's so much easier to do that, so much safer. So much more consumable. So much less likely to make enemies.

And maybe if I believed in simple straightforward answers to knotty problems I would be more willing to pervert my art to do that. But I don't.

Or possibly we're talking about two different things? Because I'm not talking about what the poster calls skeeviness. I'm talking about a willingness to acknowledge moral complexity and a lack of simple answers, which is something I've been talking about here for, oh, seven years now, give or take.

How much of my work have you read?
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. This rocks, thank you.
*applauds softly*


Also, awesome quote that I hadn't heard before. Thank you. (Again)
This comment is largely tangential to your actual post. I think.

When I was at FSU< I took a class on Esthetics, or Philosophy of Art and Beauty (according to the prof; not my definition). We spent a lot of time debates definitions of art. I did not, in that class, find one that satisfied me.

At various times in the years since then, I've struggled with definitions of art. You might have noticed that I do a number of different crafts. A short list of these includes silk painting, sculpting, jewelry making, weaving, dyeing, and cooking. I would sometimes encounter people who would say scornfully that nothing functional could be art (including in that class). I slowly came around to the position that I would rather make beautiful things that were also useful. I came to insist that I was not an artist, that what I did was not art. I became very comfortable and happy with that (although some of my friends tried to insist that my work was art; the same people now want to refer to me as a chef, over my objections). I note that the work I do is also not art under your definition -- something that makes me more pleased with it rather than less.

Eventually, I did find a definition of art that made me happy. It is one that I use solely to decide whether or not my own work is art, not to judge the work of others. By the definition I prefer, very very little of my own work is art. The pieces that are, I never sell, I only give away. I can afford to do that, since I am not an artist. I like not being an artist partly for that reason.

My definition is one I found in KJ Baker's The Etched City: Art is the conscious creation of numinous phenomena.

I'm glad you've found a definition for your art that works for you. I think you execute your art very well.
I do not and am not attempting to define art. I've got no interest in defining and categorizing, honestly, although I realize the practice is useful to some people.

I'm talking about my job, or my calling. Which is not the same thing as anybody else's job.
Boy, am I glad I never aspired to Art.

Sighs, and tries to be less grumpy.

Yanno, the job is hard enough without making it even more complicated by bringing Art into it. Art yearns for Validation, Art wants to be Studied, and Art is easy to Pose. Mind you, I may simply know a regretful subset of Artist, but that's my impression, and it's obviously not a good one.

What I want to do is tell a good story. One that sticks with people and makes them think, if they're of a mind to think. But if they're of a mind to be entertained, then they got their money's worth, I did my job and both of us are happy.

There's nothing particularly wrong with 'happy'.

Nope, that's not awfully less grumpy, is it?

...going to go write now.
I'm not trying to tell you your job. I'm talking about me.
I get what you're aiming for. Although "mak[ing people] squirm" is an awfully broad goal, encompassing a lot of different types of squirm.

But I think you accomplish this goal, in a fair number of ways.

The difficulty, in terms of race, is that too often, I'm perfectly able to read right through a novel being oblivious to various aspects of it (as I suspect I would have done with Patricia Wrede, as I did with Blood and Iron). The people who most need to be made to squirm are the people who are best at being oblivious. The people who are squirming are often the people who were most hurt by the reality that an author was working with (at whatever distance, whether actively trying to confront/adapt something, or just because its the background that an author has been brought up in).

I squirm more (and confront flawed ideologies, etc.) when I read sci fi (not just yours), not because the author set out to make *me* squirm, but because I've seen the fierce sadness and anger of the responses of people of color. But it shouldn't work that way. It isn't their responsibility to make me squirm by speaking out. If it's the artist's, then the artist isn't quite succeeding.
That wasn't actually on my mind when I wrote this, but I can see how it imports--a wider discussion of race in SFF is overdue, and it's ambient right now. And I think as a community we're handling it with our usual reasoned discourse over any knotty issue, which is to say not particularly well.

Here's the thing: no matter *how* an author handles issues of race in her work (or issues of homosexuality, or Christianity, or whatever) she's going to piss people off. Because strangely enough, people don't necessarily agree with each other on contentious issues.

Is the solution to avoid it, because conflict is unpleasant? No. I can't speak for anyone else, but my current solution is to write as well and as honestly as I can, and then leave the discussion to the critics. All of whom will bring their own interpretations and baggage to the discussion. Some will be oblivious to subtext, some will interpret things in direct contravention of the author's intentions, some will "get it," and some will pick out subtexts the author doesn't even know are there.

This is a good thing, and the discussion is a good thing.

I can't speak for the experience of people of color. In fact, I can't speak for anybody's experience but my own. If you look uptread, you'll see another white female science fiction writer who's pretty upset with me for my definition of what *my* job is.

I cannot control the reader. I cannot control what he brings to the text. All I can do is try to hold up mirrors, and understand that what the reader sees in them is influenced by the angle from which he looks.

(As an example, in the past month, I've received communications castigating me for the way in which I handle queer issues in my work. One reader wished to inform me that he would never read my work again, because I was propagandizing the gay agenda. Another wished to inform me that he would never read my work again, because I treated queer characters so exploitatively. I thanked them both. At a certain point, you just breathe out and let the other guy have his say. It's certainly counterbalanced by the number of letters I get thanking me for the way I present queer folks.)
I have always believed that art, true art, must provoke an emotional response. It can run the gamut from bliss to squirminess, but if the reaction is nothing more than glazed eyes, then the artist has failed.

For what it's worth, you never give me the glaze-eye.
Exactly this. I never really envisioned to make people squirm with what I write, but I always hoped to make them feel something. Emotion is so much closer to the truth than any words can ever be.
I think you haz it.
I think the tricky part (since you obviously have attached a moral and ethical aesthetic to your personal definition of art) is being true to yourself as an artist... while not completely giving into entertainment; or, bringing your point across as an artist with out being utterly didactic.

Of course, I have no qualms with anyone who is a commercialist whore either...I mean, you gots to eat.

As far as the old as art itself question of whether or not art itself has value as moral or ethical tools for communication (or whether as artists we must insure that our art has moral and ethical questions), my personal stance on this is that it should be left for the artist to decide.

As we know Bob, the reader/view is going to grok what he/she wants to see whether the art was intentionally provocative or simply commercially driven.
Well, I'm a Yankee. We write comedies of ethics, as it has been pointed out to me.

Yes. The reader is going to import his own context. And I can't control that. All I can do is be aware of the range of contexts that will be imported--and even then, I'm sure to miss a few. The range of human variation, etc.

I was actually driving at what you say in your second paragraph, that my job as an artist is to question assumptions. I did think that was explicit in what I wrote, though it seems not to have been.

I was not speaking specifically about race and diversity in SFF or the current discussion pertaining to it. I made a commitment to shut up and listen on that topic, and I have attempted to honor it.
It's a fine tradition in art, making something fascinating, yet uncomfortable to look at. I expect it's why George Martin does so well with his Song Of Ice And Fire books, or Daniel Abrahams with the Long Price Quartet.

It's also why I love Magritte so much. I think Dali overdid the symbolism and had too much going on in many of his paintings. Magritte's surrealism was less primal and less heavy handed, but somehow more profoundly moving to me because of it's simplicity.
Oh, Magritte. Yeah. It's unsettling, but.
This is such a good thinky post. Thank you.
If the duty of an artist is to make people squirm then Sasha Baron Cohen is Leonardo Devinci.

I have simpler rules;

A) Art is anything you can get away with.

B) Fuck'm they can't take a joke.

And not to brag, but i suspect i break as many rules in Lutherie, Hotrodding, Sculpture, History and Fiction as anybody that comes to mind quickly.

After all, i am the king of the unpublishable due to non-PC-ness novel, no?

You just go on wit' yo own bad self.
If the duty of an artist is to make people squirm then Sasha Baron Cohen is Leonardo Devinci.

However, Cohen gets his effects through misrepresentation and using people: for example, the villagers in Glod, Romania, have actually tried to take legal action against him for his depiction of them in Borat.

I think honesty is ALSO a basic duty of an artist.

I'm printing this out and posting it at work - a junior college, Art Department.
Funny, I've been having this sort of discussion with myself of late. *g* I'm afraid you're on a road I cannot follow. I can't breathe that air. Nevertheless, I am happy for you in having seen the road, and having the strength to climb it.
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