Do artists have a social responsibility? That was the question posed for discussion to participants in lunch breakout sessions at the recent Symposium on Arts and Social Change sponsored by the Lillian E. Smith Center of Piedmont College, a small private liberal arts college in Demorest, Georgia. The Symposium, titled “Between Dream and Reality,” focused on public art as an inspiration for social change and was held at the college’s second campus in Athens, a town dominated by the presence of the University of Georgia. Each breakout session had no more than a dozen people, so the conversations were manageable but lively.
The Symposium featured keynote speaker Jen Delos Reyes, Associate Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago. Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, and radical community arts organizer. Her practice is as much about working with institutions as it is about creating and supporting sustainable artist-led culture. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially-engaged art that has been active since 2007 and hosted conferences in two countries at locations including the Queens Museum in New York. In her early-morning presentation, she highlighted three artists who are also community activists, people who have used creative approaches to address serious challenges in their neighborhoods with projects such as restoring row houses to safe, habitable homes that had become drug-infested death traps.
Other featured speakers at the Symposium included Ellen Elmes, a retired college art instructor who has painted twenty-five plus murals in several different states that celebrate community. Another presenter was Hope Hilton, an Athens-based artist, educator, designer, and writer who works with communities and students of all ages to inspire and facilitate a sense of place, history, and agency. Broderick Flanigan is a freelance artist in Athens who is a community activist and the founder of Flanigan’s Portrait Studios. The event was moderated by Barbara Brown Taylor, the Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College and author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Learning to Walk in the Dark and An Altar in the World. All of the presenters at this Symposium are devoting significant time and energy in their capacity as artists to promote, encourage, and facilitate positive social change.
Throughout her career as a writer and humanitarian, Lillian Smith examined how the arts engage people around issues of social injustice, segregation, and isolation. Art was her passion, and she held a deep conviction that the artist has a responsibility to engage her audience in the conflicts and struggles of her generation, an opinion not necessarily shared by the students of The New Criticism movement, the literary theory that dominated the mid-20th century. Smith emerged in the 1940s at the forefront of the Southern debate on segregation, where she was at least a decade ahead of other white liberals and stood virtually alone in calling for an immediate end to segregation laws and practices.
During the tumultuous years of the mid-20th century, when lynching, convict labor, and Jim Crow laws were still casting dark shadows across the South and African-Americans all over the country were pleading for justice and equality, there were plenty of elected officials and prominent leaders who were endorsing a patient, moderate approach in addressing the crisis. Lillian Smith was not one of them. In a speech prepared for the Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change on the first anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Lillian Smith wrote these words: “You have done many good things, down here in Montgomery. But one of the best, one of the most valuable, has been the fact that you have dramatized, for all America to see, that in times of ordeal, in times of crisis, only the extremist can meet the challenge. The question in crisis or ordeal is not: Are you going to be an extremist? The question is: What kind of extremist are you going to be?”
In a powerful essay titled “The Creative Process” written in 1962, James Baldwin made the following observation:
There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.
There can be little doubt that, through her novels and nonfiction works, Lillian Smith was indeed trying “to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Does art exist in a vacuum? Should the artist seek to be completely separated from society, unattached and oblivious to the pressing social issues of the day? The answers to those questions can be debated over and over again with no real resolution. What is clear, however, is that art has the mysterious power to transform minds and emotions, to spark imagination, to inspire collaboration, and to motivate people to act. Once the work is done and that power is unleashed, the artist has very little control over the ultimate impact of what she has created. Perhaps recognizing that indisputable truth is where the responsibility of the artist begins.