The Obligation of Artists

How influential can a writer be? How about a director or a singer? How about a painter?

I’ve been thinking about why I’m so interested and involved in popular culture. When I say popular culture I’m referring to mainstream movies, books, music, and television. Why does it matter what people watch or read or hear?

Looking at what the people are investing their time in can tell you much about those people. When a movie makes $150 million in one weekend it is like the people lifted it up on their shoulders. Then the movie makes it into everyday conversations, and the kids have all the toys. Or, the song is number one on the charts and the people are humming the same tune. Almost without us even noticing these popular forms of entertainment invade our lives. As a culture, we choose to raise up certain artists and their work. And who we choose to elevate says much about who we are.

Artists, I believe, have a serious obligation to produce works that will benefit those who are influenced by them. What do I mean? I mean that artists need to understand that their work has power, or at least potential power, to shape those who witness it. Shape our thoughts, our language, and our perception of the world.

Unfortunately, much of what I would deem popular culture does not appear to come from thoughtful individuals aiming to improve society. Just read the lyrics to California Gurls (Or however it’s spelled) or Tik Toc. Also, look at most of the major comedies to come out of Hollywood in the past years. They are, many of them, so filthy and wildly inappropriate that I have trouble enjoying them, never mind recognizing any value for society as a whole. I often find myself laughing with reservations at movies like The Hangover, Superbad, Role Models, and the like. And Family Guy is largely about cheap laughs without substance.
It’s such a relief when anything comes along that is either thought provoking, honest, or morally grounded. Christopher Nolan is an artist that produces great thought provoking films like The Dark Knight and Inception. I was thrilled to find a moral center in The O.C. And I love Muse partially because their lyrics are honest about their views on politics, love, and religion.

Artists, be responsible. Your power is great. Your influence is vast.
Society, be responsible. Think about what you’re lifting up with money and attention.

Let me leave you with a quote from V for Vendetta.

Evey Hammond: My father was a writer. You would’ve liked him. He used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.
V: A man after my own heart.

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