“Artists aren’t special. WE are not special!”
I’m in a conference room at a prestigious university with 30 of my colleagues from across the country and the world – most of whom I had just met. My face is a little flushed and I’m aware that my voice is a little too loud. Did I just say (shout) that? Me? Who works for an organization whose entire mission is about artists? Am I going to be escorted from the room? Is someone going to take my artist card away? More importantly, do I really believe that? Someone comes up to me at the break and asks, “If you don’t think artists are special, why are you doing this work?” Good question. Here’s my answer:
Yes, I said that. Yes, it was not very diplomatic and there was probably a more delicate way to make my point. But, yes, I do believe that.
Special is different from important.
Artists are important – artists illuminate truth, offer transcendent experience in a far too literal world, challenge us to feel, and connect us to a common humanity. Artists make vital contributions to very practical real-world issues – economic development, education, community building, healthcare. That’s important. You know who else is important? Police, firefighters, community organizers, teachers, lawyers, doctors…pretty much all the “people in your neighborhood.” We need lots of people and skills to make a healthy community, and artists are one part of that. I believe deeply that artists are necessary for a healthy community – but not any more or less necessary than all those other parts.
And when we say that we’re special, we define artists as “other” or different. By putting artists up on that pedestal, we actually make it harder for our communities to see their value. In an effort to validate the work of artists, we end up mythologizing the idea of artists. By trying to prove how rare, how talented, how special; we end up reinforcing a stereotype that there is a chasm between “real people” and “artists.”
I know, I know, if we let just anyone call themselves an artist, how will people know what good art is? How will they find the transcendent experiences among all the ghastly YouTube videos? Maybe I’m naïve, but I trust them. Plenty of people are runners, even call themselves athletes, they don’t get confused and show up at the Olympics. Quite the opposite: being an athlete gives you a whole new appreciation for the talent, and work and guts it takes to be a pro.
The truth of the matter is that artists are everywhere. They are in every part of our community, our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches. Heck, if you poke them long enough most of those police and doctors and organizers, and, yes, even the lawyers will admit that they are artists, too. One of my favorite activities is getting the people in my neighborhood to admit their art. My bookkeeper is an actor, my lawyer is in a band, my exterminator is a hip-hop artist and my senator is a comedy writer.
And that’s why I do this work. Because artists are important and ordinary.
Laura Zabel is Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts. Based in Minnesota, Springboard works regionally and nationally to help artists make a living and a life.