The Role of Art and Artists in Society

(Lecture Given At The Exhibition On 5 May 2018 In Abuja, Nigeria At Ozidu House)

What is Art?

Art is the expression and communication of ideas in various forms. Through writing, painting, drawing, carving, sculpting, dance, music, theatre. The lists goes on. There are various motivations for art and also no motivation in some cases, at least no obvious motivation. It can be used to communicate political, spiritual or philosophical ideas. It can be motivated by a desire to create aesthetic beauty, to explore the nature of perception or to generate strong emotions.

Who are Artists and What do they do?

The Artist provides society with emotions, colour and texture. Scientists make life easier, builders put roofs over our heads. Technicians facilitate our daily lives by enabling us to function more effectively. These things help us on a daily basis, but do not effect us emotionally. They affect our emotional well being because they make life easier, but they do not stimulate us emotionally. Artists affect our emotions and subconscious thoughts. They elicit strong feelings by their work on canvass, clay or various other forms.

Art has a wider more measurable impact on our economy, wellbeing, society and education. We need to acknowledge this impact in order to help people to see art for what it is: a natural resource.

Art is the natural way in which we create relationships in the world and  also where we build life experiences. Being an artist is to express one’s soul.  The responsibility of the artist is to consciously bring about an internal change within us. We cannot bring to the world what we have not ourselves internally absorbed, digested and assimilated. It all starts in the heart and in the mind. Through its emotional outreach, art can affect these transformations. It is a powerful force.

Artists have an advantage over other practices, they can innovate and  explore with an open mind. It has no fixed boundaries. They can imagine other perspectives and bring beauty to the world. The positive transformative energy of artists, creates hope and triggers change in society. Artists have to be part of the discourse for social change.

In many societies the roles of arts and culture in society have long been assumed but the specifics not so clearly chartered. Artists create work stimulated by their environment, yet often exist on the periphery of that social environment. They think outside the socially created frameworks. By acting outside of this framework it allows artists to the most truthful and constructive members of society. They make it their business to scrutinise the institutions that govern our lives.

Living in a world where there is a high rate of literacy. Written language has a very dominating force over the expression of ideas. We become perhaps atimes committed to words which may not reflect our own ideas. What is seen in writing is often seen as fixed and true. Writing is used to express ideas and emotions. Art, however is more adaptable to the real emotions of people. More fluid. It is a critical way of expressing an opinion without having to lay out a rational argument. The emotions that are evoked need no microphone. It is of the soul.

The artist’s role is to communicate the truth to people across cultures and time periods. Without truth we are imprisoned by differences. But truth enables us to go beyond these differences. Universal truths do not change. They are expressed through existing institutions. The artist has the ability  to go outside these institutions to ensure that truth is upheld or to highlight  the fact that the truth is not being upheld and promote change.

Examples of Artistic Expression and its Transformative Effect

There are several examples of the transformative effect artistic expression has had on changing the tide in the world. The photograph of the little girl running and fleeing a bomb in Vietnam helped to end the war there.

Images of people suffering during the Great Depression in America helped to drive a movement to end it.

Quite often if you take a deeper look at internationally renowned artists, their fame is not simply for the art-­‐piece but for the impact of their art on society.

Ben Enwonwu the Nigerian artist and sculpture who was born in 1917 and died in 1994 is arguably the most famous African artist of the 20th Century. His pioneering career opened the way for post-­‐colonial proliferation and increased the visibility of modern African art globally. His art is described as unique African modernism. Recognition of his bronze sculpture of the Queen proved that he as an African modern Artist. He used his technique to develop a novel kind of modern art whose representation was completely different from conventional art narrative of the European modernist art. The portrait of the Ife Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi (Tutu), painted by Enwonwu in 1973 and missing since 1975, was rediscovered in 2017 in a London flat. It was sold for 1.2 million pounds in an auction by Bonhams. The portrait of Tutu, one of the three made by the painter is a Nigerian national icon and considered to be a reconciliation symbol between the government and the Biafran separatists after the civil war in Nigeria. 

The Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Davinci in 1503 is a painting that challenged the way portraiture is perceived and altered the use of composition within art. It also raised the subject of the woman’s role within art and changed art as it had previously been.

Andy Warhol is known for spearheading the pop art movement. His Campbell soup cans, in 1962, introduced the concept of art not having to be about the great concepts and the powerful, but that it could also be about everyday objects. His focus on consumables made people reconsider their wasteful throwaway culture.

Whilst the Berlin Wall was standing in the 1980s, it was the defiance of the artists who marked it with powerful paintings that changed the world. Since the fall of the wall in 1990, the artists who covered it changed the narrative from restriction to freedom and openness.

Fela Kuti was the pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre, human rights activists and a political critic. During the height of his popularity he was hailed as Africa’s most challenging and charismatic music performers. He challenged the status quo. Spoke openly about what he saw going on, wrote songs about it and had a global audience. He was a political activist, who expressed himself through his music.

Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica, which was painted in 1937, reflects a world that has been changed for the worst. A loss of innocence. War permanently changed the world, which his paintings demonstrate. The tragedy inflicted by war was highlighted as a constant threat to the world.

Salvador Dali’s surrealist painting ‘The Persistence of Memory’ in 1931 encouraged people to enter the world of dreams, imagination, chaos and irrationality. His famous iconic melting clocks, distorted figures and melting branches compel the viewer to engage the painting and discover new meaning.

Ben Okri, the poet and novelist is considered one of the foremost African authors in the post modern and post-­‐colonial traditions. His best known work is the Famished Road for which he was awarded the Booker prize, along with Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches make up a trilogy that follows the life of Azaro, a spirit child narrator through the social and political turmoil of an African nation reflecting Okri’s remembrance of Nigeria during wartime.

by Aziza Atta (CEO and Founder of Ozoza Lifestyle)

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