Being an artist sets you outside a certain framework of society. Think of it this way. If you were a back-to-nature family living off the land, growing your own veggies, killing your own wild game, making your own clothes, and building your own home and furniture, how connected would you feel to a media that was constantly talking about and advertising processed food, big box stores, beauty products, vacations to all-inclusive resorts, and more? I expect you would feel like none it applies to you. You aren’t who they are talking to, right?

The Needy System

Being an artist can be the same way and here’s why. The social system I just mentioned wants us to need it for entertainment, creativity, purpose. It works hard to integrate (or entrap, depending on your perspective) individuals into that system. It wants dependence because that is how it runs. But artists don’t need that. We don’t have our identity in a job we do, we have it in our own creativity. We don’t have our identity in the system and thus we are not dependent on it. We are a danger to that system’s hegemony.

The Abrasive

Now in most cases the artist isn’t THAT big a danger.  They aren’t creating something that is going to threaten or destroy the system, they are just a grain of sand in the lotion. And, just as sometimes lotion manufacturers like some sort of mild abrasive in their lotion to clean or refresh the skin better, the system likes these artists because they give the illusion of freedom. They are free to do what they want and that means so are you.  But the system knows that while technically you are free, you aren’t going to exploit that freedom to do anything radical.


What happens when artists really do something radical?  They are attacked, minimized and ostracized. Their creations are publicized as dangerous or evil or ugly. It is the product of a disturbed mind or a dangerous philosophy or a perverted morality. It is not to be trusted. To show interest in it casts the viewer in an ugly light.

A great example of course is music. in the 20th century we have plenty of examples. Elvis was dangerous. The Rolling Stones were dangerous. ‘Negro music’ was dangerous. Go back even farther and, hard as it is to believe, the Waltz was dangerous.

The Beautiful Effort

And underneath it all, why is art dangerous? Because it gives sight and sound to pain, longing, need, wonder, love, hate and more, and turns it into beauty. I don’t mean everyone will see it as beautiful, even those not entrapped in the system. What I mean is the artistic impulse and the artistic process is beautiful. Not because the end result will always look beautiful but because the effort is a beautiful and noble effort to understand all those things at the deepest level.

And that is dangerous.

Drawing and commentary © Marty Coleman | napkindad.com

“What marks the artist is their power to shape the material of pain we all share.” –  Lionel Trilling, 1905-1975, American Essayist and Teacher

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