Through the looking glass: what art and artists can reveal about our times

Hands up, don't shoot!

It didn’t start at Ferguson

If Francisco Goya were around today, what would he make of Ferguson? How would Henrik Ibsen, the playwright and champion of trapped women everywhere, get his head around personhood amendments? And what would Rembrandt, portraitist of satisfied Dutch burghers and bankers, think of the Koch brothers? Art has always been both a mirror and a fabulist, reflecting back in words, pictures or sound a bigger truth about us and the society we live in. The stories can be dangerous, soothing, transformative or transgressive, but whatever their form, their creators have all sought to reveal new ways to depict and respond to the events, large and small, that shape their world. But do artists have, by virtue of their creative gifts, a special responsibility to address social issues? Is “culture” a strong enough platform to withstand the heavy and emotional lifting that they provoke? Anguished by economic and social inequality and finding little solace or clarity from pundits or policy experts, NYT film critic A.O. Scott turned to the cultural community for enlightenment. In an admittedly unscientific survey, he asked nine artistic luminaries including documentarian Ken Burns, rapper J. Cole, poet Patricia Lockwood and writer-producer David Simon what “art has done and should do at this moment of political impasse, racial tension and economic crisis.” The responses were as varied as the artists themselves, but for me, Ken Burns had the right approach: “Perhaps outer circumstances seem different, but the essential challenges of the artist remain the same. It is always hard. As it should be. Complicated times are no excuse.” Read this thoughtful essay “Looking the Other Way” and all the artists’ commentaries here.

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