In my last post, I wrote about Lillian E. Smith’s thoughts on art and artists in her speech “Ten Years from Today.” For this post, I want to continue that discussion and look at some of Smith’s other comments on art, artists, and critics. Speaking with Joan Titus shortly before her death in September 1966, Smith talks about how we experience art and the influences that affect the ways we perceive it. Her comments here need to be considered in relation to what I wrote about in the last post about the reader responses to Icon and about the individual who was mad at Smith for Strange Fruit even though he or she had never read the book.
When she spoke with Titus, Smith pointed out the reciprocal relationship between the artist and the audience. She talked about her youth and her friend Marjorie, saying that Marjorie, as a listener, collaborated with her on the dream because “no writer, no painter, no sculptor, no musician, even can perfect his dream or even carry it out or create it in full until there is a listener or looker to collaborate with him.” This collaboration does not have to be agreement, but it must exist to engage in a conversation between the artist, audience, and society. The reader’s who responded to the writers of Icon engaged with the material, one in agreement and one in disagreement.
However, the reader who responded to Smith about Strange Fruit refused to engage with the book personally, and this act, to Smith, segregated the letter writer from herself and the text because the person allowed others to speak on their behalf. For Smith, “the most important right we have . . . should be the freedom to collaborate in each other’s dreams.” Yet, when we let a critic or others serve as intermediaries between ourselves and the artists and art then we sever the collaborative network, denying ourselves the ability to see “what we want to see.”
This severing, according to Smith, acts as “a segregator . . . trying to block off a view.” She continues,
And maybe when I look at a modern painting I see something a little different from the abstraction that the critic is talking about. Well, that’s good, that I see something different. But if I’m not careful I shall feel a little uneasy about it because he has told me that I should see what he’s seeing. Well, that isn’t true. Each of us should see what the artist has whispered to us, and there are all of kinds of echoes in every painting. He hears some of them. I hear others.
When we go deep into ourselves and into the art, we connect the collaborative circuit, allowing the artist to speak to us, recall our memories, our experiences, the connections between our lives and the work of art. As I said, these connections may not be positive, though, and Smith points this out in “Ten Years from Today” when she talks about the ways that when artists fail to act in times of crisis others swoop in to fill power vacuums in society.
To move society forward, artists face “a tremendous responsibility . . . to create new images of ourselves without which we cannot live sane lives.” These are the images I wrote about in the last post and in various posts on this blog. If the artists fail in this endeavor, then, as Smith says, “far less wise leaders, will take our place.” This occurred, as she noted, in Germany where Hitler filled the vacuum and created anti-Semitic artistic propaganda in the form of films, posters, music, and more. “It was his images,” Smith states, “of ‘the German’ that the people hugged in their minds.”
This same construction of images occurred in the South with the moonlight and magnolia myth and stereotypical representations of African Americans. These constructions seeped into the fertile minds of audiences and made them believe in white supremacy. Smith calls for artists to act, to envision and create new, realistic images that foster equity and positive representations to move us forward.
To do this, artists, teachers, leaders, and more must be on the front lines. They cannot hide in “their ivory towers and let the political demagogues of the world take over the most precious task, the most important to the human being in time of change: that of giving him new, satisfying images of himself to live by, images created out of words.” If the artists retreats to the ivory tower, then the artists seclude themselves from society, allowing others to fashion images that they want to fashion, images that play on xenophobia and fear all so that they can maintain or achieve power.
Smith concludes the section with this assertion: “What a sad and tragic thing this would be in our South if those who are gifted stay silent!” If the artists remain silent, if they continue to recreate the same negative images, if they retire to their ivory tower, then the demagogue gets the say on what gets constructed. The demagogue gets the say on defining individuals. The demagogue continues to stoke fear and dread, separating instead of uniting.
Art allows us to dive within ourselves, to mine the depths of our souls and our psyches. It either causes us to confront ourselves or it reinforces our views. No matter what art we view, read, or listen to, it does one of these two things. Art connects us. It is a collaborative experience between the artist, the audience, and society as a whole. Art can enact change. It can speak to power. It can reconstruct the world. That is what art does. Smith saw this power, she knew this power, and she called upon us to use this power because if we don’t then there will be others who step in a enact their own power over us.
This is not all that could be said, especially about such a large topic. What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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