Normally, I feel that whenever I answer questions here, whatever perspective I have to offer will suffice, but this one left me with a laundry list of opinions, most of which conflicted with one another. While it would probably be most expected for me to think that art can change the world, and it’s other professions that serve a more tangible purpose that would look down on art as a career choice – if I’m being honest, my gut feeling was that me deciding to become an artist and continuing to be one IS incredibly selfish and narcissistic. Even when I engage with people considering following a similar career path, my words of encouragement boil down to “I love what I do, it fulfills me immensely”. From artist to artist, that’s exactly what you’d expect, but suddenly I considered the possibility that all of my artistic “advice” was just perpetuating a cycle of selfishness – encouraging people to pursue things only to make themselves happy. Having an impact on the world was never even a consideration, I just… like making things.
Is what I do, is what all artists do, just for themselves? Are we really just choosing a path that puts a smile on our faces when we should be picking careers that tangibly assist people? I was at a loss. I knew that I lacked the proper perspective to answer this question in full on my own.
Thankfully, two of my brothers happen to be in fairly interesting careers that contrast my own as an illustrator: a Doctor and a Rabbi. While we sat around a coffee table in Manhattan eating Thai food — my niece running around in circles holding a Superman action figure, and my 6 month old nephew smiling in a dapper baby outfit while he happily filled his diaper – I broached the question to see what two people who respectively save lives and save souls, would have to say about this. However, unlike myself, they almost immediately dismissed it as absurd.
The narcissism and selfishness was one of the first things they tried to dismantle — saying every profession, no matter how seemingly noble by label, attracts people who do it entirely for themselves, a doctor being no exception. I argued back saying that in these instances though, regardless of the reasons FOR pursuing these practical professions, a doctor still saves lives.
Next on the chopping block, they dissected the notion that artists have no real impact on the world. There were a slew of very expected and easily rebuked statements thrown around. When I told my Rabbi brother that the impact he has on his congregation and community is deep, profound, instantaneously noticeable, and that I don’t have a damn clue whether anything I’ve ever made has affected anyone, he was just his usual humble self and in denial of that fact. But my other brother said something that if there were ever a statement that gave any sort of real answer to a question layered with so many existential onion rings, I felt this was it. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Sam, just look at history, Doctors, Engineers, and Scientists are the people who have an impact in the world and matter the most? If anything you could make a strong argument that these are the professions that are extraneous. Art pre-dates medicine, science, and engineering by very wide margins. Art has grown and expanded exponentially throughout history, it has transformed language and sold belief systems to entire nations. I gain more from looking at a beautiful painting or listening to good music than I ever do from how something is engineered. I mean even on a really basic level of what I do, without artists, what the hell would us doctors learn from? You have no idea how much the field of medicine relies on illustration.”
I didn’t have an argument for that. It was historically sound.
While I’m not sure that I have a definitive answer to your question, after filling my perspective and knowledge gaps from my brothers, I will say this: It’s a slippery slope to say that artists don’t impact the world. Art’s effects may not be as tangible as the aforementioned career alternatives, but it’s still around, broader and more widespread than ever, permeating ever facet of our human-made world. Its effects may not be as quantifiable as how many years a Doctor has kept a person alive, but as most doctors will tell you, quantity of life is not nearly as valuable as the quality of it, yet their job demands that they deliver the number over the experience.
Art demands nothing, we just make it. We express, we depict, and we rage on whether or not our impact can be put into numbers.