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Friday, December 30, 2016
The Fear and Folly of Public Opinion in Art
An artists life can sometimes be difficult. Not only are we often perceived as hippies who can't make a living, or that our art is a hobby and not a real job. Opinions, both good and bad on our work is a constant force on what we do. It has a power all its own that can be so acidic that it may burn through an artists life leaving scars and even death in its wake. No matter how well known we are, the court of public opinion asserts a great force on what we do and always will.
There comes a time in the career of every professional artist where they must start considering public opinion more and more. Will it control what we create or will we ignore it totally?
I remember a story of an artist friend who worked with glass. At the time of his emergence in the art world he quickly rose in popularity and in a short time was about to have his first major show in New York City. He was so concerned about opinion that he stressed over it constantly. It haunted him so badly that never made it to that opening but fled the art world completely. It was a whole lot of years before he even attempted any art again and when he did it was a much more sedate and private journey for him.
I remember when I first heard his story that I wondered how he could have prepared himself for it. How does anyone prepare for onslaught of public opinion? And how do we do so without becoming cynical and so armor plated that we lose out on the joy of our own creations?
Perhaps merely just making ourselves more aware of the pressure of public opinion can help us overcome it. If we ignore it, it can sneak up on us like a leopard and rip out our throats.
For me, I've lived a life of anonymity for the most part. People know me through my work, through my writings, through my opinions. But very few know me. I often ask myself, if my work were to become popular tomorrow, could I truly handle it?
In my anonymity I am safe. I can say what I want, when I want. And as long as I meet my own personal moral code of honesty with diplomacy, I don't usually have much to fear.
But I want to be honest in this article, which means that I am honest in listing some of the fears that I do have. And also honest about how I deal with those fears. Remember this is in regards to public opinion as an artist, not how I personally deal with these fears.
First, I am gay. This automatically puts me in a questionable category where some people will look down on my art and see it in a negative light no matter how good or bad it might be. I had a coworker back in the 90's that loved the music of pianist Jim Brickman. He went as far as to recommend Jim to all his friends. And then one day he heard a rumor that Jim was gay. It didn't matter how much he adored the mans music, that was it for him. He'd never listen to another song by the man and he threw out all his albums.
This is something that gay creators face. The way I've always dealt with this was to be as open and honest as I could with my own sexuality. There are no secrets when everything is revealed. There is no fear of being outed when I out myself and even strive to make it a part of who I am as an artist. But the court of public opinion can be ruthless to anyone who dares wear their sexuality as a badge of honor.
Second, I am HIV+. You can automatically see how this one might sway public opinion in a negative way. Consider how the public reacted to Rock Hudson (yeah I know I'm no Rock). Poor Liberace went to huge lengths to hide his own illness because he did not want the public opinion of him to change.
The way I've dealt with this over the past several years is to also make it a part of my art and not be afraid to discuss how my health relates to my art, affects it and can sometimes make it difficult for me to create. Again (and you might see a theme emerging here) its in honesty and integrity that I deal with public reaction and with full disclosure.
My third fear, is that my life partner is transgender. Don't get me wrong, I don't fear that people will react negatively to me because of this. But I do I fear that it will harm my partner. He is the strongest person I know, but the thought of public opinion towards my work effecting him personally frightens me more than anything else.
Last but not least, I am that terrible creature known as a LIBERAL. For the longest time liberals in the United States have fled from the label. I admit I run wholeheartedly towards it. But in the United States especially right now, that more than anything else might get you bad public rep. It may also get you killed these days. But that is a subject for a different article.
My personal solution, as you can see, is to run at full speed into all of these things, not run away from them.
But face it, its easy to fly into the face of a storm until you get slapped down by the lightning. Truly that is what this is about. How do we brace ourselves for the impact of a negative public opinion?
Because face it, no matter what we do, its going to piss at someone else off. Are you ready for that? If your not, consider a different profession or plan to be the kind of artist that paints tree's and scenic mountains only. Your not ready to face the hanging court.
I truly think that part of the secret is reacting to the trolls in the world with kindness not hate. Hate is their tool in trade, its not mine, nor should it be yours no matter what views you hold dear. But that does NOT mean that we shouldn't go to great strides to speak on those issues.
Art Activism is not for everyone. It places us even more out there where public opinion can pummel us to death. But I think for some of us we were born to speak out. Consider for a moment that any piece of art you or I create is a statement about how we personally see the universe around us. You paint a tree, that's how "you" see the tree. Perhaps its not how another person might see it. Every piece of art we create has a level of activism to it. A tree may not be considered political, but what if you paint those trees dying beneath a haze of smog. Same tree, different message.
In the end if we fear the messages we are putting out there because we fear public opinion then we are doing no one any good. If we admit to ourselves that everything we create can piss someone else off and then we let the messages flow through us, we are reaching for our highest potential as an artist and in turn the fear loses its control over us.
There are no easy answers to coping with the court of public opinion. We will each handle it in our own ways. It will destroy some of us and strengthen others. This goes for whatever we feel we must say.
In the end if you remember nothing else, always remember that for us as creators, The Revolution Begins with Beauty. If we hold that thought dearly then the beauty crafted into the message gives it the ability to be heard. Ugliness only begets more ugliness.