One of my professors asked recently: why don’t we kill poets like they do in other countries?
My immediate response was, somewhat close-mindedly, that we don’t kill poets because we don’t have a totalitarian government. A valid point, but my professor was trying to get at something more obscure. The answer he was looking for was: we don’t kill poets because we don’t think they matter.
I’m inclined to agree with him. In contemporary America, at least, artists of almost all kinds are a nice decoration to society. If suddenly all artists stopped producing, society would still function. When I’m asked what my major is, I always feel apologetic in answering “creative writing” even though it is the reason I came to Northwestern; in comparison with the premeds and engineers, I feel as if I have taken an easy route. And if we need any more proof of how culture views art, how many people fear telling their parents that they want to write or paint or act? (Answer: a lot. Luckily, my parents are incredibly supportive of me and my passions.)
Of course, if all artists suddenly stopped doing what they do, society would be substantially more depressing. No TV, no books, no visual art, no music. And all of these pursuits are much more strenuous to produce than it may seem on the surface. But the act of creating art is somewhat self-indulgent: there’s a reason famous actors have said going to work is like playing, and all the writers I know are motivated not by altruism but because writing is what makes them feel good.
This is not to say that art is unappreciated in our culture. Go to any city and you can find events celebrating modern artistic efforts. And we have basically created an elite class of celebrities entirely based on their ability to act (okay, maybe not all of them can act). But do Americans believe that art can change lives? If we had a totalitarian government, would we kill our poets?
I think this question becomes more important as the modes of producing art change. The word processor enabled thousands of people, including me, to start writing stories with little difficulty. And now that anyone can publish those word documents as ebooks, people who wrote for hobby are now published writers, one of the rites of passage that signals you as a real artist. As more artists emerge, we will have to struggle to define ourselves, and the rest of society will have to decide how they view us. Will the layman rejoice in a larger pool of writers? Will it be seen as another sign of failing times? Or will Joe Six-pack not even care?