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Accountable art

July 14, 2012

Making art was always my calling; but making art to sell never made sense to me as a life path.

From an early stage in my career as an artist, I knew things could be different. The givens for being an artist in this society felt out of synch with who I was inside and what I aspired to, yet there were no alternatives at the time.

For years I’ve been an advocate of transformative, healing art. Standing for these ideals in today’s hard sell art milieu, one is seen as a lesser artist, as someone unwilling or unable to do what’s needed to sell one’s art, or simply as a harmless crank, irrrelevant to the ‘important’ things at hand like promoting one’s work and getting more hits and followers.

Lily Yeh in front of a mosaic mural made with volunteers in one of her community art projects (pasted from this site )

But a change is a comin’, surely it is! I recently ordered a book by a long-time art heroine of mine, Lily Yeh. She founded the Village of Art and Humanities in Philadelphia.
The book I ordered, ‘Awakening Creativity, Dandelion School blossoms’,  is about a school for migrant children in China.  Over a period of several years she developed a creative program which transformed not only the physical environment of the school but the lives of the teachers, students and their families. What lifted my heart yesterday was reading the words of the foreword by Robert Shetterly. He confirms everything I’ve known deep in my heart about where art is and where it should be going.

Many people choose careers in art seduced by the notion that art is all about self-expression and that an artist’s success depends on becoming a cultural icon. An artist tries to discover a style or a niche that separates herself from other artists and promotes her career and commercial success. This is not necessarily a bad model for an artist, but it can lead to elitism, gimmickry, and an acceptance of art being primarily valued for its ability to generate money and fame- like so much in our culture. It’s a model that pits artist against artist in a heirarchy of value…

One word we never hear used to measure art’s value is accountability. What does it do for the welfare of the community?…did it promote ssocial, economic, and environmental justice and equality? …

Lily Yeh has rejected the model of artist vying with artist for gallery space and recognition. Instead she uses her talents to elicit art from distressed, depressed, and broken people in order to rebuild community. Her art is for communal self-esteem and hope, for affirmation of the spirit rather than for commodity…  Accountable art.

We’ll be talking more about community building art and accountable art in the next months here. I have a great new ‘Artists who care’ interview lined up. And I’ll be talking about new books and insights concerning art in service of social and transformative goals.

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8 Responses to “Accountable art”


  1. Hi Sarah!
    I am very much in tune with your readings. Here is a site that encourages an affirmation of the spirit!
    brokenlightcollective.wordpress.com/

  2. Laura Hughes Says:

    Hi Sarah,

    This is exactly what I have discovered over the years. The art I make is healing, intuitive, deeply personal and usually for my eyes only. I fell into the hole of marketing/selling (which I’m lousy at) what people wanted/the popular trend. This felt as if I was manipulating people to buy and not being true to my need to create.

    I read books on marketing/selling for right-brained, creative people and found I just couldn’t do it and then realised I don’t actually want to do it.

    Now I’ve taken my website down, my goal isn’t to sell in order to be a ‘proper’ artist (in other people’s eyes) and I feel relieved and liberated. No longer am I a struggling artist, but a living, thriving, happy one.

    • szoutewelle Says:

      Laura, what an incredible reply. Thank you. I so respect your decision. The pressure to conform is relentless. How ironic that it should come from artist peers; before now, artists have always been the ones who rebelled at the first signs of their authenticity being co-opted by the dominating ideology, whether it was the market or some other oppressive force.

      I think it was an important discovery for you to realize that you didn’t actually want to commit yourself to the (unending) marketing/selling road.

      I’m glad you feel liberated and relieved and have freed your artist self from the struggle to prove something. Creative struggle is something else, though, we encounter it in our art-making and it brings rich internal rewards.

      Are you still keeping a blog? Because I’d like to read about what it is like to be an artist in the way you’ve chosen. And we need more voices like yours, and mine and others who are refusing to go along with ‘art exclusively as commodity’. What are teh rewards of doing art without the feedback of you site etc? What keeps you going? How do you create meaning. And my current problem, what do you do with all the stuff!!! 🙂

      No doubt there are people who will read this who are fighting a good fight with some success to market their art and live from it, and won’t be able to understand what we’re talking about here. But the view of art as linked to creating a better world reflects nothing less than a major paradigm shift, and it isn’t visible yet so it isn’t credible, But it is happening all across the disciplines below the radar, and when it gains enough momentum, it will emerge. This isn’t meant to discount the role of artists following their calling and producing authentic images using skill and craftsmanship. But it is no longer the only path open to us.


  3. Hello Sarah: I would like to make a quick comment on your philosophy, which I think is the right path to take. Whenever we as artists create something solely for the purpose of making money we pollute the true essence of what creativity is all about, which is honesty. The best work any artist does whether other people realize it or not is the work he or she feels at one with. When we try to follow trends I would liken it to musical groups trying to impersonate or copy another musicians style. The product will be nothing more than an empty copy of what someone else has already done.


  4. What a wonderful blog post. I learned about your story through FASO website and blog site. I am a wildlife painter, painting mostly birds and this is the time for the Federal and WI Duck Stamps due in August. My wife,Marge, and I retired after 40 years of very hard work, and we sold everything, moved to a small NW WI wilderness area, to spend our time doing photography and painting. My blogs are about my subjects not so much about my painting. Years ago I had a shift in my brain chemistry and in 1991 started to paint and sketch and have continued to this day. I do get medical help for my condition, however, my painting saves the day and helps me in ways that medicine can not, so I am very grateful to be able to express myself though my painting. Painting for the duck stamp programs is a challenge to express creatively in a very small 7″ x 10″ a work of art, duck art. Birds are my favorite subjects and I love living here near Crex Meadows, a beautiful bird sanctuary. Thank you for your wonderful blog.Have a good day.

    JIm Springett-wildlife painter

    • szoutewelle Says:

      Jim, thanks so much for your appreciation and sharing some of your story. I’d not realized that this post got picked up by FASO.

      I went to your site and I have rarely seen paintings that radiate so much love. They are wonderful and honest, and the colors are beautiful.
      I am so glad your painting is a source of solace to you,may it always be.
      sarah


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