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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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