Changing the World

Living on the edge

Is your work important if it’s not changing the world? I know many earnest artists believe this must be their goal. They are focused on their particular cause and it seems the center of the universe. Their work must be serious and significant and world changing.

And sometimes it happens. A couple of Nick Ut’s and Eddie Adams’s photograph of the Vietnam war or some of Robert Capa’s images of the Spanish Civil War, among others, probably effected a lot of opinion. But these events happen once or a small number of times in a photographer’s lifetime. And they happened because the photographer was there in harm’s way and snapped a quick image of a poignant scene that materialized in front of him.

Maybe setting this as our standard is an unrealistic goal for most of us, unless we are going to spend our lives in danger zones. It might even be self-defeating.

Serious art

You may have a cause that is very important to you. Seems like everyone does these days. It may be climate change or pollution or human trafficking or animal rescue or any of many other things. It is healthy to be trying to make positive change.

But how does this affect your art? Should it?

Here is a huge generalization I freely admit I cannot prove: when the cause becomes the center of focus, the art is secondary. This is just logic. If your primary goal is to promote your cause, the art will probably become photojournalism or even propaganda. I have seen things that grab me, but I have seldom also said, “and what great art”.


Every “rule” has exceptions. One that comes to mind is the great Paul Simon song Kodachrome. Did you know this was kind of a protest song done to try to stop Kodak from obsoleting Kodachrome film? It didn’t work, but it was an excellent song all on it’s own. It is still well known, long after Kodachrome is fading from memory.

A famous painting that was intentionally done as a protest was Picasso’s Guernica. While it is almost unapproachable by me, it was influential and generated a lot of support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. But, it was done by Picasso. He already had credibility and a huge following. If Bob Smith (sorry Bob) did it, would it have been so widely received?

Another whole class of art was done to promote conservation. Great activists such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, often working with organizations such as the Sierra Club, promoted conservation by showing beautiful pictures of wilderness areas. They were making art and serving a cause. It was and continues to be an excellent strategy: beautiful and uplifting art to show the benefits of advancing the cause. First, it was great art. Secondly, it furthered their cause.

Create art that resonates

I suggest, for those of us who haven’t reached the stature of a Picasso, that we first create great art. If we can capture beauty or reveal deep insights into the human condition or the world around us, that will attract attention. If we earn a forum to speak from, then we can tie our art in to a cause and try to persuade people. Produce things that attract people so they will listen to you.

There is an old saying that “you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Leaving aside the question of why you would want to attract flies, you will build an audience by giving people things they are drawn to.

Alexandra Klimas paints portraits of animals that are part of our food chain. They are warm and touching portraits and they make us think fresh about the animals. She says, “I am not an activist, I am an artist and I make art. Art should touch people and make them think. I don’t want to shock people. I am satisfied when people feel more connected to this group of ‘forgotten’ animals.” I think she has a great approach.

Even if you are not promoting a cause, don’t you want people to resonate with your art? Not to say we should take a coldly commercial view and only produce what is popular at the moment. That is a sell-out. Shouldn’t we use our creativity to engage people, to draw them in, to make them ask questions?

After all, it is supposed to be art. Go and make great art. It might help promote your cause. Or it might just make the world better. We need that more and more these days.