An artist’s place in society is ambiguous and one not often discussed. Artist’s often have difficulty claiming themselves as ‘artist’ for fear of criticism and rejection both inside and outside the art world and from within. Historically, artists have had their work labeled as narcissistic, sexist, racist, classist, elitist, indulgent, hermetic…and the list goes on.
I have been on the end of some harsh criticism. Comments made by the board of Queensland’s most prestigious art school have stayed with me for over 15 years. “Impressive folio” they said, however, using images of indigenous persons is ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘unacceptable’. They were referring to a series of pieces I had been encouraged to create under the mentorship of a fine, accredited artist Wim De Vos.
The images symbolically spoke about the clash of ancient tribal cultures with modern Westernism. I was trying to make sense of and comprehend the devastating and significant effects that forced values, ideologies, customs and religious beliefs had on indigenous nations all over the world. The message portrayed was blatantly clear and one that I felt strongly about.
Why can’t a caucasian person paint an indigenous person? I was confused. Indigenous history in Australia was, and still is a very sensitive issue and images that spoke political volumes, especially by young art students, were more often than not harshly criticised. How could a young caucasian girl have any knowledge or comprehension of such issues? What personal experience did I have to relate to these images? And further, what authority did I have in portraying such sensitive subject matter? These questions never entered my mind. What I knew, felt and created was deep from the heart. That is what mattered.
Since my teen years art was how I attempted to make sense of the world. It is where I could comment on and speak symbolically of the inner turmoil or questioning that arose when confronted with environmental, social, political, spiritual and cultural issues. Image was/is the language I know. To be misunderstood and have my creative motives questioned and challenged only enhanced feelings of unworthiness. In fact, I am sure these challenges contributed to the becoming of an artist, who for a number of years was primarily dictated by what the ‘viewer’ or ‘buyer’ wanted, rather than what the heart and soul yearned to express.
Moving on, the activist self has been embraced once again and I believe strongly that as an artist I have a social responsibility to comment on, raise awareness and bring into view that which stirs the soul and deep emotion; whether it political, social, spiritual, cultural or psychological. Art is an essential form of activism, it relays the messages of not just the artist, but of society and culture at large. As a community of creatives we are meant to promote and support freedom of expression and display works that openly reflect and discuss prevalent issues.
Unfortunately much of society still unconsciously continues to view the artist as a marginalized figure, cut off from the mainstream of society, operating out of what Freud calls the ‘pleasure principal’. People outside the art world may find it difficult to understand the seriousness with which art is made. When art is misunderstood it alienates and excludes not just the artist, but society at large. Artists and all kinds of creatives however are no longer accepting this marginalization. We are seeing the value and importance of our creative work and commit to create even in the face of adversity. I think of the all the creatives gone before that continued to craft even in times of great danger. The author Milan Kundera comes to mind. He still continued to write in secret under strict communist regimes that banned freedom of self-expression. These works and the role of artist are so important to the framework of society. Stories need to be told, or how will we ever know?
The following painting ‘Protectress’ was born out of the deep concern I have over plans that the Australian government has for coal mining and fracking across all states. A ‘Lock the Gate’ meeting was held here at Goddesses Garden and Studio a few months back and the documentaries shown presented a dire state of affairs. So much damage already done and with the extensive plans to carve up more of this ancient land further severe environmental degradation is predicted. The devastating effects of such plans will ripple out into all parts of society, in turn destroying communities and the land on which they reside and survive. The impact on eco-systems will be felt for centuries. I just cannot understand how these practices can continue when the evidence is there for all to see. Children with chemical burns to their bodies because gas leaked into the bore water, a farmer able to light up the water that comes out of household taps, dead wildlife, contaminated rivers and creeks, contaminated fertile farming land, polluted air and massive holes and wells dug into the earth. It is heart wrenching to say the least.
This painting was how I could stay connected to beauty and hope even in the face of deep-seated fears and concern. She is my statement of commitment to do all that I can in the ways I know how to protect the earth. Creativity is what I know and I CAN paint indigenous people! I cannot control it, they appear on their own accord with messages and wisdom to share. We are all connected despite culture, creed or colour.
What I know for certain is that the work of an artist and the place of art in society is of utmost importance. Imagine a day without art. A day without paintings, architecture, film, photography, music, theatre, dance, books. Perhaps then we can truly understand the power that art and artist hold.
Art is activism. Positive social change can come about through art.
As an artist I have a social responsibility to be a part of this change.
Jassy Watson, who lives on the sub-tropical coast of Queensland Australia, is a Mother of four, passionate organic gardener, Visionary Artist, Teacher, Intentional Creativity Coach and a student of ancient history and religion at Macquarie University, Sydney. She is the Creatress of Goddesses Garden, Studio & Gallery; a school for the Sacred Creative Arts. Jassy teaches regular painting workshops based around themes that explore the feminine. Regular creative events and presentations are also held that have included visits from international scholars, artists and musicians. Jassy is passionate about helping women awaken to their creative potential and building community through creativity. You can see more of her work, sign up to her Museletter at www.goddessesgardenandstudio.com