What Ever Happened to The Timely Artist?

Editor’s Note: the original version of this article was first posted on the C2C in 2010.

It used to be that our greatest artists told the story of our times as they happened.  The same was true of authors. There was Fitzgerald for the Roaring Twenties, Hemingway for The Great Depression, Hansberry and Baldwin for the pre-Civil Rights era.

It seemed like artists, until very recently, understood their responsibility to humanity more than just to their wallets. They knew that they were the observers, the recorders. Artists are the ones who point out the problem, so that the activists, policy makers, leaders, and everyday citizens can call everyone to action. Artists don’t set the mood, they translate it, so that we understand what we are going through as we are going through it.

It’s like artists are part of humanity’s digestive system. Artists are needed to break down the big, heavy problems into little pieces of nutrition that are helpful to humanity, that help guide us, and give us hope. If writers and other artists don’t do their job of digesting life’s big problems for us, then you’re talking about some major global constipation (forgive the grotesque analogy),but what that could translate into is major confusion, despair and loss of hope.

In the past, there wasn’t just talk about what was going on, artists knew that their responsibility was also to give hope and to share wisdom. Artists doled out wisdom! Deep, meaningful lyrics, prose and poetry. For instance, I’ve heard Buffalo Springfield’s For What Its Worth song all my life, but not until some months ago did I realize how incredible powerful, deep and poetic it was!

It’s as if today’s “artists” are stuck in the opulent 90’s era, and can’t seem to churn out anything timely. And there really aren’t anymore excuses why they shouldn’t. In our current age, you have an unpopular war, a recession that seems to be crawling achingly toward recovery, a major civil rights movement gaining momentum, an earth that’s acting funky, and re-emerging racial tensions that are hotter than a blacksmith’s poker.

We’re living in the 60’s on STEROIDS! What’s up artists? You’re kind of lagging. No wonder people aren’t really caring about art these days and are willing to cut it from school systems. They’ve forgotten how powerful art could be. Why? Because artists aren’t willing to exert their power anymore, nor, I would argue are they taking up the great responsibility conferred upon them to help people understand the mood, or at least tell people, simply:

“There’s something happening here… what it is isn’t exactly clear…”

My personal goal as an artist is to write work that lives within our times. Not necessarily that politics serve as the main feature, but that our current climate at least serves as a backdrop. My end goal is to give readers hope, strength and tools to get through a challenging age like this one. It’s not about whether I’ll succeed at this goal, it’s about whether I am trying to succeed. Because that’s my role as an artist in the world. If I don’t do it, no one will. And who really wants to live without a stomach?

Do you FEEL me?

In the words of Buffalo Springfield:

There’s bad lines being drawn, / and nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong…  / Paranoia strikes deep, / into your life it will creep.  / It starts when you’re always afraid.  / Step out of line, the man comes / and takes you a-way. / Stop, now! What’s that sound? / Everybody look what’s going down!”

much love & peace,


What do you think has led to the demise of the “timely” artist? And if he or she does exist, then why hasn’t the “timely” artist gained more mainstream exposure?

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23 comments on “What Ever Happened to The Timely Artist?

  1. T.S. Bazelli says:

    “It’s like artists are part of humanity’s digestive system” I never thought of it that way, but it’s a great analogy. When it comes to writing though, I think we can’t help being part of the times and showing that in our writing (at least in mindset, worldview), because everything we write comes out of us who have lived it. Unfortunately publishing is a slow business, and novels take a long time to write. It’s a slow medium.

  2. Nik says:

    Hey, Ollin. I’m new to your blog but I really like the topics you address and I totally agree with what you’re saying. There aren’t that many books that really address the issues of our current times. I was once told I was too young to say this and I didn’t know what I was talking about (I’m 21) but I’ll go ahead anyway.
    I really think one of the main reasons for books that address our current climate is that we’re sort of stuck in this MTV-era, where only the trendy material will sell. I once heard an agent that she didn’t care about what issues a book addressed and that all she wanted was a good story. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, of course you need a good story, but I guess if a writer (especially for an unpublished one like me) writes something that addresses a tempestuous earth than a paranormal romance novel, I’m much more likely to stay unpublished.
    After learning about how agents and publishers want something that’s commercial, I’m afraid to say that I’m much more cautious when I’m writing a book than the days when I would just write whatever was in my heart.

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks Nik! I’m glad you agree. Yup. You hit it right on the head. We’re still stuck in 80’s and 90’s where there was not much of a big issue to talk about and all we needed to do is go out, go party, have sex, drink, etc. But this is not that time anymore. Most people don’t even have the money to go out to the club or buy a bunch of bling. So the music industry is just out of touch. But that’s just one example.

      I know the ladies from WriterUnboxed talked about making a commercial idea on wed, and although I like having different opinions expressed on my blog, I’m fine with disagreeing. I saw write from you heart. Whose to say that story won’t sell commercially?

  3. Amy Buchheit says:

    As a professional visual artist, I don’t see this. There are many artists who may produce one type of work in general, but who produce at least occasional pieces of socio-politically inspired work. It just might not be getting the attention that other work does.

    My current series includes both personally and social-politically inspired pieces, but even before that, when I was making more meditative work (which is what *I* needed to be producing at the time), I produced occasional bold pieces ties to environmental issues I felt I needed to speak up on. These got very little exposure because they were rarely accepted into exhibitions. Its not that they weren’t being made, they just weren’t being seen.

    I have recently been in exhibitions that spoke to the criminalization and marginalization of different races and a Multicultural Symposium that included an art exhibition and lecture series on race issues faced today. Neither of these exhibitions were as widely advertised or attended as say, the Portland Love Show, which some artists generate work for with the specific intent to sell. (Is that bad? No. And it isn’t the same as shows that target issues.)

    I do want to speak to the comment that artists are “just” caring about their wallets. My question to you is … what other profession do you know of where people are expected to do something that isn’t going to make them any money? While I agree it is important for artists to speak about our times, I think it is ridiculous to think we shouldn’t be thinking about the business aspect of things. We need to eat, pay our bills, pay for everything it takes to remain an artist. (I wrote a blog series recently called “Why Does Art Cost so Much”? that speaks to this)

    So though I would say that visual art speaking to specific world topics isn’t as widely seen, I respectfully disagree with the overarching statement that artists are not producing this type of work any more. At least in the visual field, it is being done. It just may not be being seen. And honestly, without the opportunities for the work to be seen, why would artists produce it en masse? The point of visual art is to communicate with the public. They aren’t communicating if it isn’t being seen. (While the internet is nice, it needs to be seen IN PERSON for full impact).

    • Ollin says:

      Hey Amy,

      Thank you so much for this. I love it when my readers help me clarify my point. The truth is I was not very clear, what I meant was MAINSTREAM artists. Which, now I realize, should have been specified.

      In fact I address the issue you are talking about, in fact almost exactly in the way your phrase it in my post entitled: Is The World Dreamerphobic?

      I talk about how real artists are out there doing really great work and addressing the real issues we face, but the problem is that they get ignored for who I call the “the entertainer.”

      But thank you for the very illuminating comment. I, too have good friends who are artists doing this kind of real impactful work. But I’m not sure an artist should sell their soul just for commercial purposes. I really don’t, so that may be where we disagree.

      • Amy Buchheit says:

        I don’t think we disagree at all on “selling their souls”. There is room for artists to make money doing what they love, saying what they say. Sometimes, they may want to produce something for fun, that may be commercially successful and I say, why limit oneself to having to *always* do something serious and heavy? That would, in my opinion, suck. And, when I say that we need to concern ourselves with the business aspect of things, I mean we do need to look at how to say what we need to say, yet make enough money to be able to keep doing what we are doing.

        Any professional needs to concern themselves with the business aspect of what they are doing. It doesn’t mean they are selling their souls. Just that they want to stay in business. If you look at my work, I would doubt you think I am selling my soul. And yet I am concerned with the business aspect every day. Marketing. Looking for my niche. Looking for ways to get the work out, and ways yes, to sell the work. But I do the work, THEN worry about selling the work. That is not selling your soul. When you do the work specifically to pander to the market and it isn’t what you are passionate about? That could be said to be selling your soul. There is a big distinction.

        I appreciate your willingness to converse on the topic! 🙂

        • Ollin says:

          Oh, on that point we certainly do not disagree. I completely agree with you. Of course! I love a good engaging discussion. I think blogging is great, because I get to clarify my point in real time for you guys.

  4. Amy Buchheit says:

    I would also like to point out that artists have been banding together en masse to support worldwide issues such as the earthquake in Haiti and what is currently happening in Japan by donating their work or large percentages of the sales of their work to relief efforts. I myself am donating between 50-100% of the sale of my work through March 30th, 2011 to the Red Cross. Other examples of this can be seen on ArtInfo, under the article “Artists and Galleris Around the World Band Together to Send Japan Earthquake Relief.”

  5. Thanks for the interesting perspective, Ollin. While I can’t speak for visual artists on this, as far as writing goes, timeliness appears to be thriving. I think of The Bookseller of Kabul and Three Cups of Tea, of Nickled and Dimed and How Starbucks Saved My LIfe. Not to mention the blogosphere.

    Money may play a larger role now in artists’ work, as they realize they don’t have to starve to be legit. But, for writers at least (and I realize I mentioned all non-fiction titles–but there’s a ton of timely, thought provoking fiction and poetry as well, and not all aimed at the eventual TV movie contract) social commentary is still alive and well.

    • Ollin says:

      I disagree. Don’t you ever wonder: where’s our generation’s Bob Marley? Where’s our Buffalo Springfield? Where’s our Chekov? Where’s our Brecht? Where’s the guys who not only talked about what was going on but influenced what was going on in a big way?

      I’m talking about when artists were artists, you know? No one could mess with them. Everyone saw them not only as artists but prophets, and geniuses, and leaders of movements.

      Now all we got is T-Pain and Stephanie Meyer. If there are really great artists out there, then maybe the better question is: Why isn’t the timely artist getting more mainstream exposure?

      I guess I’m on my own on this one.

      • Amy Buchheit says:

        “Why isn’t the timely artist getting more mainstream exposure?”

        That is an excellent question, Ollin. I am finding that the public is generally a few years behind in accepting the work I produce. For example, the environmental pieces I mentioned from when I was doing the more meditative series? They were rejected and sneered at by many, even when they *were* finally exhibited, in the year I made it. People opened up to the ideas more about four years *after* I created the pieces. My current work? The public is just now starting to warm up to the series, which I started in 2006.

        I think there is a connection between this lack of acceptance in while a topic is timely and media saturation. With the Internet and 1,000 blinkin’ television channels in addition to the paper and radio that used to be the main media sources, there is too much information for people to absorb. So much, that people shut down, not wanting to see/hear another thing about that topic, or anything else that might be construed as negative. They want some peace.

        For that, I cannot blame them. The news puts such a negative spin on most things nowadays in order to get and keep viewers, its not even funny. When our local news station (KGW) did their latest snow coverage for the Portland Metro area, people were sending in suggestions for the name of the coverage. The station tends to call snow storms (mild and infrequent as they usually are here) things like “Icy Winter Blast” and run coverage non-stop through most of the day. People are so fed up with the ridiculous, fear-based coverage, they were sending in name suggestions like “Snow-pocolypse” to give the station a hint to get a clue that it is only snow, NOT the end of the world.

        Another reaction people get is to become desensitized to what is happening around them. I think this is also due to overstimulation and negative, non-stop news coverage.

        This is just my take on things, I’m sure there are many other possible answers. I’d love to hear what people think on the matter. 🙂

  6. This post, and, especially, the comments so far, are right up my alley 🙂

    My book will come out in May and, though fiction, it specifically addresses our global, intertwined crises.

    I’m going to feature quotes from this post and its comments tomorrow morning in my blog, as I make my own comments on this issue.

    I love stirring up purposeful thought…………….

  7. Ollin, I think a lot of artists are in hiding. They are in hiding in schools (homeschooled, public, or private). They are hiding in businesses. They are hiding in supermarkets. They are hiding in farms. As the world continues spiraling into the recesses of darkness, more and more artists will come out with a desire to speak the truth even if this costs them. Thank you for firing the first salvo to rally the troops.

    • Ollin says:

      What a beautiful way to put it. And you are right.

    • Amy Buchheit says:

      Another thing is … many artists felt forced to retreat back to “regular” jobs because of the economy. An estimated 50% of professional artists have quit to return to mainstream work due to the downturn in the economy hitting the art community particularly hard. Perhaps their voices will return as things stabilize and improve over time.

  8. Marcia says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post and I just really like the way you write, but I have to disagree. I have a neice who teaches high school art and has won awards for her timely messages. Each year she involves her students in a year-long project…this year it was to create a movement called Stop The Hate, Spread The Hope (STHsquared) to stop cyber bullying among teens. One year she had her students take an old pair of jeans and cover them with fabric in an artful form in order to promote the ‘repurpose/reuse/recycle’ theme and to communicate with other art students around the world. Her students jeans traveled the country to different museums. Her projects are inspired and give the kids hope for a better future because they are taking part in shaping it. So, if there’s one high school art teacher helping her kids speak to the world here in upstate NY, there must be others.
    What I do agree with is that the power to create a catalyst for change is in every artists hands.

    • Ollin says:

      See, but why doesn’t anybody know about this? Maybe this is the problem of just a really out of touch and irresponsible mainstream media, that does not cover any positive aspects of society and only focuses on the negative?

      Thank you for enlightening us, Marcia!

    • Amy Buchheit says:

      That is *awesome* Marcia! Tell your sister to “rock on”! 🙂

  9. Conor Ebbs says:

    Hey Ollin,

    I think it takes courage to put present problems to page, particularly when you risk alienating a lot of people, including those closest to you.

    It has taken me some time to realise that the truth must out, and the risks must be taken, if progress is to be made and we are to see ourselves in mirrors of clear reflection.

    There is a move towards transparency and accountablility in the world, and this more than ruffles feathers. It changes the game. Those who thought they ran the game realise people power can tear their towers down.

    It’s coming Ollin. Let’s light the path.


  10. […] Four days ago, I read Ollin Morales post, What Ever Happened to The Timely Artist? […]

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