Whether by default or design, artists change minds. It’s an unavoidable part of what they do. Some artists are aware of this and make it their purpose to change minds in particular, deliberate ways. Others are seemingly oblivious to the consequences of their art and blunder forward, issuing all kinds of unintentional statements, inadvertently. Most, I think, are both aware of the power wielded, but not always cognisant of the true reach and effect of their work. It can be hard to predict. You don’t know everybody in your audience. There’s no way of knowing who they are or what they believe.
One of the more obvious ways that artists change people’s ideas is through the medium of song. Lyrics, especially protest song lyrics, meld with emotionally affective sounds to introduce ideas into people’s consciousnesses, when they are most receptive to them. Sure, the music is seductive and the lyricist is, in some senses, sneaking the ideas in while you have your doors of perception wide open, but isn’t that what really happens? Pete Seeger, John Lennon, Jackson Browne and Roger Waters all knew the power of putting an idea into a musically appealing package. It works.
Writers, in particular, are artists that can and have written some compelling, thought-changing works. Think about George Orwell’s “1984”. This book spawned an entire vocabulary to speak about totalitarian states and their subtle, seductive power to infect and subjugate entire populations. There is a disturbing parallel, in fact, between the power of art to change minds, in the hands of artists and the misuse of this power by tyrants to alter the minds of others for their own dark ends, through the calculated manipulation and subversion of language, music and imagery – the same tools available to artists.
If you read Shakespeare’s Richard II, you will find, even today, a work so resonant and lucid about the mechanics of power and influence, that you can immediately see obvious parallels in your own time. A work like this stands the test of time because it has uncovered the essential. Taking one example of the thousands possible, Kennedy was assassinated for largely the same reasons that Richard II was deposed. It was accomplished in largely the same way, by agents acting for the same sorts of people, for very similar reasons.
If you think about the message Shakespeare was delivering, when it was first aired, the play tells the audience (and leaves them in no doubt) that the divine right to rule of Kings is a fraud, that our rulers are made of the same flesh and blood as we are and that the monarch on the throne, at that time, was descended from illegitimate usurpers. Could there be a bolder, more risky act of sedition by a playwright? Of course, in those times, one could be summarily and publicly humiliated, tortured and ultimately executed by the State (i.e. Crown) for the very suggestions that form the backbone of the play, but we have the work today and we know that the author was not brutally and violently punished. The truth was some form of protection. People’s minds were influenced, arguably limiting the monarch’s scope for retribution. Thus, the seeds of republicanism and of the United States constitution lay in the questioning of the divine right of Kings.
Artists, particularly visual artists (e.g. painters, sculptors) help us all to see differently by demonstrating new and unexpected aesthetic pleasures to many, while simultaneously challenging and outraging those unwilling or unable to change their aesthetic values in response to the new works. Today, impressionism as an art movement, is widely loved. In its day, however, it was barely tolerated and savagely lampooned. The word “impressionist” was coined as a pejorative – like “dauber”. It was a word loaded with implications of lack of skill and a blind inability to see the inferiority of their own works. It was a patronising term, implying that painting an impression of a subject was far below the “real” work of artists, which was popularly thought to be painting a realistic, lifelike image of a subject.
By having the courage to make this new style available and by persevering, despite the vicious criticisms, the artists succeeding in changing our collective minds. New generations had to be born, while the old generation died off, but the children who knew only a world that included impressionist paintings, since their births, had a much different perspective and opinion on the matter, than did their forebears. To the children, impressionism was as if it had always existed. From the point of view of their relatively short lives, it always had. Not only is impressionism now admissible, it’s highly valued and prized. Despite this, there are still those that cling to the old ideas of painters as human, photographic cameras, as if this purpose were ordained by some higher authority in the matter. Some ideas are extremely stubborn and hard to shift, like indelible, intellectual stains, I suppose.
We’re all story tellers and shapers of our culture, but artists, with their training in the means of conveying a story, tend to do more of that than most. We have the power to set the agenda and change the Zeitgeist, whether we like it or not. Through our acts of communication, which is what art is, if it is anything, we can profoundly affect what happens and what will be. We are changing people’s minds, all the time. The Zeitgeist movement is a case in point, in fact.
That said, it can be exceedingly hard to change minds. Some people put up a lot of resistance to new ideas or different ideas. They feel fear in their guts, when their established, comfortable world view is in any way challenged. It’s as if they will lose all hope of survival, if their mental model of the world is shown to be false. Up until very recently, people thought that exacting random violence on children was essential to make them learn and keep them within what was considered the decent bounds of moral respectability. We now have evidence not only to the contrary, but that corporal punishment inflicted significant emotional and psychological damage on these children, who grew up to perpetuate and amplify that violence in every sphere of their adult lives. We’re still reaping the consequences of the childhood abuse.
In some parts of the world, even today, women are regarded as chattel and as second class citizens, unworthy of having a political voice, their own money or any decision over their lives and destinies. Some of the women, thus subjugated, believe in this doctrine wholeheartedly, too. These ideas are very resistant to change. We used to have many of the same ideas about slaves. Yet, we know that in countries where women are permitted to vote and have their own destinies and lives, civilization has not come crumbling down, despite what fundamentalists would have you believe. Some minds cannot be changed, even when presented with unarguable, hard evidence.
As an artist, when you try to change minds, you’re up against it. The odds are daunting. You are up against entrenched ideas, sacred cows, tradition, psychological inertia, advertising, corporate and political propaganda, the lingering effects of education, prejudices, bigotry, chauvinism, the alleged word of God, mystical beliefs, fantasies, Hollywood, a lifetime of messages designed to make you think a particular way, suspending critical thought and systems of finance and governance that don’t want you to figure out how they work, for fear of exposing the fraud and the fraudsters. You’re likely to be confronting and challenging something big, expensive and elaborate, that has required constant reinforcement, so that the status quo remains beneficial, if not wholly lucrative, to somebody that doesn’t wish to be challenged on the matter or even identified as the beneficiary. What can an artist do, when faced with this resistance? I think the answer lies in an engineering idea – impedance matching. Impedance matching is transforming the signal in such a way that the receiver provides the lowest impediment to its reception. In other words, the message needs to be modified in such a way that people are willing to accept it, or at least to consider it. Propagandists have known this for almost a century, but ordinary artists can do this too, provided, I hope, that they do so with a positive intention, rather than a destructive one.
To a writer, matching the impedance can mean changing the language, the style of writing or the characters in the narrative. For a painter, it’s placing the message inside lovely colours, compelling perspectives or delicate tonal balances. Musicians wrap their messages in harmonies, counterpoint and lush timbres. Every artist knows how to match impedance, but they need to do so without distorting their message beyond recognition. In making these modifications, something is invariably lost, unfortunately.
The thing is, you can take impedance matching too far. It can be exceedingly easy to appeal to existing, popular prejudices and to amplify them. If you aim to change minds, but instead wind up simply endorsing existing ideas, you’ve failed as an artist, to my mind. Everybody can whip up a mass storm of indignation if you tap into the things that people already believe, whether or not those things are right. The press and big media have made a handsome living doing precisely that, for decades. But is it the right thing to do? I doubt it. I remember the author of “A Clockwork Orange” expressing his regrets for having thoughtlessly knocked this thing out in a few weeks, as a lark. Now he’s stuck with it and posterity will remember him by this one act of sinister, violence amplification. What a terrible legacy to bear. Don’t become the next artist with a regrettable legacy.
I think in all of your artistic work, you need to find a way to let the truth prevail. Art ought to be about revealing deep, long lasting truths, in my view. As I mentioned earlier, Shakespeare’s Richard II reveals the truth about power even to the present day. That, to me, is quite an artistic achievement.
When a company goes to market with a new design (arguably, something with a high artistic or creative content), they face many of the same impedance issues that anybody with a story to tell does. This is why Apple employed people that were known as evangelists. Their role was to go out into the world to tell and retell the Apple story, in opposition to the accepted orthodoxy, until people began to see that, like the story told to them promised, the new Apple product might be worth their serious consideration.
When it comes to futurists, particularly in the high technology sector, I wonder how much futurology is actually about somehow sensing early what is going to happen anyway, without anybody’s influence and how much of it is telling a story about the future so compelling, that it causes everybody to either consciously, or unconsciously, work towards realising the vision outlined in the story. I suspect there is a bit of both in operation.
For that reason, I think we need to beware the corporate evangelist. The story they tell is sometimes different to the reality. If you buy an Apple product, as I recently did for the very first time, the principle idea that “this company wants more of your money, primarily” is written into the very design of the Apple hardware and software. They work that way. They are unrepairable and iTunes wants your credit card details before it lets you have any of the free stuff used to tempt you in. Far from being the wonder benefit that will instantly transform your life for the better, the actuality is of a company that wants to behave like a leach, bleeding you of money at every minor opportunity to do so. These devices are not solely for your benefit. These devices are intended to go into the community and feed on your wallets, repeatedly and perpetually, returning the spoils back to head office. But that isn’t the story that Apple’s evangelists tell. They tell a wholly one-sided tale, where everything ends happily and you live as the hero for evermore, secure and safe because you have an Apple device.
Artists and their art are often pressed into the service of propaganda, specifically because they are adept at changing minds. Think of the Soviet Realists and what they were supposed to accomplish. Think about the Nazi denigration of the free thinking, authority challenging artists that Hitler branded as “degenerate” and their degenerate art. Here, the purpose was to clip the wings of artists, that otherwise might have put ideas into the minds of the masses that were diametrically opposed to the ideas the Nazi party wanted to instil in the populace, through its own films, broadcasts, live rallies, flags, bunting and uniforms. Those uniforms were designed by artists too, you know. The designers at Hugo Boss made them. It may even have been Hugo himself. Of course, the Hugo Boss company doesn’t like to talk about the reason it became a successful company, I suspect. It is hard to argue against the proposition that advertising and propaganda prostitute both art and artists alike.
As an artist, what you think is crucial, because you will inspire and influence the thoughts of many more people. If you think terrible ideas, then that’s what you will bring into the world. If, on the other hand, you carry a more benign and positive outlook in your head, you might bring about that change in the world, too. The adage about being the change you wish to see rings true.
I read this article today, about the reasons for the complete loss of probity in the recent Barclay’s Banking scandal. I thought it provided some interesting insight:
The quote that stood out, for me, was that while “we all like to think of ourselves as good people, our ethical choices depend to a surprising extent on the choices we’re presented with at any given moment, as well as the people we’re surrounded by.” What that tells me is that artists need to be careful who they surround themselves with. If you belong to an artistic community that has a negative agenda, that’s what you’re going to express through your work as well. Choosing your artistic friends and collaborators profoundly influences the direction of the changes you bring about in your audience’s minds.
We’re all teachers, but we’re all also students. We consume art and ideas as much as we put them out there. Our minds are changed by other artists. You can tell when your mind has been changed, by something you have heard, seen or read. Suddenly, those who come to understand the new idea suddenly have the feeling that everything is still the same, yet suddenly they can see that everything is now very different, too. A switch in your head has flipped forever. You see what you always saw, but now your perceptions tune into other things. From now on, you can never not see the new reality. You’ve gone through the epiphany. Artists deliver epiphanies.
Be careful about what you think and promote, through your art. Others may take a thread from your idea and blow it up into something monstrous. An innocent, careless and seemingly witty jape can, almost overnight, become a movement capable of terrible atrocities. It’s out of the artist’s control, once it is affixed to its medium. The art, once produced, cannot be un-produced and it takes on a life of its own. It will continue to change minds, whether or not you denounce it, attempt to control it, try to smother it or disown it. I suspect Wagner, in his choice of subject matter, could not have imagined or foreseen how his music would influence and embolden the butchers of Auschwitz, the only privately run, for-profit concentration camp owned by a commercial corporation during the war. Orwell could not have believed that his novel “1984” would become a blueprint for tyranny, rather than a warning against it. You just can’t tell what twists and turns your art will take, so it’s important to weight the things you want to say, through your art, carefully. You will change minds.
From where I sit, I think artists need to be humanists first, above all else, or all is lost. If changing minds is inevitable, through your artistic actions, then at least strive to make your art uphold and edify humanity, rather than degrading it. That’s all I ask of you.