3.20.2014

Do Artists and Writers Have a "Duty of Care"?

In terms of not just democracy but of caring for others, for their well-being and happiness, does an artist have "duty of care"? If you're a writer, whether fiction or non-fiction, whether a contributor to a paper or a blogger on the Net, should you be concerned with the moral value of what you write?

David Putnam thinks you should. See here:




He's talking about the media but he makes it clear that it applies to artists and writers too.

Personally, as a writer, I'm totally convinced he's right. Injecting a cause in story-telling isn't necessary of course, but it is desirable. It is part of "duty of care".

One striking example has recently come up: a reality show on MTV, "16 and Pregnant", a huge hit since it came out in 2009, had the remarkable effect of slowing down teenage pregnancies, a scourge in the United States that, among developed countries, has the highest birthrate rate among teenagers (American girls are ten times as likely to have a baby as Swiss girls, and twice as likely as Canadians). Nicholas Kristof just wrote about it in the New York Times (see here) attributing the remarkable slowdown experienced in the US to that show and its several spin-offs.

It is proof that if you inject a cause into a good story, and people enjoy it and start to think about it, your cause will be given a strong boost. It works better than any policy or educational measure. In the case of teenage pregnancies, it has proved to work better than sex education and condom distribution. 

This said, I would like to add my grain of salt. I notice that artists - especially contemporary artists - love to attack society and highlight what's wrong (just about everything if one is to believe them). Of course, who can disagree, so much is wrong with our society...

But continuous bashing doesn't get us anywhere. Ditto for writers. The trouble is that intellectuals who are most effective at bringing down society, who come up with the most convincing (and damning) arguments are those who sell the most.

It's as if people LOVE to hear in detail everything that's wrong with our society. They buy those books, they buy the art.

But what about coming up with answers? Solutions to the problems? 

Personally, I see that as a crucial part of the "duty of care" - if you only attack and destroy, you're not really doing your part, only the half of it. Of course, to offer solutions is a lot less exciting than coming up with criticisms and it is also much more complex...It doesn't make for easy-to-read articles or books, it doesn't perversely titillate the reader the way a book with a negative message does. 

Just one example to illustrate what I mean: think of the Euro and the construction of a United Europe. It's a lot easier to damn the Euro and laugh at the notion of a United Europe than to propose a solid European Union building strategy. 

Alas, the criticism is easy to come up with and sells easily...No wonder that one third of the electorate across Europe dreams of nothing than a return to national currencies and a shutting down of Brussels. Yet, those millions of people who feel that way (for example, those led by Beppe Grillo in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France) have no real understanding of :
  • the complexity of the situation: you can't give up the Euro without engineering a depression that will make the Great Recession look like kid's play; or 
  • the political stakes: do we really want to return to a pre-World War II political situation? Have we all forgotten how easily wars are waged in Europe??
To sum up: a negative message sells better than a positive one. Intellectuals, artists and writers, as a result, are tempted to convey negative messages that threaten the very foundations of society...all the while, claiming for themselves "duty of care".
Your views?

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