“This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” a friend told Toni Morrison in a fraught political moment, “not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!” Is this true of every artist, and must it be the case all the time? Great art and true democracies are built on freedom of expression—but when it comes under threat, are artists who don’t respond acting irresponsibly? Can artists shield themselves from the demands of politics and polarized discourse or—in places and periods where activism puts their life and liberty at risk—from bodily danger? Does all their work, in a moment of crisis, have to address that crisis? And how can they know when that moment has come?
Two women artists—social-practice artist Suzanne Lacy and photographer Catherine Opie—discuss the role they see themselves, their work, and their peers playing in sustaining, enhancing, or even strengthening democracy when it feels like everything is going up in flames.
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