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Kurt Vonnegut on the Role of Artists in Society

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2018

In times of turmoil, it can be tough to feel like the work you do to support you and your family is also nourishing to society, if you’re doing “enough”. For artists and writers at least, Kurt Vonnegut had a compelling call to duty as messengers from the near future. As part of an address to the American Physical Society published as “Physicist, Heal Thyself” in the Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1969, the author wrote:

I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.

He said something similar in a 1973 interview in Playboy:

Writers are specialized cells doing whatever we do, and we’re expressions of the entire society — just as the sensory cells on the surface of your body are in the service of your body as a whole. And when a society is in great danger, we’re likely to sound the alarms. I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down into the mines with them to detect gas before men got sick. The artists certainly did that in the case of Vietnam. They chirped and keeled over. But it made no difference whatsoever. Nobody important cared. But I continue to think that artists — all artists — should be treasured as alarm systems.

(via nitch)