Instruct & Delight

photo by Sarah W. Newman

On the website for The Sustainable Practice in the Arts, Robert Adams was asked, “What part does an artist play in society.” This was his answer:

First we have an obligation simply to be the citizens we want everyone to be – informed, engaged, reasonable, and compassionate. Then as artists we are called historically to a double mission, to instruct and delight, to tell the truth but also to find in it a basis for affirmation.

With this in mind, it is interesting to look at this year’s finalists for the prestigious Prix Pictet – a $100,000 award described as “the world’s leading prize in photography and sustainability.” When it comes to such vexing global problems, it seems extraordinarily difficult to fulfill Adams’ “double mission.”

Yesterday a friend of mine, Sarah Newman, sent me a link to her Kickstarter Project: Imaging Sustainability. Sarah’s plan is to photograph the sustainable urban landscape of Malmö, Sweden. She writes:

Here in the U.S., renewable energy is often kept outside of the energy-consuming cities – making energy production (and consumption) less visible in our landscape and in our consciousness. In Malmö, I will photograph green architecture and design, and people within the community, while conducting independent research on environmental and social sustainability.”

By showing us what the sustainable landscape might look like, Sarah is providing a valuable service. The challenge, I think, is to fulfill Adams’ double mission – to both instruct and delight.

I hope you’ll join me in supporting Sarah in this effort: IMAGING SUSTAINABILITY by Sarah W. Newman

4 Replies to “Instruct & Delight”

  1. Over on the LBM tumblr I’ve posted a couple of quotes from a fantastic interview by Tobias Wolff (here & here). There is a wonderful section near the end of the interview that relates to the post above:

    I N T E R V I E W E R

    Do you think writing, being a writer, is a socially responsible way to spend one’s life?

    W O L F F

    Is writing a socially responsible way to spend your life? Writing fiction? Man, that is a question I haven’t been able to answer to my satisfaction. I can answer it, though my answers always leave me a little uneasy.

    I think of it this way. I was changed by literature, not by cautionary or exhortatory literature, but by the truth as I found it in literature. I recognize the world in a different way because of it, and I continue to be influenced in that way by it. Opened up, made more alert, and called to a greater truthfulness in my own accounting of things, not just in my writing, in my life as well. It did that for me, and does that for me, and no one touched by it in this way should have any doubt of its necessity. Yet we writers do doubt, constantly. It’s one of the conditions of our employment. Poor us. Poor us because lucky us—we have the leisure to devil ourselves with questions like this.

    I N T E R V I E W E R

    What about politics?

    W OL F F

    You want to ask me if a writer has an obligation to write politically?

    I N T E R V I E W E R


    W O L F F

    Some writers obviously feel that they do—that we all do. But what they generally mean, I think, is that one should promote their particular political vision. I doubt if most of them would be enthusiastic about, say, The Turner Diaries. Something isn’t better because it’s political—the politics can be as bad as they are good. And they often have the effect of making fiction programmatic, to use a word I’ve already used too often.

    But there’s another way of thinking about politics and writing. Go to the Greek root of the word, polis, which refers to a society, in the sense of community rather than state. When writing gives a picture of the community we live in, it’s political. To return to Chekhov—Chekhov was criticized on all sides for not promoting various revolutions, not espousing specific theories and theologies and causes, but the essential humanity of his work, and its lack of interest in orthodoxies of various kinds, enabled him to give a picture of his community that was often highly critical and challenging to its self-conception. That is political writing, isn’t it? Though not generally what is meant by that term.

    And the most radical political writing of all is that which makes you aware of the reality of another human being. Self-absorbed as we are, self-imprisoned even, we don’t feel that often enough. Most of the spiritualities we’ve evolved are designed to deliver us from that lockup, and art is another way out. Good stories slip past our defenses—we all want to know what happens next—and then slow time down, and compel our interest and belief in other lives than our own, so that we feel ourselves in another presence. It’s a kind of awakening, a deliverance, it cracks our shell and opens us up to the truth and singularity of others— to their very being. Writers who can make others, even our enemies, real to us have achieved a profound political end, whether or not they would call it that.

    A little bit later he says:

    I respond to something gracious in the writer. That doesn’t mean nice, or kind, or consoling, though it can have that effect. It has to do with a certain courage and verve and even sense of play in facing things as they are. If there’s no grace to be found in things as they are, then you’ll have to find it in things as they aren’t, and you know what Yeats wrote about that: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.

  2. The Wolff interview is fantastic – thanks for posting it. Love what he says about music at the end: “Think of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, or Kenny Barron and Charlie Haden’s Night and the City. To the extent that I can feel the presence of grace—the operation of some kind of grace in the world—I often feel it in music like this, where the words God or revolution or even soul are not to be heard. And what does music accomplish, after all? Can it be said to offer a plan for improving us, can it be said to give us new political visions, can it be said to make an argument for this or that faith? No. It is a good purely in itself, and that is a sufficient justification for its existence.“

    And then there’s this timely gem, when he’s talking about people who have given him advice & encouragement over the years: “…as you go on in this life you become aware of the folly of thinking you did something all by yourself. We’re held up by others all along the way.”

    btw, went to a house concert last night featuring your Minnesotan compatriot Nancy Harms ( – exquisite voice! Must be something in the water there that produces wonderful talent!

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