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One of my neighbors is a doctor. He has spent almost every day of the past year at the hospital, administering care to COVID patients. A member of my book club is a public-school teacher, and her work seems to grow more complicated every week. Another acquaintance owns a restaurant, and she continues to struggle to keep her staff employed. I told a friend about these people, and how awed I am by their courage. She is a painter, and I asked her if she feels that her work as an artist is courageous. She emailed back, “It’s hard to think of it that way when I compare it to Big Courage.”

What does it mean to be a courageous artist? Does your art have to put you at risk? Does it have to make a contribution to society? If it is focused on self-expression, can it still be considered courageous? When I’m intrigued by a thorny subject, I like to ask other people their thoughts. So I contacted a selection of creative colleagues and posed this question: What, in your life as an artist, was your most courageous act?

What, in your life as an artist, was your most courageous act?”

Courage and the unknown
Mary, a photographer, answered without hesitation. “I was asked to be in a show, and I decided to present new work that was very important to me.” But there were huge hurdles, especially technical unknowns for printing on large-scale, multilayered pieces of silk fabric. She wrote in her email, “I did not have the software skills to achieve the desired effects I envisioned.” Nor did she know how she would hang the work. She was also worried about the content, which was still raw: Would people get it? An added stress was introduced when the exhibit date was moved up. “I was close to breaking out in hives.”

I asked how it all turned out, and she wrote back, “It came out great.”

Courage and disruption
Tanja, another photographer, has had numerous large solo shows. She is frequently invited to participate in art fairs. She’s grateful for her success, but her ongoing concern is the injustice of the gallery system, especially for women artists and artists of color. Even successful artists who have museum shows are typically barely compensated. “When,” Tanja asked, “did we learn to be grateful for not being paid?” She is actively working on making her art accessible outside of the conventional gallery structure.

But she continues to have unresolved conflicts. “I’ve always had one foot in, one foot out of the establishment,” she said. “It’s hard to rock institutional boats. I still want validation, but I’m feeling uncomfortable.” Courage, for her, means taking a stand. “It would absolutely be an act of courage to not be in art fairs.”

What, in the end, is courage for, if not to protect freedom?”

Courage and self-knowledge
We often witness courage as acting in response to the present moment: an adrenaline-fueled confrontation with adversity. But courage can also be the result of awareness gained over time.

Monique, a painter, described an experience in her career that she had not previously identified as courage. “I had an instructor who told me, ‘You must have self-confidence.’ I didn’t have it, and I couldn’t figure out how to get it. After a decade of this struggle, one day I simply said to myself, ‘I won’t have self-confidence, but I’m not letting it stop me.’ It was a defiance of the message. I off-loaded the huge boulder.” With that, she removed a ten-year impediment.

I asked my friend Jai, an art historian and a keen observer of artists, for her perspective. She wrote, “Courage is accepting that you are not Michelangelo and (after a deep sense of failure) being OK with that. And still, you continue to work.”

Courage and authenticity
At the beginning of the pandemic, Andrea, a multimedia artist, was addressing COVID-related themes. But when winter set in, she began a series that was more introspective. She wrote, “This is more about emotional sanctuary, even survival, if I’m honest ... and I’m cutting myself some slack given the circumstances.” She described this decision to pursue internal rather than external exploration as one of her least courageous. But for me, her response was one of the most courageous I’d heard. And her commitment to pursue authentic self-expression helped me to find mine.

Art making encompasses vulnerability and personal exposure. It requires prolonged devotion to challenging, honest and un-self-censored work. Artistic courage sits alongside Big Courage; together, they sustain a population’s well-being and freedom of expression. Because what, in the end, is courage for, if not to protect freedom? ca

© 2021 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.

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