The Artist as Visionary

“Sometimes I think that the artist is like a child who when he blows out a candle creates a hurricane, who when he cries causes a flood or who when he laughs illuminates this apparently incomprehensible world that adults agree to hide.” 

— Jaume Plensa

In this final piece in our series on the role of the artist – and our final piece for this year – we travel forwards. Our earlier pieces explored the artist’s role in helping us shape complex emotions, reveal truths, and contribute to democracy. In this piece, we explore the artist’s role in relation to the future – this is the artist as visionary (and despite what google might tell you, it has nothing to do with visionary art, but, by all means, have a look!).

When we speak of the artist as visionary we do not mean that they predict the future, rather that with the tool of imagination, they are able to draw futures beyond what many of us think possible. When we think of what the future might look like, most of us do this by relying on our past: what we know and what we have experienced. That means it’s restricted. Imagination helps us think of a future far beyond what we already know. 

Hermann Hesse said great poets don’t provide ready-made duties or doctrines for the future, rather they “feel into the future with the most sensitive antennas, and live out ahead of us, a piece of future development, and yet unrealised potential.” 

Because artists tend to be nonconformists, operating from the margins, with different perspectives, they also see patterns and make connections that we are too busy to notice. They might therefore imagine what may come of our actions – or inactions; and, in this way, their work can serve as a sort of warning.

Scholar Albert Murray said that it is the artist who first comes to realise when the time is out of joint, “[i]t is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even designates the targets.” 

Why is it important to imagine the future? If we can develop the skills to imagine a future different from what we have, we may perhaps get away from the limiting but paralysing state of mind which tells us that nothing will ever change. This can lead to tangible action.

There is currently an explosion of what is called Speculative fiction, in literature and film, which can be anything from fantasy, horror, and science fiction, to post-apocalyptic fiction and magic realism. The commonality between all these is the idea of speculation: asking ourselves ‘what if?’ While this form of fiction has been around for millenia and includes the likes of Mary Shelley, Orson Wells, or Margaret Atwood, recent themes are increasingly concerned with climate related disasters, dystopian technological futures and post humanism. 

One science-fiction writer whose impact is growing is Octavia Butler, who was one of the first Black female science fiction writers ever to be published (starting in the 1970s). One of the reasons she started writing was because when she looked at the existing male-dominated stories about the future, she never saw herself in them. So she wrote herself into her stories. For her, it was important that people think about the world they want to live in and develop the skills necessary to make it in such futures, including being able to adapt to change.

Often referred to as the mother of Afro-futurism, Butler wrote cautionary tales that would show us what might happen to our work if we carry on, with underlying themes of nature, race, gender, identity and politics. And the problems she addressed, she insisted, were problems with individual and collective solutions. 

Her writing has even led to a movement of those who call themselves Octavia’s children. They are writers, thinkers, scholars, and activists, who see Octavia as a leader, a guide, and use her writings to guide movements for social change. For them, Butler’s writing is visionary fiction; a form of fiction we can use to imagine and prepare for a future together and to generate the ideas we want to see more of in the world. 

“Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction. Organisers and activists struggle tirelessly to create and envision another world, or many other worlds, just as science fiction does,” adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha write in Octavia’s Brood, a collection of science-fiction and social justice movement stories.

And it’s not just activists who use science-fiction to inform their work. I learned a few years ago at a tech conference that science-fiction writers are regularly hired to advise on what the future may look like by all manners of industries: from the military, to fashion houses, to tech companies, all seeking help in imagining how humans may evolve and behave in the future.

So this is an invitation: because how many of us can – or want to – imagine ourselves living in a future built by the likes of Elon Musk? In the words of Arundhati Roy: “The system will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling… their ideas, their version of history, their wars… their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We may be many and they be few… Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Where do we go from here? In this second year of this illustrated journal, we shared a series of insightful guest contributions, we had beautiful conversations and we aimed to clarify our role as the Rights Studio. In order to do that, we simplified, we defended being maladjusted in a sick world, we declared rest a form of resistance, we slowed down, we learned to see with new eyes, and we got lost

We end this series on the role of the artist as a way to broaden our understanding of the role of art in striving for a better world, one that moves beyond cosmetic exercises to transformative and co-creative movements. These processes, we hope, will help clarify what we see as our responsibility to the world. 

We will be back in late January with new offerings, including a series of collaborative gatherings and more writings. Until then, we leave you to ponder what your responsibility might be with the wise and beautiful question from Indigenous scientist and writer, Robin Wall Kimmerer: 

“Asking what is our responsibility is perhaps also to ask, what is our gift? And how shall we use it?” 

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

See also: An Imagination Crisis / Will we be Monsters to Future GenerationsWorking with Impossible

For references and further resources, visit our inspiration page.

Meet the Artists

Jaume Plensa is a Spanish visual artist, sculptor, designer and engraver. He is a versatile artist who has also created opera sets, video projections and acoustic installations. With the romantic manifesto that art has a tremendous capacity to change the world, Jaume Plensa keeps creating bridges between humans, poetry and art. His sculptures and installations redefine the rules of our interaction with art, reclaim the public space, and raise questions of introspection to awaken the plethora of information we unconsciously hide within. [more]

Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962) was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. His best-known works include Demian, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game, each of which explores an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. [more]

Albert Murray (1916 – 2013) was an essayist, critic and novelist who influenced the national discussion about race by challenging black separatism, insisting that the black experience was essential to American culture and inextricably tied to it. Murray was one of the last surviving links to a period of flowering creativity and spreading ferment among the black intelligentsia in postwar America, when the growing force of the civil rights movement gave rise to new bodies of thought about black identity, black political power and the prospects for equality in a society with a history of racism. [more]

Octavia Butler (1947 – 2006) was a renowned African American author who received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award for her body of work. She was the author of several award-winning novels including Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. She was acclaimed for her lean prose, strong protagonists, and social observations in stories that range from the distant past to the far future. [more]

Arundhati Roy is an Indian author and essayist, best known for her novel The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997 and became the best-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author. She is also a political activist involved in human rights and environmental causes. Frequently outspoken in her criticism of political developments in her home country India and around the world, Arundhati Roy has proven that politics and fiction do go hand-in-hand. [more]

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. [more]