Joseph Conrad, The Role of the Artist

Joseph Conrad in his preface to ‘The Nigger of Narcissus’ (1897) explores the role of the artist, the practice, and the definition of art. Conrad suggests that reflection should be the muse of high art, as he glorifies the importance to “….compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look , for a sigh, for a smile…”. While it is a noble aim for any artist to hold the mirror back to society through their work, I believe Conrads’ ideology was heavily influenced by the contextual landscape and is as much a social commentary as it is a foundation of artistic practice. As industrialisation revolutionised the western world, modernist movements were characterised by the deliberate departure from traditional modes of thought, and the re-examination of every aspect of existence. In his preface, Joseph Conrad reflects the social progression of the time as he suggests the artist must remove themselves from the anxieties of societies endless forward momentum, or the distraction of the “distant goal” to truly appreciate the beauty of the present. In Maria Popova’s essay on The Value of Art (2011), she advocates Joseph Conrads concept, suggesting it is the role of art to contemplate and reflect, believing “This is the power of art: The power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness.”

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Food for Thought: A beautiful quote by Leo Tolstoy, in his essay “What Is Art?”:

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity