The Role of the Artist in Society

Tuesday, November 15, 2016, 7:00-9:30pm

Think and Drink with the greatest minds in the world! 

Watch Video HERE


Alex Atala is chef and owner of the acclaimed D.O.M. restaurant in São Paulo. He draws both inspiration and ingredients from the Brazilian rainforest. Known for using native plants and proteins such as piprioca—an aromatic root—black rice, pupunha palm heart, and Amazonian ants, he is also a prominent environmental activist. In 2015, Atala received the Michelin Guide’s top ranking as the best chef in Brazil. He founded the ATA Institute in 2015 to raise consciousness about native Brazilian ingredients and environmental issues related to their growth, distribution, and consumption. The Institute also works to create a more reliable, livable income for Brazilian farmers. Atala is featured on the second season of the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table.


Azar Nafisi is best known as the author of the international bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which electrified its readers with a compassionate and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran and how it affected one university professor and her students. Reading Lolita in Tehran is an incisive exploration of the transformative powers of fiction in a world of tyranny. The book has spent over 100 weeks on the the New York Times bestseller list, has been translated into 32 languages, and has won diverse literary awards. Nafisi is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC, where she was a professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature, and taught courses on the relation between culture and politics, as well as directed the Dialogue Project & Cultural Conversations. 


Eli Reed began photographing as a freelancer in 1970. His work from El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Central American countries attracted the attention of the elite international collective Magnum Photos in 1982. He was nominated to the agency the following summer and became a full member in 1988. In the same year, Reed photographed the effects of poverty on America’s children for the film documentary, Poorest in the Land of Plenty, narrated by Maya Angelou. Spanning the 1970s through the 1990s, his book Black in America includes images from the Crown Heights riots and the Million Man March. Reed has lectured and taught at the International Center of Photography, Columbia University, New York University, and Harvard University. He currently works as Clinical Professor of Photojournalism at the University of Texas in Austin. 


Nancy Spector is the Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Brooklyn Museum. During more than 29 years at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, including the past decade as Deputy Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator, she is known for her radical innovation in award-winning exhibitions and public programs. Spector has presented artists Felix Gonzalez Torres, Matthew Barney, Richard Prince, Marina Abramovic, Tino Seghal, and Maurizio Cattelan at pivotal moments in their careers. She is the recipient of many awards, including five International Art Critics Association Awards, and a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award for her work on YouTube Play, a Biennial of Creative Video. 

Moderated by


Philip Govrevitch has been a contributor and staff writer at the New Yorker since 1995, reporting from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States on topics ranging from genocide to cold-case homicide to the music of James Brown. He is the former editor of the Paris Review and the author of three books—The Ballad of Abu Ghraib/Standard Operating Procedure (2008), A Cold Case (2001), and We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1998), which won multiple awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award. 



What is the artist’s role in society? It is that of a lover. Precisely, the artist carries on a lifelong love affair with society. Artists’ lives – the examples they set – stand as supreme wagers. The glory is high when the gamble succeeds: Hugo’s funeral attended by millions; the universal adoration accorded to Shakespeare and Tolstoy. But when it fails, the penalty can be fatal: Chatterton in his garret, Hölderlin’s madness, Tsvetaeva’s suicide. What passion comes without danger?

I love, therefore I am. Here stand Dante/Beatrice, Petrarca/Laura, Ibn ‘Arabi/Nizám, Beethoven and his Immortal Beloved.

Artists adore, plain and simple. They idealize, romanticize, chastise, lacerate, self-lacerate, lie, envy, lust, cheat, mock, dare, dream, redeem, rejoice, create, destroy. Which one of us hasn’t aspired to ardor? In their intensity, artists are often – are usually – labeled irrational.” They lose themselves; they live in extremis. Society deems it the artistic temperament.”

Artists love, therefore they create. Above all, they create. Their performance of creation – of love – is an act of worship. That is why they aspire, first and foremost, to beauty. And they aspire, first and foremost, to truth. They extend for the rest of us the boundaries of what is possible, and set, thereby, the aesthetic standards of the age. Think of the Moorish achievement in Andalusia, the Italian Renaissance, the Romantic championing of Nature.

At their most sublime, artists are nameless, faceless. All that matters is the work itself, a thing of spirit, an act of devotion. Glorying in anonymity, medieval artists erected temples, sent domes soaring into the sky, raised arches, shaped plane surfaces into gravity-defying bows and arcs. They carved stone, baked mud, cast metals, wove textiles. Pure mystery of creation resides in the thousands upon thousands of intricately patterned carpets, the hundreds upon hundreds of geometrically precise tiles. This is artistry at its most magnificent, a matter of sheer awe, the masterpiece sans attribution. It’s a thing of beauty comparable to the divine.

And some artists do straddle the world like gods. They create worlds that we are granted permission to inhabit. They become Homer, they become Firdausi and Goethe and Tagore; they raise us to passion, their creations more real than reality itself: think of Sheherzade, Arjuna, Hamlet, Anna Karenina. Think of Lear’s madness, Faust’s temptation, the wrath of Achilles, Raskolnikov’s despair. Artists bear witness; they suffer, and we suffer with them. So Goya and his Los Caprichos, Akhmatova and her Requiem, Shostakovich and his Symphony No. 5. But if the insights granted by truth disturb, the remedy is (also) art. We escape into beauty. We seek out Mozart’s sonatas, Renoir’s colors, the love poems of Sappho and Rabi’a, Rumi and Donne. We seek solace in beauty, we seek refuge in art. It’s what artists do: they offer sanctuary, shelter, harbor. We are consoled in our distress by their – infinite – compassion. Their generosity consoles us in our infinite solitude.

We find, alongside Dickinson, infinity in finitude. We open a book—and lose ourselves. We close our eyes, and the music sinks into us. We open our gaze and enter a canvas. Here are The Walnut Trees of Altenburg; The Pine Trees of Rome; The Apple Trees Near Vétheuil. We sit in the night café in Arles; we drink wine with Hafez in Shiraz; we walk with Basho across Japan. We become – if only for an instant – someone else, something else. We journey elsewhere; we journey inside. We are haunted, we are hunted, art re-invents us, re-imagines us, we are liberated. We learn, we learn to live, we learn – believe this – to love. "... nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small – Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton ... as vivid as spectres – the air swarmed with Catherines ...”

For, in the end, I am – you are – we are all Heathcliff. "The mysterious way goes inwards. In us or nowhere is eternity, with its worlds, the past and the future ...” So Novalis. Long after the Appassionata has faded, the final silence of Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 111 inhabits the earth.

Art teaches us to feel differently, it moves us out of ourselves into a different world. So Rilke, after viewing the archaic torso of Apollo: "You must change your life.” The artist’s role is to inspire change—in the individual and in society at large. So Dickens convinces parliament to free child laborers; Turgenev inspires the Tsar to liberate the serfs; de Beauvoir shines an unsparing light on the oppression of women. For true artists love society to distraction.

Their duty is to transcend the historical moment in the quest for something better. Their responsibility is to educate. Their obligation is to inspire. Where society trains the passion out of us, artists teach us to disobey. Great art restores us to passion. So Brecht sings Antigone’s advent in our world: "Come out of the twilight / and walk before us for a while, / friendly, with the light step / of one whose mind is fully made up ...”

Artists dream of resistance to the oppressiveness of their times. They draw on their wellsprings of inspiration to reveal the secret known to all artists at all times, that there is a difference between the ineluctable laws of nature and unjust social orders which, created by human beings, can be dismantled by them as well. So artists throw down their challenge: "A nous deux, maintenant!”

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya is the author of The Gabriel Club, The Storyteller of Marrakesh, and The Watch.