Do writers have a social responsibility in their works? Or should art always be for art's sake?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am mistrustful of the term “social responsibility” because it sounds like Big Brother setting guidelines for creative people to follow—not just writers but composers, painters, and all artists. That is what the government did in the former Soviet Union. They had artists living in fear of the Gulag, and that is hardly conducive to creativity. I have always disliked the term “Art for art’s sake” because it suggests people like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley reclining on cushions and eating grapes. Here are a few quotes I have saved over the years.

All who think cannot but see there is a sanction like that of religion which binds us in partnership in the serious work of the world.

Benjamin Franklin

Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.

E. B. White (in The Elements of Style)

To uplift man’s heart; the same for all of us: for the ones who are trying to be artists, the ones who are trying to write simple entertainment, the ones who write to shock, and the ones who are simply escaping themselves and their own private anguishes. Some of us don’t know that this is what we are writing for. Some of us will know it and deny it, lest we be accused and self-convicted and condemned of sentimentality, which people nowadays for some reason are ashamed to be tainted with; some of us seem to have curious ideas of just where the heart is located, confusing it with older and baser glands and organs and activities. But we all write for this one purpose. This does not mean that we are trying to change man, improve him, though this is the hope--maybe even the intention--of some of us. On the contrary, in its last analysis, this hope and desire to uplift man’s heart is completely selfish, completely personal. He would lift up man’s heart for his own benefit because in that way he can say No to death.

William Faulkner, Foreword to The Faulkner Reader

Your question is thought-provoking. I don't know the answer. Maybe I'll come up with one later. My instinct is to say that a writer should be free to write as he pleases.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

How can art ever truly be only for art's sake? For, does not the artist imbue his creations with something of his soul, regardless of his intentions? French philosopher, critic, and writer Denis Diderot observed: 

The truest history is full of falsehoods, but the romance is replete with truths.

Glorious architecture sets its beauty upon the land for all to view and enjoy, yet without intending to do so, architecture is, according to Victor Hugo, the first form of writing. In his novel on the Gothic cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), Hugo writes,

Poets, in the guise of architects, gave flight to their thoughts and aspirations in flying buttresses and towering spires.

Great literature often unintentionally affords readers the recognition of profound truths about themselves. As Emerson notes,

In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. 

Certainly, the works of Chekhov and Shakespeare have provided us with great insight into what lies behind the hearts of men. In fact, the renowned Shakespearean critic, Harold Bloom, considers Shakespeare Sigmund Freud's first teacher. Of course, there is often something of the pedant in both of these authors as they do teach audiences.

By their "trade," writers give form and expression to those unformed ideas that lie dormant in others. This act is art for art's sake, but art, by its essence, instructs us all and records its history. 

aespinoza71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that the question (and answer) is a highly subjective one.  There are various instances across the disciplines of art, history, and even science and medicine, in which the writer has taken a stance that is in his/her own mind is a socially responsible one, and yet such stances have not withstood the test of time as to the ethic and moral climate in which the work is later read.  

"Social responsibility" is a product of the time and culture.  For a writer to conscientiously reflect this standard in his or her work, he or she might have to then consider how his/her message would be interpreted years or generations from now, and make decisions about the work accordingly.  Even then, there could be debate as to how that work would be interpreted regardless (think religious texts, or the U.S. Constitution, works that might easily be considered "socially conscious" in their intention).

Does that mean that a writer should disregard social responsibility altogether? I don't think so.  After all, the growth of our species is due to a sense of social responsibility (albeit misguided sometimes).  Just remember that what is socially responsible for one may not necessarily be socially responsible for another. 

meet247 | Student

Well,frankly speaking it depends on what kind of a writer it is. A fiction writer for example may go to any extent or levels without caring about the social responsibilities, whereas a non-fiction writer has to be under limits. But this IS NOT the RIGHT THING TO DO. The main problem or issue to be addressed here is the TARGET AUDIENCE; the expected readers. If they are a mature group of people, then social issues and responsibilities may be and can be neglected. But if it is a bunch of people who are not old or mature enough to accept a wider thought or opinion or if they do not have a complete understanding of subject under discussion, which may very well lead to misinterpretation, then in this case it becomes a socially necessary for the writer to address issue accordingly and with his own sense of social responsibility.

Broadly speaking, following factors affect whether the social responsibilities should be considered or not:

  • Type of Writer
  • Target Audience
  • Type of Content