Art, Courage, and Risk — by Donna McNeil

November 9, 2011

I was so touched by Donna McNeil’s address to the Juice Conference (a conference about the creative economy that took place in Camden, Maine), that I got her permission to print it here.  She began by showing a film clip of Phillipe Petit walking on a wire between the twin towers in New York.

. . . Petit’s action resonates as a quintessential metaphor for risk . . . He embraces the unknown, finds invention and discovery, his own invincibility, and, if you will, his divinity. He gauges, then laughs at fear, conquering it with exuberance, exhilaration, defiance and joy. . .

Artists are some of the most courageous people I know. They live in RISK, resonate with it, use it. They choose a life that provides virtually none of society’s safety nets and they deliver a product that is so taken for granted, so impregnated within the fabric of our everyday, that it has become like air. Abundant, everywhere and often expected to be free.

I ask you to close your eyes and imagine for a moment a world without the work of artists, without music and theatre and film and literature and paintings and dance and design and architecture or transcendent performers like Philippe Petit. We assume an enlivened culture will happen because artists simply can’t help themselves.

As a nation and a world it is imperative to prioritize and perpetually invest in beauty as a reflection of ourselves. We need to value the gifts artists bring to our quality of life and potently, to our understanding of ourselves, others and society. We need to invest in a sector that can contribute to the solution of problems and to the creation of the next original idea. We need to invest in a sector that can make our engineering beautiful. Steve Jobs built an empire on that concept.

Further, we need to invest in a sector that is courageous enough to take a hard look at the issues of our age: war, debt, poverty, anti-intellectualism, bias — and offer a mediated engagement toward solution, through the language of beauty. Artists, those risky souls, eschew paychecks and health insurance and at times even respect and comfort to live life on the edge of discovery. They find and deliver beauty and truth. A venerable trade off.  A RISK.

Conversely, to live a locked and gated life in the mind or the marketplace is an insecure security. A physical and fiscal death. You create nothing. Your air is recycled, stifling; you keep your peas from touching your mashed potatoes.

What happens if you don’t take risks? What if you live your life carefully, safely? What do we mean when we talk about calculated risks? What is growth and what is stagnation? How does one balance prudence and productivity? What is progress and what is entropy? I am certain that throughout the conference you will have the opportunity to think about and discuss this most fascinating topic – to reflect upon how it fills or voids your own actions – and how RISK manifests the generative force behind all innovation and growth.

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