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On Obligation

Do we benefit from obligations or do they hold us back?

By F+

Illustration by Hannah Sun.

Obligation is a weird concept. It comes in many different forms. Obligation can be defined by Webster’s dictionary as “the action of obligating oneself to a course of action.”

It can also be defined as “to bind legally or morally or to constrain.” These two readings bring vastly different connotations to the idea of obligation. Obligation is part of our everyday. We’re obligated to do our due diligence in this world, whether it is talking to people, working, paying rent, doing an assignment, writing an article about obligation, etc.

Whether we like it or not, many of the decisions we make as human beings are influenced by others. This is a form of obligation. Take something as simple as being nice to strangers: Some of us are nice and courteous to others based on wanting to make new friends and develop new relationships. Some people are nice based on how it would reflect on their reputation or they’re just being nice because that’s the way the world works — they follow what others tell them to do. Either way, it’s your actions are based on the influence of others. Whatever is the reason for you to be nice could determine who you are as a person.

Now that we all know what the term means, here’s the big question: is it beneficial?

Obligation in terms of assignments can be beneficial. When a professor assigns a project, a little part of me doesn’t want to do it because I’ve been told I have to. But, because I have no choice in the matter, I end up doing it. This helps me step outside my comfort zone. With certain limitations in an assignment, you develop a thought process for pieces which will probably come in handy when working commissions. You learn how to work within a time limit and what the client wants regarding the media used, how it should look, its purpose, etc. While all of us love making pieces of art every day, in terms of a career, it can be important to adapt to your audience, which can be summed up as an obligation as an artist to your respective community.

But this thought process would not be there, or at least would not be as developed, if it weren’t forced on us. However, this creative development should not only because our professors tell us to do something. It might have helped in grade school while we were still growing, mentally and physically. But as degree-seeking artists, we should have the motivation and the creative freedom to make pieces we want to make — not because it’s obligatory.

As an artist, the work we produce is almost always very personal to us, regardless of what it is. Most of us have figured out how to incorporate ourselves into our assignments through our college careers. And luckily, as students at School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), a good amount of us are granted enough creative freedom to do this. However, through obligation, many of us could be just making our artwork for our classes because we have to. Because it is forced, it takes away our motivation and thus we end up with something we are not as proud of.

Take our Core classes freshman year, for example. I think I can speak for the majority of us that there were many pieces, if not all, that we weren’t proud of. Through the obligations given to us by our professors, we had to make pieces based on a specific medium. Because we were constrained through what materials needed to be used, our pieces ended up being something we weren’t proud of. Within this context, are we not making art and learning new things because we want to, but rather because it is expected of us? What does that say about our work as artists? Are we more artists or are we students? While attending SAIC, you need a balance of both.

Without the obligatory commitments, as artists, I believe that we would learn how to motivate ourselves into being the best we could be. Our practice and our personalities would grow naturally rather than being forced upon us through obligations. We should do things because we want to, not because it is expected of us. Not just in the classroom setting, but everywhere.

Once that mentality of having to do stuff is turned off and we motivate ourselves, our work and our beings will continue to thrive and prosper.

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