Arts & Entertainment

The Artist's Responsibility

Ken Burns

Lesson time 05:12 min

Film has the ability to bridge geographic, linguistic, and political boundaries. Ken breaks down the role of the filmmaker in society and their power and responsibility as an artist.

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Topics include: Lead the Audience Into Hell and Lead Them Out • Allow Moral Differences to Coexist • Unite Through Shared Stories


I believe it is the artist's responsibility to lead people into hell. But I also believe it's important to lead the way out. And I know I've had lots of disagreements with friends who are artists who don't believe it. It's just enough to show the hell. I don't believe it. I think that there are redeeming aspects to this horrific species that we need to constantly remind ourselves that we have the capacity for. We have to be as critical about ourselves-- more critical about ourselves than any one else. And we are never that. We like to think of ourselves as an exceptional people. And we are told over and over again how exceptional we are. Also we're also reminded by some weaker voices that our exceptionalism has often tripped us up. And I believe they're both right. Nobody, including the religions of the world, has contributed more than the United States government-- which is the whipping boy of most people in the United States, left, right, and center-- in terms of being able to create a Declaration of Independence, a Constitution, a Bill of Rights. This is a legacy of pretty extraordinary achievement. And at the same time, I'm willing to spend as much screen time describing the ways in which it has gone wrong. And I think it's important for everybody, as they begin their work-- as you begin your work-- to figure out how to balance the dark stuff. [MUSIC PLAYING] I feel, in my own films-- and I hope that you would in yours, whatever you would do, would have a multitude of perspectives. There's a huge point between demonizing and disagreeing. And that's hugely important to do. In "The Civil War," I demonized slavery, as it deserves to be. And I-- by extension, I demonized, I presume, those who sought to perpetuate it. At the same time, this was this institution that had been going on for centuries in the United States, and had a momentum of its own. I'm not apologizing it. It's nothing you can compromise away. It should end in one second and be done with. And we should begin to make repairs. But it didn't. And it's not going to do that. In the course of human affairs, interesting people populated both sides. And what I said was, here they are. This is what happened. And that you did not need to say, I don't need to listen. As we are now, today, in this area in which we-- we self-select for the news we get. We don't want to even hear what the other people are saying. I just said, that's not the way to understand. And I've kept that up in all of the films. We were able to tolerate the differences. It's not so much a dialectic. It's not an oppositional thing. It isn't one thing or the other. It's permitting both to co-exist. [MUSIC PLAYING] The great gift of cinema is its ability to cross geographical, to cross linguistic, and more importantly, to cross political boundaries. Now, it's not to say that a great film can't be made from a political statement. Our landscape is dotted with passionate films advocating ...

About the Instructor

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Ken Burns

The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.

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