Why Art is Important
Lately I've been grappling with the idea of myself as an artist. Art, when boiled down to a proper Merriam Webster definition, is simply, "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."
Given the broad nature of this definition, art can be almost anything. Art being emotionally powerful is not only incredibly important, but inescapable. Humans are emotional beings, and art is the outward expression of our inner selves. We are, by nature, pure and messy, incomprehensible and lovely, and art somehow captures this. The reason I personally have trouble labeling myself an "artist" is because I've not produced a magnificent/wildly successful artistic work. However, Katerina Gregos, in THIS TEDx talk, argues that most art isn't on display in museums or bought by billionaires walking the gold-gilded halls of high society. Most art is produced by "normal" individuals who are socially and/or politically engaged, because art is inherently social and political. Not only is art from our peers more common, but it is more powerful, more tangible in our social circles, and better able to influence those around us than high-brow art created for and curated by millionaires. This is not to say that one is better than the other, but simply that each have their place. Art, and artists, are everywhere, you just have to look.
My personal favorite form of art is poetry, a literary form so old that historians cannot agree when poetry was first practiced. This quote from the Dead Poet's Society is a succinct summation of the importance of poetry and art as they inform the human condition,
"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
The sentiment that art is at the core of the human experience is not a new idea. Leo Tolstoy said, “Art is the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others." Art fosters empathy, helps us appreciate beauty, expands our worldviews, and enriches our depth of emotional understanding. Art helps us make sense of the world we inhabit. Art can be selfish or selfless; it is free, unabated expression. Art makes us human.
Van Jones created this graph (below) to represent human society and the role of art in it. He argues that society is driven by the powerful elites, the dependent masses, government, and cultural producers/artists. I found this to be an easy visual guide to explain how art directly guides and impacts the worlds we inhabit.
On the left, there is action. On the right, ideas. Elites are at the top, the rest of us are below. There's an inside act and an outside act. On the inside, elites spent huge amounts of money influencing politicians and policies for their own benefit. On the outside, the masses (non-elites) have the power to influence policy by our sheer numbers and cultural influence. The left side (action) often results in quantifiable policy changes while the right side (ideas) are just as important, but less quantifiable. Sometimes, the "heart" of the masses is stronger than the dollars of the elite, in part because of art.
Have you ever purchased an item, voted a certain way, or experienced an emotional reaction because of something you saw or heard? Maybe it was a song, a movie, a speaker, architecture, a painting, or a book. There are seven, concrete, recognized functions are art, originally delineated by Alain De Botton and John Armstrong, in their book, Art As Therapy. They are:
1. Memory: Artists preserve reminders of memories and the associated emotions. Sometimes, they record memories of memories, illustrating the depth and richness of the human mind in its ability to create sense and order in a world that often seems devoid of sense.
2. Hope: Art reminds us that there is beauty in the world. It connects us to other people who have experienced similar struggles, helping us feel less alone and more connected, i.e, more hopeful.
3. Sorrow: Similar to bringing us hope, art validates our sorrows, helping us understand our pain in relation to the pain and/or experiences of others.
4. Balance: We gain balance through art by taking a moment to observe, judge, or appreciate things we don’t normally notice. We learn to respond to new ideas with an open mind.
5. Growth: Art urges us to empathize with situations that we haven't personally experienced. Emotional, mental, and spiritual growth are all aided by art.
6. Appreciation: Buddha said, "You have no cause for anything but gratitude and joy." Art helps us appreciate the value of ordinary elements of life that we may otherwise take for granted. Appreciation is the mother of joy.
7. Self-Understanding: Perhaps the most intimate benefit of art is that it fosters self-understanding in ways that nothing else can. By examining our own thoughts and ideas, we come to a greater understanding of not only ourselves, but those around us.
P.S. One of my favorite books about creating art is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It completely transformed my conceptualization of creativity. Find it for $12 on Amazon.