This brief essay is a response to a question I get a lot, most often from young men and women just starting college, but a question I feel is worth dedicating some time to:
Why does art matter?
Think for a moment about the world around you. Your immediate surroundings. A chair, a monitor, a bookshelf, desk and a settee. But because of artists, like those who line our bookshelves, each dusty volume is a portal into the world of the author. And their unique magic takes us back to their time and lets us look at the world through their perspective, through their eyes, the portal being that of the entering of another mind. As the character’s enter John Malkovich’s head in Being John Malkovich
I want you to think for a moment about the world around you. The immediate world; the world of bookshelves and desks and an old fireplace, and an old stolen Hotei Buddha by the grating. And on the manlepiece, a hundred or more books, each in some branch of philosophy more dull than the last, lot’s of ‘ologys’ – phenomenology, ontology, gynecology.
Think for a moment: how much of what you know to be true about the world is largely in part to dedicated to historians and their information hoping to communicate the complex ideas of history through the formal language of bookkeeping. But the preservation of a culture through numbers will never give the humanity to the past necessary for us to empathize. The preservation of culture and the communication of ideas are noble goals, and both should be encouraged. But there is a different side to art — therapeutic, fulfilling, and has the effect of refining us.
The preservation of a culture is one of the most noble, if unintentional aspects of art; forever framing a quaint scene, say a flower underneath a thunderstorm alone in a field of long dead flowers; something that might otherwise be unnoticed by someone in too much of a hurry to appreciate the, celebrating in the simple, day to day occurrences which, when stripped of routine, spring back to life with a unique, infectious youthful abandon. Think also, how little the world would know of the world if not for the preservation of ancient documents, the Bayeux Tapestry, the holy books of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. All of these messages were thoroughly communicated through art long before the art of the spoken-word sermon became popular in post-Reformation society, beginning, perhaps, in the Dutch Republic, where artists such as Rembrandt and
Think for a moment how little we know about the beliefs and histories of foreign cultures without the spread of art, through the Celebration of the Dionysia to the works of Sophacles, Euripides, and Aeschylus Without artists, we’d have little knowledge about the rest of the world and the cultures of which it is comprised. The world our own eyes would never (or could never) find in our own lives. It gives us new perspective, and not only that – but new eyes, the eyes of the artist, with which we view the totality of the world and vastness of impulses and feelings that comprise what academics and philosophers call the human condition.
We get firsthand accounts of experiences otherwise out of range of our daily lives. We may now look at a sky in 19th century Amsterdam with the same tumultuous passion as Vincent van Gogh, seeing it pulse and breathe and come alive with natural magic.
We can live vicariously through following of great heroes of legend and myth. We can experience the mystical and transcendental in the reading of Buddhist Sutras and looking at the art, learn from the preserved cultural wisdom in The Dhammapada and other Eastern Philosophers, such as Laozi, Confucius, Chuang Tsu, and new perspectives and experiences give rise to new understanding, and understanding, with time, becomes wisdom.
Very little in our life can provide the same emotional consolation and intellectual stimulation provided by art. We can experience the far off vistas of ancient Arabia through the Arabian Nights, and follow the adventures of the great hero Sinbad. We can learn about the political climate of ancient Greece through the writing of Plato and Aristotle, which gives us a healthy historical breadth of view in our consideration of the modern world. We can use Proust’s eyes to look at the political and emotional upheavals in France in the early 20th century through his great work In Search of Lost Time. We can look at the intellectual climate of late 19th century Russia through the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Turgenev.
We can also cast off the shackles of realism by taking ourselves off to worlds of absolute fantasy, such as in the works of Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. We can still bring back valuable lessons from works of high fantasy, lessons just as valid in our own world and daily lives, the kind of lessons we absorb as children when we might otherwise be unaware of their intentional instruction. We learn best when we’re unaware someone is intended to instruct us, as we are naturally hesitant to cooperate with someone we know to be attempting to teach us.
Art is valuable in traditional religion in the West as well. Our view of the Christian faith is highly reliant on works of art, the artwork of the Renaissance for example, which served to communicate complex ideas in a way that might not be readily obvious. During the Protestant Reformation in England, the great religious paintings were being whitewashed, dismissed as vulgar and profane.
The argument offered by the Protestants was that all a Christian needed was the Word, the Gospel Truth in black and white. And yet for the millions who couldn’t read, in Catholic Rome for example, the mysteries of the Gospel and some of the more complex ideas about mercy and consolation were just as effectively communicated through the paintings of Caravaggio and architecture of Bernini as they were through the printed King James Bible. There is consolation and catharsis in art, with each painting and novel being unique guides toward our moral and intellectual education.
Art serves us in many capacities, but perhaps most importantly is its capacity to allow us to use new and interesting ways to examine the human condition in all its forms, through all of time, and through science fiction into the future. It lets us become more complete people by understanding the nature of other peoples and their traditions more completely. An artist’s education is never over, as one always seeks to attain ever greater glimpses of larger truths only apparent when looked at from afar.
Outside of its moral and intellectual capacity, art also serves as a means of preservation. We may have lost crucial information about history, as well as our biological and cultural heritage, if not for the intense work of preservation artists work to deliver to posterity. It is the basis of what the French author Gustave Flaubert called a sentimental education.
It refines us by demonstrating our own coarseness, it scandalizes us in a way that teaches us about our own ethical and moral compass, and it lets us begin to appreciate the most noble of philosophical goals: to know who we are and what made us that way. Art and philosophy go a long way towards answering the former question, and gives us the tools necessary for answering the latter.