I think about art a lot. I look at it, I read about it, I make it. But why? What purpose does it actually play in my life? Why not focus on the Yankees or bow hunting or philately instead? These are reasonable questions so I decided to sit down and think of a few answers.
Pretty pictures. It’s common to downplay or dismiss beauty as a criterion for great art. We live in dark times, the critic says, and pretty pictures like Monet’s waterlilies and van Gogh’s sunflowers and Koon’s puppies aren’t relevant to our grim reality. Beauty is kitsch escapism and no challenge to the modern intellect. But that curt dismissal is ugly and wrong. We need beauty because, even in the grimmest times, it keeps us hopeful. Beauty gives us pleasure and we must always make room for happiness. Even through depression, wars, and tragedies, it’s still okay to respond to a beautiful face, a perfect rose, a catchy tune, a gorgeous sunset, a silly joke. More than okay, it’s human.
Art is real. And that’s more essential than ever. Because we suppress and distort so much in our culture. We fear death but can’t discuss it. We self-medicate rather than allow ourselves to feel sad or afraid. We bastardize nature. We celebrate fame and wealth and youth and ignore the wisdom of age. Art tells us it’s okay to let the mask slip. It’s okay to feel lonely. It’s okay to feel pain. It’s okay to feel impermanent. We all do. Art is not afraid to show the face of reality. And to say, “Everyone feels this way and has since the dawn of time”. That’s why the Egyptians made art about death and fear and loneliness and so did Rembrandt and Mozart and Hopper and Hemingway. Art says, “Pain exists. But we all get through it.”
Balance. We want our work, leisure, relationships, past and future, all in equilibrium. But that’s an illusion. None of us is sufficiently poised to maintain that balance for long, if at all. We are all distorted in one way or another, all imperfect, all human. Our lives are out of balance and so are our feelings. We may feel too serious, too trivial, too stressed, too controlled, too afraid, too old, too narrow-minded, too left, too right… Art lets us let it out. To cry in the movies where no one can see us. To be filled with heroic pride as the orchestra soars. To be soaked in adrenaline. To find a moment of calm. Art injects us with pure emotions we may never otherwise encounter on the bus or in the supermarket. It gives yin to our yang, Kirk to our Spock.
We are all freaks. The more normal we appear, the deeper we have hidden our truth. When David Bowie died, everyone stepped out of their personal closets to embrace him. Because art lets us all know it’s okay to be different. And besides, you’ve got no choice. We all harbor secret thoughts and fantasies and fears. Art hangs them soon the wall for all to see. And embrace.
Everyday matters. Our society celebrates money and fame. But the rich are no better than the other 99%. And the famous are by and large not role models, just cracked egos standing on a tattered strip of red carpet. But beauty is everywhere and art points it out for us. van Gogh paints his shoes and his postman, Warhol a soup can and a car crash. Pollack splatters house paint to show us the beauty of chaos. Rembrandt shows us the loveliness of his lumpy nose. Bacon immortalizes a side of beef. Artists show us the eternal majesty of trees and waterfalls, sagging breasts and smelting plants. While pop culture snatches back its fickle crown every news cycle, art shows us the eternal value of a simple lemon on a sunny kitchen table. Now, go, it says, look at your life and the riches it contains.
Valuable. I don’t go to church, mosque or synagogue. I don’t read Plato or the Tao. But art teaches me the things that matter. Explore the values that endure. Remind me of the legends that have passed down through time. These are crucial truths to guide me as I travel through my ordinary life, riding the subway, sipping my tea. Vital lessons that never go out of style like: Nature is to be revered. Humble pleasures are the sweetest. Everyone is significant. We are all connected. Hope is eternal. Bad things happen. The road bends. Life should be enjoyed.
Where else can I get these reminders? In fortune cookies and this month’s self-help bestsellers? Or in masterpieces that have endured because they embody and transmit our collective wisdom.
The history of art is the history of what’s important to us as civilization and as a species. That’s why we erect huge buildings to house and display these old pieces of cloth daubed with paint, why they are among the first things we must visit when we come to a new city. They contain the truths that we, as a civilization and as a species, know are to be treasured.
I believe in my marrow that art is not a luxury. It has been a crucial part of humanity since we told stories around the campfire and painted the ceilings of caves. Art is not just for intellectuals. Art is not just for museums or public television or vacations in Paris. Art is here to make us feel better and be better. To remind us of our humanity and our connectedness. To unearth and share our feelings. To remind us we are not alone. Art is forever and for everyday.