Why art matters.

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.

40 thoughts on “Why art matters.”

  1. So right on. Art got me through a lot of terrible times growing up. Nothing made me more happier than sitting by myself and drawing whatever I could get my hands on, whether it was old card board scrap paper or the back of my homework. I

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  2. This brings to mind an old wish of mine. I wish that libraries offered art prints to checkout. I wish our kids could put art on their walls for a time them change it out. I wish for the value of art to return to school and I wish elected officials cared more for education than just using it to get elected. Art reminds me that public servants should be just that, not professional salesmen. I wish more parents let/encouraged their kids to put posters all over their bedrooms. I wished kids could “check out” art as easily as a book. Oh yeah, they don’t visit libraries much anymore either. Maybe I should wish more basically – for paper and pencils for their bedroom. Great post today!

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  3. Yesterday my daughter sent me a conversation she had with her 5 year old who was coloring and doing his homework. She said: I love what you’ve done – it’s beautiful. He said “Thank. I’m into making beautiful stuff.”
    That’s a good place for a 5 yo to be.

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  4. Creativity is the essence of who we are…an inner tap that is always flowing. Learning the skills to fully enable it’s powers is no less important than math or science.

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  5. Great points on Art and its value to us. However, no need to disparage fortune cookies (an art form itself) and of course the ubiquitous self-help sellers, after all I value, deeply value “Creative License” and I can barely remember who wrote it, something about doing something before breakfast. I also remember that some libraries used to loan art, and there is at least one program out there that is promoting that. Great post Danny, you are a Master.

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  6. Well said. Life would be unimaginable without art and many don”t recognize that it surrounds them. I tried to say something similar, but you have a gift with words and expressing your thoughts.

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  7. Mary W: The libraries in my community in Wisconsin do have art to check out, including sculptures! And they have displays of local artists running on a monthly basis in a room adjoining the lobby. I have a favorite sculpture, “Tricky Patterboots” by Frederick George Roth, that I check out every time I see him (it’s a dog) on the shelf. He makes me smile.

    Another terrific post, Danny. I, too, will pass it on, especially to my budding-artist grandsons so they don’t lose the magic as they go through a life that does so much to negate these ideals.

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  8. Good morning Danny! I really appreciate you. I also appreciated this post. I could feel and see the picture you were painting. I appreciate your sincerity, your vulnerability and your depth and the care you have for people. Thank you for sharing you. >

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  9. I have fought for many years to justify my need to make art. You speak to all the reasons that is a false, unnecessary effort. Thank you for your observations and your eloquence.

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  10. This reminds me of a wonderfully written, heartbreaking scene in a book called Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, where a character just called ‘Madame’ has to answer an urging question of a former student. It goes like this: “Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that…If we’re just going to die, why all those lessons?” – “We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.”
    Bang on, I would say.

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  11. Great post and so true. Its easy to forget the value when struggling to fit it in to the day. Thank you for reminding me.

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  12. Damn Danny, you’re a poet, a painter and a very cultured man. I cherish what you clarify for us. I can’t believe that in one blog post you answered half a dozen thoughts and questions i had had about art for years. Thank you for that. I’m now a much more centered artist and it only took me 10 minutes to grow.

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  13. Danny,

    As an art teacher I find myself always trying to defend “Why Art Matters!” I think I have touched on all the reasons you have highlighted here over the years, but never so eloquent and quick. Thank you for the reminder of why I teach art in the first place and the validation to continue. My favorite is telling my students at the start of the year that “art feeds the soul.” They look at me like, “yeah right.” Then after the class year is over, they come back the next year to tell me how much they miss having art. That they cannot describe it, but they feel like something is missing. Then I get to say, “It’s art!”

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  14. Art is so important and I’ve only realised recently how much I need it in my life to actually really ‘live’ life. I’m using it to help me heal from my depression & anxiety and now can’t imagine life without it.

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  15. Thank you, Danny. I have been grateful for the many times your writing has made me laugh, and now am appreciating you sharing more from your deep Soul, your Self.

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  16. Danny I was moved by this blog. I wanted to cry for what “Art” has done to my life. Really glad how you explain it and let the world understand the meaning of art.

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  17. You saved my colleague and me from the doldrums of October teaching high school art. Thanks. I remember why we do this.

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