In the midst of our collective concerns about the economy, terrorism, health care, and global warming does art really matter these days?
I know a lot of the standard defenses of art of course – it enriches our lives, it educates and entertains. True, but the same could be said of stamp collecting and crossword puzzles. Here’s the bigger question – what is the intrinsic value of art? In short, Does Art Really Matter?
It certainly matters to serious artists, who devote their lives to creating art. Some, like Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko and countless others, literally faced their own personal hells to convey an ultimate truth that is beyond all understanding and ultimately beyond the ability of human conveyance. Was it worth it?
Art seems to matter to all the scholars and teachers and curators who have devoted their careers to helping us understand and appreciate art sometimes in the face of a scornful and indifferent public. Why bother?
It seems to matter to the fund-raisers and the donors who give time and money to public institutions that preserve and exhibit art. Aren’t there more important causes?
Art seems to matter to collectors who purchase the product of artists’ talents. Aren’t there better ways to spend one’s money?
From my years as a gallerist I know art can have a strong emotional resonance with viewers. Once, while exhibiting a Matisse etching, I noticed a woman walk over to it and within moments begin sobbing out loud. I rushed to her thinking there was something terribly wrong. But, when I asked if I could help, she said she didn’t understand why but she just felt overwhelmed by the beauty of the piece.
Reflecting on the emotional power of art, I recalled one of the first things new totalitarian regimes do is round up artists and poets and decree that art must serve the state. So art must contain the ability to change minds and inspire freedom.
While some people consider art to be about things, it is only nominally about objects. It is about ideas and emotions expressed in paint or music or poetry. It is a conversation with oneself and others and aids our desire to come to terms with our humanness and ultimately, touch the infinite. Art can be as beautiful as a photograph of a shadow falling across a wall or as agonizingly painful as the tormented faces screaming in Picasso’s “Guernica”. [By the way, If you feel the connection between art and the infinite is too great a leap then read Joyce’s “Ulysses” or listen to Beethoven or stand before a Van Gogh – if you don’t feel connected to something larger than yourself, maybe you should consider a soul implant.]
So, after some thought, here’s where I stand:
Art connects us with the deepest human longing for meaning and our desire to touch the infinite.
That seems pretty important.
If finally all our politics are of no consequence and we lose the battle against our own worst nature and unleash the ultimate catastrophe upon ourselves; then arguably there were bigger issues than art. But I can envision the final person on earth tracing the shape of a flower in the dust as her last act of trying to communicate and as a cry against the impenetrable nature of what it meant to be human.
Perhaps then, art matters a great deal after all.