Why art? Why do we make it, dance to it, sing it? Why do we decorate and embellish and accessorize with it? Why do we spend our money and time on acquiring and enjoying it?
Here are just a few reasons why:
Art teaches us. It shows us the consequences of potential action. Romeo and Juliet’s suicide. Madame Bovary’s rejection. Thelma and Louisa’s leap. Little Red Riding Hood’s discovery. Maximus’ sacrifice. These can be the lessons of cultural norms or the lessons of timeless morality, but art teaches us that actions have consequences.
Art allows us to live other lives. Whether swashbuckling villain or timid masochist, stranded astronaut or woman making bread in Vermeer’s kitchen, we can escape for a moment into lives we will never lead.
Art bypasses logic. Sweeping music, gorgeous color, graceful dance, all can bring tears to our eyes or a smile to our face. We find ourselves reacting – strongly – without even knowing for sure why. Perhaps some people live all the time with their emotions this close to the surface, but for many of us a plaintive violin melody or angry abstract splash of paint is needed to unlock those feelings.
Art is interactive and experiential. Whatever the artist intends to say, the experience is entirely in the hands of another. In live performances, the audience co-creates with the performers, sharing energy and showing their enjoyment through laughter, gasps and applause. (Hopefully all at the desired points.)
Art helps us to notice. Whether a deconstructed Picasso or whimsical Van Gogh, the crashing power of Beethoven or the tenderest whisper of Chopin, art reveals -and revels – in the details. It shows us what is beautiful in the terrible and terrible in the beautiful. It captures fleeting light and fleeting seasons and fleeting lives, exhorting us to pay attention too.
Art remembers. It drags us on to the battleground and the farmer’s field. It transports us to earlier times and fallen dynasties. It is a glimpse of what was, what might be and what always is.
* * *
As someone who enjoys art and as a professional fundraiser, I think about how the role of art will change as funding sources change, especially in schools.
No one appreciates all art equally. Perhaps for you driving down a country road with Tom Petty blaring on the radio is preferable to the Metropolitan Opera. Maybe you’re rather needlepoint than walk through a sculpture garden. Maybe no painting will beat the view from your front porch.
That’s OK. But I would challenge you to consider the role art plays and has played in your life. Did you love to draw as a kid? Take piano lessons? Do you cook dinner while listening to music or work out while listening to an audio book? Have you ever sat in front of a painting or stood in front of a building and just stared, noting all the interesting shapes and colors, wondering what the artist/architect was thinking when they added that detail or this flourish?
People have always and will always make art. Perhaps we are drawn to making and consuming art for the same reason we make babies… the relentless need to create something that will extend beyond our lifetime, something that future generations will build on as a foundation for their own creative expression.
Cut art funding from schools and gut the NEA and you will rob many Americans of the experience of watching a ballerina transform into a swan. You will create a generation of children with a limited musical vocabulary. You may allow cultural treasures to fall into distant memory.
But you will not stop us from making art. We’ll still be laughing at camp skits and building sand castles and stitching quilts and doodling on our notebooks. We’ll still be singing our babies to sleep and weeping quietly in the cinema.
Because art is part of being human. And no matter how broken or beleaguered or politicized or wrapped up in our own to-do lists we may be, we are always, at least, still that.
Grainy photo taken last night
right before the curtain raised on
the Oregon Ballet Theater’s performance of “Terra.”