The Necessity of Art

“In order to correctly define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and consider it as one of the conditions of human life. …Reflecting on it in this way, we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of effective communication between people.” – Leo Tolstoy
In the age-old debacle of priorities, the arts are typically the first thing to go.

On the surface, the solution seems clear-cut. The arts, people argue, have little to no practical application in “the real world” and are as useful to education as flowers are to a construction site. The arts exist to give the world beauty, to give false meaning to an otherwise meaningless life, and nothing more. They siphon resources from our nations youth and devour precious time that could be spent more constructively in adults. Therefore if one must choose between the practical and the nonsensical, the arts must perish to save our society.

Not only is this a fallacy, but a dangerous assumption as well. I find it concerning that not only are our nation’s leaders and school officials falling prey to this line of thought, but so are our parents and children.

This is a “hot-button” issue for me, as I have seen the results of this fallacy in action all my life. “But what’s the big deal?” you’re probably asking me. “What’s the worst we would lose if we phased out our focus on the arts?”

We would lose our sense of freedom and independence.

The beauty of art is in how liberating it can be. Art can only be art if it forces us to question our world, ourselves, and our motives. Rather than viewing the recipients as vessels in which to fill with knowledge, art challenges the recipient to change his perspective and discover things on his own. Art challenges him to learn because he wants to, not because we are told when and what to learn. As he realizes that the feeling he has obtained after learning on his own is a rush of pure unadulterated freedom, he wishes to return to its source to learn more. Without the arts, we are left with people who see education as a drudgery and people who cultivate the idea that ignorance is bliss, because in a world without the arts, it is.

We would lose our sense of self-respect.

I believe that God, when commanding Adam to name all of the animals on earth, was teaching him how to breathe the breath of life that God had breathed into him. He was teaching mankind how to create. I experienced this idea firsthand when I discovered that I had a gift for writing. I remember the day that I completed my very first lengthy work of creative fiction. I wasn’t prompted and it wasn’t assigned to me. I read and reread it over and over, wondering where it all came from. At the time it was still a mystery, but the message was very clear. “You created life in the mind of the reader. It feels good doesn’t it?” Yes, I said. Yes it does. “Good.” was the reply. “Now apply what you’ve learned to your own life.” Dabbling in the arts teaches people that they have the power to create. It teaches people that they have control over their lives and that they can be whoever they so desire with a healthy dose of work, dedication, direction and creativity. Predestination, fatalism and Darwinism are medieval ideas that have no place in a truly developed society but continue to exist in a world where the arts are ignored.

We would lose our voice.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” Art gives a voice to the voiceless and rebuttal to the defenseless. People who are weak as politicians, bodybuilders and warriors find their strength as writers, painters and musicians. These people shape our world every day, whether we believe it or not. Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, exposed the working conditions and sanitary atrocities of the meat-packing industry and brought about reform. The early impressionist painters of the nineteenth century shifted the focus of beauty and brought respect back to the commoners. Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci brought about a return to classical form, architecture and education. German composer Ludwig von Beethoven not only inspired the romantic era of music, but also the shape of all music to come. The Bible is considered, even by non-believers, to be one of the greatest works of art of all time, and the voice of its writers long passed away is still strong and still influences the inquisitive to this very day. “Why do you readily accept what people say about you just because of their social standing?” says the arts. “You have a voice too!” Without this voice, however, the world would be a bleak setting indeed.

We would lose our sense of fellowship.

People, even ones that come from the same communities, are different. We all come from different worlds and different regions. We may not completely understand each other communicating on our own terms, but art is a universal language. Even in marriage, the closest of human companionship, the experts agree that the most fulfilling marriages are the ones in which husband and wife challenge each other every day. Even people that can’t speak the same language (or speak at all) can understand art, and art is not created in a vacuum. When art is created and shared among people, we not only learn about ourselves, but about other people as well. This is one of the reasons why it’s always fun to go to art museums in groups. “Who do you see?” we are really asking as we ask them to read a book or listen to a piece of music. Their answers never cease to surprise us. Suddenly, conversation moves to something deeper and it in itself becomes an art. Otherwise, we would be left with idle chatter and small talk devoid of meaning. Nothing would ever get accomplished, would it?

The truth is that we need art. Terribly. The creation of art is something that separates us from animals. Animals can’t comprehend it, but it is alive for us. It is just as relevant now as it was when Europe was emerging from the black death to greet a new dawn, and ignoring it or worse, cutting it out for the sake of more “practical” pursuits, is not only foolish but self-destructive. What do we have if we don’t have art? We have a society that is blindly marching toward a cliff and neither realizes nor cares.

What is just as important as teaching our children math, vocational skills and physical fitness is teaching them how to create. Otherwise, we are robbing them of their true potential. Think about that next time your child’s school wants to cut the funding for the band program instead of the athletics department.

They can solve equations and run a pass, but can they communicate?

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