Does Art Matter?
Updated: Mar 29
Some questions are fundamental. As human beings, we have had art at least since the Lascaux caves. And twenty-thousand years later, art stubbornly hangs on. So the questions that must be asked: Does art matter? Is it necessary? Or is it something in the background that always seems to be there, that we take for granted like air? But between air and art there's a fundamental difference. Air exists. Art must be created. Which means that the creators must be taken into account. There's that trenchant saying: “Most people would love a Van Gogh on their living room wall. As to Van Gogh himself in their living room…” Art doesn’t just happen. Yet in a way, it does. The paradox of the artistic mind. They say that Marcel Proust, the great writer, used to spend large parts of his day having coffee at coffee shops, or grabbing a glass of wine at a café, or visiting with friends. To an outside observer, he must have seemed risibly idle and even frivolous. Those artists! But what the non-artist doesn't realize is the artistic process itself. While Proust was having his coffee or glass of wine or visiting with friends, his mind was working. His subconscious was busy with the problems presented by his writing. And later on when he returned to pen and paper, it was there, ready to come out unimpeded! They say that Mozart would realize music, rather than compose it. The symphony or opera would appear in his head, and then it would be a matter of dictation. And one of the reasons Leonardo didn't leave behind many paintings was that often a painting would appear, complete in his mind's eye, and the actual painting of it was redundant. To the artist, it's all about problems to be solved. The artistic mind is not content with assembly lines. To crank out the product is anathema and counter to the artistic process itself. And depending on the artist's imagination, this can lead to a marvelous exploration and realization of what happens when the human mind is given free rein, yet within the bounds of discipline, for the artistic mind is both unfettered and highly disciplined. Another paradox. Not everything is art. Yet everything can be art. That's where the exploration comes in, the discipline and discernment.
So do we, as human beings, believe in culture? Are museums full of paintings and sculpture a good thing, a sine qua non, even though we may seldom go to museums? A not irrelevant question would be, are untamed natural places necessary? Is the Brooks Range in Alaska intrinsically good—this pristine wilderness where few of the Earth's seven billion have ever set foot? The difference is that the natural places exist on their own. For them to continue, our responsibility is simply to leave them alone. Art, on the other hand, is the opposite. Artists are not these lofty meta-beings who like Breatharians, live on the ether and float on celestial clouds as they blithely pluck their lyres. Artists are down-to-earth flesh-and-bloods who struggle mightily with their calling. Who often are broke. Who are ornery and disagreeable and find it hard to exist in the so-called real world. Who are single-minded and driven, and addicted to their art as a drug addict is to heroin. And they also have come to realize their part in creation. What they must do within their individual discipline to allow art to emerge; to flow unimpeded and succeed. And by succeed, I mean find answers to the artistic questions being posed. The problems arise when non-artists try to understand artists. It's easy for the layman to look at that painting by Van Gogh that just got 90 million at auction and say what a genius Van Gogh was. Money answers every question, although it's not always the correct answer. And this begs another question: Was that same painting that got 90 million any good the day Van Gogh painted it? When no one looked at it twice? When no one would even consider buying it, let alone hanging it in their living room? There's a story about Modigliani, the great 20th century portraitist. Broke but thirsty, he wanted to drink some wine one warm summer night. So he traded one of his paintings to a friend for a bottle of Bordeaux. That wine came and went and was probably most enjoyed. Yet that painting today could be worth millions! The old story, the artist unappreciated in his lifetime. But why?
One of the reasons is the non-artists' view of artists. True, art does seem to emerge from the artists like magic, effortless. And with this mindset, why didn't Van Gogh or Modigliani just get a job so they wouldn't have to be broke all the time? And then they could do their art when they got home! If this last sentence made you cringe, then you may be an artist! If it sounded reasonable, then you are the non-artist who will never quite understand. The artist, and in turn, his art, must be cultivated like a plant. They must be given water and sunlight and protection from severe conditions. Not really that much to ask, since people routinely do this with houseplants. But then there's that underlying resentment that always seems to be there. “Who does this guy think he is? I'd like to spend my days going to coffee shops and cafés and visiting friends! But somebody's gotta work for a living!” Yes, they do. And so does the artist. It's just a different kind of work. The artist is working full-time, 24/7, even while asleep. His brain is constantly processing things all around and turning them somehow into art. When I'm immersed in a novel, it's not unusual for me to write for 12 to 15 hours a day while I'm in the creative part—making things real that before didn’t exist. And at the end of that long day, as I lay my head on the pillow at 2am to finally get some sleep, a new idea will suddenly appear and demand that I jot it down. (Otherwise, it’ll disappear.) And this may go on for sometime, this attempting to sleep, then getting up to record yet another idea, like these importunate visitors pounding at the door! And finally at 2:30 or 3, I'll fall asleep. But when I wake at 6:30, it’s there in my head, and I know that if I get up now, it’ll pour out like a wide-open faucet. So I begin the new day's work that will lead to another 2am. And this is how my novels are written. But to have this happen, the artist must have the freedom to allow it. Most people would rebel at a job that made them work till 2am, then overtime till 3. Then wake up with just a few hours sleep and begin again, to work the entire day till 2am. Then repeat this, day after day, month after month, until the novel is finished. (And then comes the editing!) What kind of horrible job is that? And you haven't even sold your book yet! You're doing all this for free? All this work and those crazy hours? Welcome to the artist's world.
So the original questions return. Is art valuable? Is it necessary? Does it improve our lives as human beings? Does it make us better and are we happier because it exists? These questions must be rhetorical, as imagine the great void if all art were to suddenly disappear. We've discovered long ago that some things are essential beyond nuts and bolts. And that not everyone can do these things. And that those who can, need our encouragement and support. It doesn't do Van Gogh much good if he's universally praised and his paintings sell for millions of dollars, a hundred years after he's dead.
(This essay is from Kunundrum's upcoming book, UTOPIA—short stories, poems, & essays.)