Are the arts important?
It is the question at the bottom of the debate over public funding, and a lot of hooey has been written on the subject, from both sides of the issue.
Yet, the question remains. Is art important, or is it merely one of the frills of life? Is it more than the amusement of the rich people who can afford to buy it or attend its performances? Does it serve some essential function in our lives?
The answers usually provided are too often soft and squishy, with a lot of feel-good oohing-and-aahing alternating with benign platitudes.
All of which miss the point.
There are three major things that art provides that we can ill afford to do without. They have nothing to do with ”identity,” ”self-expression” or ”healing,” or any of the pop-oriented, new age or parochial apologies being given in the discussion.
No, what art does is as fundamental as language. Far from being an ornament, it is the foundation of culture.
Put another way, civilization doesn’t make art, art makes civilization.
How does it do this?
First, art asks, ”What is real?” It is the first line of investigation into what is true. Art is the acid test we give our assumptions about reality to find if they are gold or lead.
If science is the test we give to hard fact, art is the test we give to everything else.
Second, it gives us a way out of the isolation of our egos. The greatest art forces us to sympathize and empathize with others and enlarge ourselves and our moral compass in the process.
And third — and least familiar and most difficult to understand — it asks, ”What is the meaning and purpose of structure?” This last has unforseen ramifications.
They may be summed up in Paul Gauguin’s famous painting from Tahiti: Where Did We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Those three questions give us a clue about why art is important, why it isn’t merely window dressing.
When we ask, ”Where did we come from?” we are asking what is the ground of reality.
When we ask, ”What are we?” we are asking about those things that make us most human.
And when we ask ”Where are we going?” we are asking how art might show us the possibilities for making a life.
Let’s look at them one at a time.
ART AND REALITY
When art addresses reality, it does so on several levels.
On the simplest, it attempts to find out what the world looks like. That may seem unnecessary at first, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
We must learn to see, not only as individuals, but as a culture. And art is our most important teacher.
We could be taught to see other than as we do.
It is through art as a mediator and not through direct perception that you come to recognize the world. This is a fact we are almost always blind to. We see it no more than we see the retina on which the image is formed.
It was a heroic thing for those Renaissance artists who worked out the mathematics of perspective. They were grappling with reality; they were wrestling with an angel.
In some sense, every artist does that when he sets up a bowl of fruit and begins drawing, trying to stare that stubborn reality into submission.
But reality isn’t only about what we see. It is the question of what we feel and believe as a people. So theater and novels investigate the nature of justice or love or violence. In each case, the artist or playwright is creating a model of the world — a virtual reality — that we must come to accept or reject.
It is also important to recognize that every one of these artistic answers is provisional, and each is modified or rejected by succeeding generations. All reality is a working hypothesis.
To those who see art only as surface, the history of art is a history of changing styles. To those who look beneath the surface, style is irrelevant, nothing but distraction. The changes are not mere fashion but result from the constant testing of art against reality and back.
ART AND EGO
The second issue of art is just as important. Too many of us live our lives in the prison of our own egos.
We know what we have experienced but not what others have experienced. We trust our reality but no one else’s.
Art gives us a way out of this prison, by presenting us with other worlds, other realities, deeper emotions and more profound thoughts.
It is the reach of imagination that allows us to grow beyond ourselves and feel those emotions.
Art forces open those prison doors and sends us out into the light of day, where we must learn and feel what it is like to be Madame Bovary, Henry V or Shakuntala.
Art gives us a way of escaping the happenstance of history and birth for a chance at a more comprehensive, more universal understanding. We grow in worth as human beings.
For the great moral lessons, one turns to Aeschylus’ Persians, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Dostoevsky’s Aloysha or James Baldwin’s Beale Street.
It is doubtful whether, without the powerful emotions of pity and love, we would ever be able to create a civilization worth living in.
ART AND STRUCTURE
The third issue is more subtle and difficult.
We understand the things of this world not merely as an accumulation of unrelated facts, but as system. We see not leaves and sticks, but trees.
What we understand in that instance is structure — the ”big picture.” It is the glue that holds together our perception.
That structure doesn’t appear out of nowhere; it has its roots deep in the human psychology. It is the archetype of Jung, the mothers of Goethe, the poetic imagination of Blake. It is the central core of comprehensibility. We measure all things against it, whether we recognize it or not.
A good story isn’t just a collection of episodes, but episodes with a certain shape to them: a beginning, middle and end.
The structure of a story is every bit as important as its content.
Imagine two newspaper stories about the same train wreck. One is a cluttered assemblage of facts, in no particular order; the other is a well-told story with direction and emphasis. Each contains the identical facts, but the second can be read and remembered. The first is fact confetti. We cannot even read it; it makes no sense.
The only difference between them is the structure.
MYTHOLOGY OF CULTURE
We can take the same structure and apply it so some other news event. The facts may change, but the import of the story remains the same. We see it over and over in newspapers: the child in peril, the senseless killing, the arbitrary natural disaster. Each is a structure of story that we fill in with the facts of the case. Each 40-car pileup is identical, except to those involved.
Each of these stories is a small myth in the larger mythology of our culture.
We think of myth as being a story that isn’t true, but the truth or falsity of a myth is irrelevant. All that matters is its persuasiveness.
The artist recognizes this fact and uses it in his art, working the changes on the myths and archetypes.
What makes this important is that we all use these myths — recognized or not — to give meaning to our lives. We live out our roles as father, mother, hero, victim, lover, loyal friend, all following the internalized archetype we have either learned or been born with.
Art, literature, theater, dance, music, provide models for us, so we may know how to make a life.
Like ritual, they show us the steps to the dance, and the steps are structure.
Take Michelangelo’s Pieta.
It is on one level an attempt to make a statue as lifelike as possible, with poses and emotions as true to their condition as possible. On that level, Michelangelo is exploring the reality of surfaces.
We feel the emotions of the Virgin almost telepathically. It becomes possible to know what it is like to lose a child, lose a part of your own flesh. Even if we have lived the most sheltered and protected life, we cannot avoid coming to know at least a little about the experience of tragedy, and we are made bigger by it.
It is a work of profound human emotion, and you needn’t be a Christian to feel it.
But Mary is also the archetype of the mother, and Jesus is the archetype of all of us who know we will eventually die. We are given a role in the cosmic drama and the means of playing it with dignity.
The very greatest art, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Wagner’s Ring Cycle to the Mahabharata does this for us.
Stories have a narrative content, but they have a structure, too, or they would fall apart.
Is it possible to write a story with the structure alone, with no facts to plug in?
That is in essence the direction of what we call Modern Art.
In the Renaissance, a painting was metaphorically a window through which we looked at the virtual reality presented. The paint resting on the canvas was intended to be rendered invisible, like glass.
But in Modern Art, we are meant to look not through the window, but at it. The paint, the brushes’ marks, the canvas, the colors up against each other: They are the very point of the art.
At its most heroic, Modern Art attempts to put us in contact directly with reality and with our emotions, unrelated to mere narrative event. That is the effect of Kandinsky or Pollock or Rothko.
But we have spent nearly a century investigating that level of reality and it has gotten a little moldy with use.
Yet, that layer of structure, unrelated to fact, remains in art, as it always has. Sometimes art uses it to give meaning to our lives without our knowing it, sometimes art points its arrow at the structure and says, notice it and enjoy it.
Without structure, there is no meaning, and art gives meaning to life.