Updated: Sep 19, 2021
When the world seems to be crumbling before our very eyes, it can feel like pursuing or supporting the arts is wasteful, selfish, and pointless. How can we possibly spend time on something that contributes seemingly nothing to our fellow humans, the earth, or any big picture problem when the world is begging us to do more? This can often lead us to ask, “does art matter anymore?”
In case you’ve been asking yourself this question, I’m here to tell you that yes, art matters. It matters just as much as every other life pursuit. I’m not trying to start an argument about how some careers are more important or which professionals matter more, mostly because I don’t believe in that type of hierarchy anyway. But also because we have to stop fighting and playing the who has it worse game or falling into the whose work is more impactful trap.
The cold hard truth is every person matters just as much as every other person on this earth. Value is not dependent upon what you accomplish in your lifetime or what career you have - or don’t. What matters the most is that you act as your truest self and find inner happiness through that, because trying to be anything but you is, at least in my opinion, the biggest atrocity in life. And those comparison games can lead us to abandon who we are to fit in or feel like we're contributing more to society.
Now that we’ve established that all professions and people are equally important, let’s get more specific about why art matters.
It’s a Natural Human Need
Currently, the oldest known painting was found in the Cave of Maltravieso and dates back 64,000 years. That’s an incredibly old piece of art! If you haven’t seen it, this piece was created by a Neanderthal and shows tracings of hands on a cave wall. Besides the fact that this is an amazing historical find, this is also an incredible piece of evidence in support of the importance of the arts.
At this time in early human history, life was incredibly difficult. Neanderthals lived hand-to-mouth, made every single tool they used, and didn’t live very long lives. But despite these difficulties, they still found time and resources to express themselves. This makes me believe that creating is a natural human need! Think about it - if you have to find and make everything you eat or use, spending time and resources on art indicates that it’s incredibly important. This is only further supported by my own experiences and the conversations I’ve had with fellow artists: we paint because we must, not just because it’s fun.
Exposes Us to the New
One of the most beautiful aspects of the arts is that it exposes us to new ideas, cultures, and people. It brings us together as a group and unites us in our shared and unshared experiences. Because art is not meant to be a solitary experience, it gives the artist a unique opportunity to share their perspective with their audience and bring us closer together.
The artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh created a beautiful painting that exemplifies this perfectly. Fazlalizadeh is the daughter of an Iranian immigrant; her father came to the US in the 1970s. In an effort to highlight life as an immigrant and the narratives surrounding immigrants, she created an oil painting based on the photo in the “resident alien” ID her dad was given during his immigration process. She says that her purpose in painting this portrait was to take the image of him that the government associated with being an “alien” and show that he was far more than an immigrant - he was a father, a husband, and a human.
It’s artwork like this that brings us together, not further apart. Yes, we are different. But we are for more alike than we are dissimilar. Art has the ability to present our similarities and highlight our shared humanity.
Calls Us to Act
Art often comments on issues like racial injustice, economic disparity, climate change, and animal cruelty - plus so much more. But the artists behind these images rarely make them just to paint; they’re usually painting with a purpose or cause in mind. Think of all the beautiful murals that were created in conjunction with Black Lives Matter. While the works themselves are beautiful, their main reason was to raise awareness about systemic racism and get people involved in ending it once and for all.
And this isn’t the first time that art has been used to further a cause and call us to act! Picasso’s painting Guernica, created in 1937, was an anti-war statement. It depicts animals and people suffering as a result of war. The bombing of Guernica and the urging of a friend prompted Picasso to create an image showing the true pain that comes with violence. The painting went on to tour Europe in which some of the funds were directed for relief and aid for the people of Spain.
Art is beautiful, but it’s also incredibly powerful. It can be used to spread awareness, raise aid for those who are suffering, and call us to get more involved in causes that need us.
Perhaps the most celebrated aspect of the arts is that they allow for self expression. Truthfully, it’s quite hard to find something that encourages self expression more than the arts. Fashion designers can make statements about their heritage in pattern and fabric. Painters can convey the pain of depression through color choice and brushstrokes. Writers can tell stories about their heartache and loss by weaving their words in stories. And once the work is complete, we often feel loads better than when we started, because art allows us to actually feel and process emotions.
This benefit is not reserved for professional artists, either. Hobbyists and amateurs have every right to use the arts to express themselves. They don’t have to show anyone and shouldn’t feel obligated to sell if they don’t want to. Creating art merely for the sake of expressing your thoughts and feelings is a perfectly good reason to get into drawing or weaving or whatever allows you to work through your emotions. (By the by, being an amateur is not a bad thing. Stay tuned for a future blog post on this topic.)
One of the reasons we know so much about the past is from artistic artifacts preserved through the course of history. Greek pottery has given us evidence regarding the religious and secular beliefs of the ancient nation. Hieroglyphics discovered inside of sacred Egyptian structures clued us into what life was like at this time. Photographs taken during the American Dust Bowl show the hardship faced by millions. Without art to record these events, we wouldn’t know as much - or maybe anything - about those who came before us.
It’s because of my art history professors that I learned more than I ever had about ancient civilizations, people from different parts of the world, and significant historical events. Simply put: art records history, art is history. It might not always tell a happy story, but it can teach us what not to do as we move forward into a brighter future. To ignore the arts as history is a big mistake.
Soothes the Soul
Time and time again, art has been employed as a means of soothing and healing the soul. As someone who has experienced hardship and trauma, I truly understand the power art holds to help us overcome difficulties and reconcile uncomfortable feelings or memories. And this doesn’t only belong to those of us who create; this healing belongs to all who incorporate the arts in their life. Think back to a song that really moved you or a movie that helped you realize what’s been holding you back! Art can open our eyes to new ways forward.
Moreover, art therapy has been gaining increased traction as science unveils the incredible power it has to help those living with mental illness or who have experienced great trauma. There are now programs for dance therapy, music therapy, and art therapy (visual art). If that doesn’t show the importance of art to humans, I don’t know what does.
I think my stance is clear: art is incredibly and undoubtedly important to humanity as a whole. It doesn’t matter if you make art or not, it benefits everyone to support the arts. My hope as we move forward as a species is that we will come to understand the value of art and stop viewing artists as lazy leeches. We need people from all walks of life, and that includes creatives.
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Thanks for reading and happy creating!