For me, a painter, art provides a refuge from the harsh face history has turned on us, just as “making things” was my childhood refuge from an unhappy family. But that’s not saying much: artists will always make art for themselves and each other, even if times are bad (think the Abstract Expressionists before they were recognized.)
Far more important is that doing art is a way to touch others, to reinforce bonds of community—perhaps to create beauty that gives a few people a rest from their problems, or the energy to keep working to improve their own or others’ lives. Art can be a commitment to values that do not depend on a secure world.
I often think of the Italian Renaissance, a terrible period politically, when mercenary armies roamed Italy, ruling families poisoned each other, and plagues struck repeatedly—but also an age when extraordinary artistic creativity flourished. The Renaissance is a reminder that living a decent life is not entirely dependent on living in decent times: a reminder that the terrors of our time need not be totally consuming, that we can live with a connection to other eras and other people who sought meaning and beauty in the midst of turmoil and fear.
Art is a perpetually self-renewing source of energy: that is the best definition of art, as opposed to decoration or illustration, that I have ever found. We need that source of energy as we face this challenging political and economic world. And that need goes far beyond the visual arts; different people find energy in different places, so we need poetry, drama, music, architecture, dance, film, literature, just as much as painting.
Making art and seeking to create beauty are acts of faith in the future, in the survival of the values of humanism—faith that we will get through the threats facing us, the crumbling of the economic and political world we’ve known, the dying forests and rising seas due to climate change. Art demands recognition that human lives matter, that chaos can be transmuted into beauty and courage.
When I’m frightened by our times (as I often am), I sometimes picture the cave paintings of France and Spain, which may date back 32,000 years. We don’t know the states of mind of the artists who created beauty so early in our history. Perhaps they were celebrating successful hunts, with feelings of gratitude, or perhaps they were imploring the power that brought—or failed to bring—the animals they needed for survival. Perhaps they painted out of hunger and desperation. Either way, they went to a lot of trouble to make their paintings, paintings that speak to us across an enormous span of years. We can barely imagine their lives, but we respond to their creations and know they were creatures like us.
Art has the same importance in our threatening era that it had when the cave painters worked, or ancient Greek bards turned the slaughter of the Trojan War into poetry that survives to this day; when European craftsmen in gold and gems created beauty to praise their God in the dark ages after Rome fell, or twelfth-century artists of New Mexico’s Mimbres people painted whimsical animals and stunning abstract designs on their pottery; when young poets in the trenches of World War I wrote about the rendezvous with death that they knew awaited them, or painters during the Great Depression (some who would become famous, many who would be forgotten) created murals in American courthouses and post offices.
We make art—we turn to art as a source of the energy we need in good times and bad—because we’re human, and art is one of the essential things we do to be human.
Copyright © 2009 by Danielle Shelley
* This essay was chosen as the winner in a 2009 essay contest held by Linda Durham Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico (www.lindadurham.com). The topic was, “The importance of art in this challenging political and economic world,” and the winning essay was picked by a panel of art-world professionals: Timothy Rodgers, chief curator of the New Mexico Museum of Art, and Jon Carver and Aline Brandauer Sloan, both arts writers and curators.