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What Good Is Art?

May 31, 2014
Lux Condivis, detail, by J. Kirk Richards

Lux Condivis, detail, by J. Kirk Richards

When I finished college almost fifteen years ago, I was, perhaps, overconfident. ‘The world out there desperately needs what I have to offer,’ I thought. ‘Especially the religious art world. I’m destined to be God’s gift to this community. I’m going to change the world.’

Ha ha!

It didn’t take long for me to realize that not everyone was in love with what I was doing. Some people frankly disliked my images, which was disheartening, frustrating, but perhaps for the best: humbling. I managed my expectations and learned to appreciate the small but growing fraction of the population that paid attention to my developing body of work. Lucky indeed, I came to realize, is the artist that finds even a small audience who cares.

Fifteen years and a thousand paintings later, (I just celebrated my 1000th career painting! And yet,) sometimes I wonder. What good is art? What value am I bringing to the world? Is it worth it? Is it making any difference? There are so many real issues in the world. The vast oceans of power and circumstance forever undulate, carrying some people great distances and turbulently swallowing others. At great cost, a few brave individuals offer themselves as sacrificial lambs for the cause of justice and right, while many are content to ride where the tide takes them.

Temptation, detail, by J. Kirk Richards.

Temptation, detail, by J. Kirk Richards.

Where does my small voice fit in to the great ongoing drama of the human race? Without pretending to have arrived at an overarching response to these questions, let me offer a few thoughts:

1. Art brings humanity. I credit one of my heroes, Gary Ernest Smith, for recently reminding me of this idea. Art brings humanity. In unique ways, art in its many forms reminds us of our potential–that we have so much more capacity to fulfill the measure of our creation. We’re reminded to be compassionate, empathetic, and merciful–not reminded through preaching, but rather through feeling. Good art, good performances, good writing, remind us that the world is full of opposing forces, and that choosing the right is not always an obvious or easy task. Good art can take people with vastly differing ideals and lead them to agreeable conclusions—enable them to feel the same feelings. Art reflects life; and good art doesn’t shove a message down the proverbial throat, but raises profound questions and suggests possibilities—the way that life does. Good art doesn’t dictate our thoughts, but rather stirs emotions within us and makes us want to change–to take chances, to forgive, to make the world a better place. Even the most simple painting or poem has the capacity to make us see anew—to understand God’s hand in the every day. Art brings humanity.

Save Me From My Demons, by J. Kirk Richards

Save Me From My Demons, by J. Kirk Richards

2. Art creates a safe place to deal with the dark. Bad things happen in life–so bad, for some people, they can’t talk about it. They keep it bottled up deep down inside. I’m no psychologist, but even as a young student in public school, we were taught the idea of catharsis, of the purging of emotions—an idea as ancient as Aristotle. Art (film, theater, literature) evokes within us a wide range of emotions. Often the hero undergoes dramatic events that may outweigh the seriousness of our own experience. And yet those events echo our own comparably small experiences with parallel emotions. To internalize exaggerated emotion through vicarious artistic experience allows us to understand, overcome, and perhaps communicate about our own emotions and experience. Art is a safe place to deal with the dark. Of course, as parents, we naturally feel protective of our children. We want to shield them from the dark by over-censoring their media. And yet, we often don’t know what pain, shame, embarrassment, fear, and any number of other emotions they may be hiding. To shield them from art that deals with these emotions is to deprive them of catharsis. To shield ourselves from great art is to deprive ourselves of healing and understanding. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be judicious about what media we feed our children–Amy will tell you I refuse to watch movies that straddle suspense and horror, and I’m not keen on violent video games. Too much censoring, though, may be like putting a band aid on the surface of someone suffering from heart disease. Life inevitably brings emotionally deep wounds that can benefit from deep catharsis of emotion. If in our own lives we don’t experience these deep wounds, art can help us understand the wounds of our fellow men, women, and children. Art creates a safe place to deal with the dark.

3. Art can recognize and be thankful for the good. I love something Will Smith said a few weeks ago: “The thing is to make sure with your art your art is a gift to people to help their lives be better and to be brighter[…]it’s like you’re trying to help people just get through a day[…]” Amy and I have collected a number of works by other artists. I love the spirit of the artist within each piece. I love the beauty of these works. They help me get through the day. They help me love life. Art can recognize and be thankful for the good.

So, what good is art? And more specifically, What good is your art? May I suggest your art is one of God’s many gifts to the world? The difference it makes may seem small. You don’t know what darkness your dear friends are struggling with. You don’t know that strangers you’ve never met have been moved by something you created. You don’t know what catharsis you’ve facilitated for the overwhelmed, or what empathy you’ve encouraged in the comfortable.

Fifteen years of painting has taught me that what we create doesn’t hold meaning for everybody. But for those lucky enough to pay attention, our art means the world.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2014 12:19 pm

    Reblogged this on This is your real mother speaking… and commented:
    Love this artist’s work, love this artist’s wisdom.

  2. May 31, 2014 12:28 pm

    As a painter and a writer I have been wondering about this lately. What is it for? And is it worth the risks? The immense vulnerability I feel? The negative feedback I sometimes get? The indifference? This wonderful article reminded me what it is all for and that it is worth it if it makes a difference for even a small handful of people. Thanks for writing and sharing this!

  3. May 31, 2014 1:17 pm

    I’m a writer . . . and I can really identify with a lot of this post. Thank you, Kirk, for sharing what you do. I love the way your posts challenge your readers to stretch, and offer real wisdom for what you offer, instead of hollow cries of “This is the Right Way!”.

    I write because connecting with someone else, being able to express something that resonates with something deep within them, is one of the richest rewards in life. It has taken a lot of tries to finally get to the blog that God has wanted me to write all along. (www.aNewDayDawns.com) I’m a slow learner, but He is patient. 😉

    Thank you.

  4. May 31, 2014 3:28 pm

    Thanks for this. I needed to hear it today. And, hey, this is the second time a painting of your has brought me to tears. “Save Me From My Demons” hit me hard. Cut that out, you making a difference in people’s lives kind of artist, you.

  5. adele66 permalink
    May 31, 2014 3:35 pm

    I finish my art degree on Monday. My practice is spirituality through art, awakening the soul to seek truth and meaning. My argument is that artists do have a responsibility to enrich society to inspire and uplift. Being a mature student though and having tried to share the gospel I know there is a lot of stone ground. But there is much ground ready to harvest too. I know this won’t be easy. Thank you for not giving up, for continuing to paint. I love your work very much. I really appreciate your blog also. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

  6. May 31, 2014 9:06 pm

    Which rule book says artists have a responsibility to enrich society to inspire and uplift. What authority judges whether a piece of art express the attributes you describe. We are born to experience and understand all aspects of life (good vs evil). We are learning how to make the right choices in a dangerous fallen world. The artist’s responsibility is to be as honest as possible in perceiving the truth.

    • May 31, 2014 9:31 pm

      Larry, if you are only doing it for yourself, then why would you ever show your art? And I see a direct correlation between honesty and catharsis. I agree honesty is of utmost importance, and is subjective, as is art. You, as the artist, are first and foremost the judging authority.

      • May 31, 2014 11:04 pm

        Kirk, in my opinion visual artists are story tellers just like all other art forms. Having said that, I do paint my own experiences, thoughts and feelings or as some artist think all art is auto-biographical. I do hope that when I exhibit the work it awakens some understanding in the viewer of the point of view I’m trying to express. In the end I make art because I have to like a junkie. Maybe I do make it for myself and think my personal vision is important enough to share with others. I’m not sure.

  7. June 1, 2014 1:19 am

    YAY! I just told you I don’t really read blogs, but I just read this (at 3:15am – eeek). Well worth losing sleep for. I love what you say and what your art says and knowing that this is not a facade. You are such a kind, good, humble person and I am a fan of that as much as your amazing work. I can’t wait to buy my next piece. Jonathan loved his b-day present btw!!!

  8. Eva Syphus permalink
    June 1, 2014 6:28 pm

    So beautifully said kirk, keep on painting. There are many people touched by your paintings even if they don’t let you know.

  9. June 2, 2014 2:12 am

    I have always been very moved by your work. It has blessed our family, perhaps in ways I don’t even understand. A beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Felicia Barnes permalink
    June 6, 2014 6:20 pm

    Thank you so much. I check your blog every few weeks to see if you have a new post. You don’t post often but when you do it is so worthwhile to read and I love seeing your work. Thank you for sharing your work, your thoughts, your wisdom.

  11. July 14, 2014 9:51 am

    I found this post really inspiring. I think that there is so much good in art. People can interpret it in so many different ways. Individuals can connect and relate to artwork making them think and experience different thoughts and ideas. I enjoy how art can mean completely different things for a number of reasons to different people.

  12. Michael Jones permalink
    July 15, 2014 9:33 am

    Hey Kirk, I fell in love with your work from the first time that I saw it in the BYU bookstore 15 years ago. I could never connect with the picture-perfect paintings that were in most chapels and religious magazines. I needed pictures that could allow my imagination room to think and allow my emotions room to project. I saw your last supper painting and I was moved in a way I had never been by religious art. Years later I am still moved by your work. We have one of your very impressionistic Christ head paintings in our front room. As I grow and try to understand my relationship with Christ, I look at that painting and it helps me to tangibly understand that now we only see him “through a glass darkly” 1 Cor 13:12. You paintings capture how I feel and connect me with the holy and Numinous. And that is priceless to me.

  13. August 7, 2014 8:50 pm

    I have always said that art is just a voice. Over time I have ask myself the same questions. Thank you for bringing the best presentation about art I personally have ever read. Your honesty and insight is valuable to me. God speed my brother.

  14. October 10, 2014 5:51 pm

    Kirk, I just wanted to stop in and let you know that I’ve shared a few of your posts over and over in the years since they were first published. (Especially this one.)

    Thank you for being who you are, and for writing so clearly and honestly.

  15. December 23, 2014 6:42 am

    Beautifully said! Really enjoyed reading this post, really inspiring! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom

  16. December 28, 2014 6:10 pm

    Great post. Your conclusions on “what good is art” are spot on. I know, I know, my comments above sound like they came from a different person. Chalk it up to my PTSD and whatever space I was in that day. I can’t even remember what part of the above post I was responding to. I feel blessed to make artwork. It is my safe haven and has saved my life. It doesn’t matter if the viewer loves or hates my artwork. I don’t like indifference.. That is when I feel like an absolute failure. A life involved with the art is both very fun and very challenging. Keep up the good fight and for the good art.

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