What Good Is Art?
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.’
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.
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.
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.