What Is Art? What Good Is It?

What Is Art?

First things first, what is art? I know, that’s a totally loaded question, and one that’s been asked and answered about a million times in a million different ways. It’s also a question that’s often best pondered over wine with friends, but … I did read a particularly interesting definition years ago in Ayn Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto that may be worth repeating. I’m paraphrasing a bit here, and using smaller words, but basically she delineates two processes. The first is the process of learning, of forming abstract concepts from the observation/perception of a series of concrete examples.

We learn about Newtonian physics when we’re five, for example, not by having our parents give us a lecture on the finer points of algebra and gravity, but by doing something concrete: tossing a football with them a bunch of times. Yes, there might be a bloody nose or two along the way, but pretty quickly we learn to approximate what’s going to happen when our parent or sibling lets go of the ball.

We learn about most other abstract concepts this way too. We watch how our parents interact to (hopefully) learn about love and respect. We watch how other kids interact, as well, to see what works for the sixth-grad Casanova, and what doesn’t. Maybe we even do a little experimenting ourselves — which, come to think of it, might also lead to a middle-school-aged bloody nose or two. But we eventually figure it out (at least most of us).

How else might we learn about love and loss, pain and triumph. Well, we could watch movies…

And this brings us to the second process, the artistic process. It’s effectively the reverse of learning. The creation of art is about converting an abstract concept or an intangible emotion into something that can be directly perceived by others using their senses. Essentially, we learn throughout our lives about love and sadness, beauty and ugliness, serenity and turmoil, grace and hardship. Art is how we create tangible expressions of these things that allow us to communicate about them with others.

(I should note that I might be stepping on Rand’s toes a bit in quoting her. Rand also firmly held in The Romantic Manifesto that photography was not, and could not, be art. I suspect she wouldn’t have appreciated my suggestion of art as critical to understanding the value of many genres of photography.)

What Good Is It?

But why bother with art? Why do some of us feel the need to be “artists”?

Even a fairly cursory skim of the literature suggests that there are at least a few advantages from an evolutionary perspective. One is that, if done well, it advertises ability. A great artist is often creative, intelligent, insightful, maybe a bit of a risk-taker, a bounds-pusher. These are qualities that we likely wouldn’t mind if our children had, and that aren’t bad for the species as a whole. We respond to these people, these artists. To put it more succinctly, art’s not a bad way to get girls.

That said, “hooking up” probably isn’t the best justification for invading the anonymity of homeless folks or other marginalized groups. Might it serve some other purposes as well? One might suspect that art could be used to engage a broader swath of the artist’s community than just the girl or boy they want to date. I’ve never met Jimi Hendrix or Stanley Kubrick, Fan Ho or Leo Tolstoy, but I’m one of hundreds of millions of people who have been engaged by their work.

It doesn’t have to be on that scale, either. Art can bring families and local communities together: from local book clubs, to the musician in the coffeehouse on Sunday mornings, to the local theatre group, to the busker down on Pearl Street. We go with our friends and families to the cineplex. We share our paintings and photos with our “communities” on Instagram and Flickr.

And it’s not just that art is a means by which to engage a community, it’s also a way to communicate abstract and significant concepts and emotions with that community. A friend might implore us to be scared and it will accomplish nothing, but if they take us to a good thriller, or the movie Free Solo, our reptilian brains will have our palms sweating a few minutes in (at least if you’re a climber). If we read a tear jerker, we feel genuine sadness, shed genuine tears at the author’s behest. This ability to communicate raw emotions can create empathy, generate a shared sense of experience, and strengthen social bonds.

The day you find out your beloved pet has a terminal illness…

As these works of art pile up, they begin to form the basis of a language that we can all use to communicate more accurately, more efficiently, more deeply. I might struggle to convey in my own words how I’m feeling or what I’m going through to a friend or family member, but a well-placed movie, book, photograph, or song reference can capture — in just a handful of words — an entire range of emotions, conflicting impulses, and subtle nuances that I might never be able to describe myself, let alone do so succinctly. Artists have given us the elements of a highly efficient symbolic language for sharing just these sorts of things.

Having a shared language, some way to communicate deeply with one another, is essential to creating a sense of shared community, as well. Yet, if we limit language to the spoken word, we may find ourselves in a very fractured community, indeed. The inhabitants of our little planet engage with one another using more than 7,000 different languages. And, just for reference, English isn’t the most common. More folks speak Mandarin Chinese than any other language (it’s not even close). The second largest community speaks Spanish. Arabic is spoken by nearly as many people as speak English. These linguistic challenges present a significant hurdle to developing a shared understanding and empathy, and at just a time when the world is becoming incredibly interdependent — in terms of goods, finances, security — but often as decisively cleaved as ever in terms of culture. Art has the potential to transcend these spoken language boundaries. I don’t need to speak a word of Zulu to understand the uplifting spirit of Vusi Mahlasela's, Woza. The images of Kevin Carter convey the depths to which suffering can reach without a word being uttered in any language.

Brent Daniel