Bringing forth artistic creations into the world such as music and dance, stories and poems, sculptures and paintings is one of the greatest human accomplishments. Few things could be more righteous, more humane, or more wonderful then people creating meaningful things. In a world that too often times turns chaotic in one place or another, art can bring light into even the darkest of times.
Is art the creation of things? Is it the expression of a person or of a people? Or is it something more elusive than these? Art is not something concrete; it is extremely vague and abstract, even mysterious. Ernst H. Gombrich in his book “The Story of Art” says that “[t]here is really no such thing as art, [t]here are only artists” (15). I agree with this statement in the sense that art is impossible to pin down to one word or idea, such as “Art”. It transcends concepts, thoughts, and languages. How does somebody describe something which language fails to articulate, or express something they perhaps don’t really understand themselves? One way is through what we call art. The paradoxes arrived at so early in attempting to explain what art actually is—like trying to distinguish rules, borders, and styles to its many faces—is mystery enough for me to accept that it is beyond simply understanding, at least conceptually. Nonetheless, its constant presence in all cultures dating back to more than twelve thousand years—in a 2009 documentary film called “Music Instinct: Science and Song” they examine thirty-five thousand year old flutes—is evidence enough for me to assume that it has some important function in culture and community, indeed, in the lives of human beings (Gombrich 40).
Artists in our society, range from the very rich and famous to the very poor and unknown, from the inspiring and dazzling to the demoralizing and sometimes sickening. Art is deeply engrained throughout our culture and serves more functions in it today than ever before. It is used politically, economically, and religiously; and it is used for entertainment, inspiration, and aesthetics, among others. As a result, we constantly encounter art. We see it, we listen to it, we read it, we make meaning of it, we imagine it, and we seek it. Whether or not we ever pause to appreciate it, we are greatly influenced by art. But what is the future of our art? In these times of change and innovation is our art in danger of becoming something we no longer value or view as worthy of perusing? I don’t believe so. However, I do believe that art’s role in our society is expanding into new, uncharted territories.
Art now has a role in TV and film, in marketing and campaigning, in technological development and science; art plays an important role in architecture and engineering, in government and education, and it still thrives within its traditional roles. Perhaps art is not in danger of falling out of our culture as much as it is in danger of becoming absorbed by it. In fact, our appreciation of art seems to be what may be in the most danger. Art’s unprecedented and so often times subtle presence in nearly everything we encounter in our culture today leaves less room for the attention and appreciation of it. For example, a film may have beautiful music accompanying it, but our attention is not kept on every note of the orchestra, nor is it supposed to be. It is intended, by the film’s makers, to be focused on what is happening on the screen and in the story. Music serves to accompany and enhance the overall work; it is not intended to be the centerpiece of it, as has so often been music’s role in the past. This example illustrates the change that nearly all art is facing in our culture and why I consider this change an absorption of art, rather than an abandonment of it. Is this a bad thing? No, I don’t believe so. I believe art by its very nature is good for both people and societies. Perhaps our society and culture could be better—possibly more beautiful and harmonious—if art was integrated into more aspects of it. I do have concerns, however, that if our appreciation of art deteriorates we will stop appreciating and respecting something very precious to our lives and culture. Regardless, the direction our society has advanced has surely changed our art’s functions. But has our art’s purpose changed as well?
Aristotle once stated that “[t]he aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” I believe this “inward significance” is referring to how the outward appearances of things can have a deeper and more significant meaning to us than just the appearance: such as a butterfly can signify the arrival of spring, the unfolding of beauty, the wonder of nature, even the path of enlightenment; or how a teddy bear can be a child’s best friend and closet companion. In a slightly different tone, Pope John Paul II stated that “[t]he purpose of art is nothing less than the upliftment of the human spirit.” I think the Pope is referring to how art has often served as a source of joy, beauty, hope, celebration, comfort, and inspiration for many people in all kinds of situations. In a similar sense, Bob Dylan said that “the highest purpose of art is to inspire” (qtd. in “Purpose Art Quotations”). The numerous quotes I read from artists and philosophers about the purpose of art all have some similarities. Most artists it appears, as many philosophers seem to agree, seek to influence and contribute to society in a positive way, simply be expressing themselves into the outer world. Of course there are artists who create for other purposes, but in general this seems to be a big part of art’s purpose. If making positive contributions and influences to society is one of art’s big purposes, then it seems like we should continue to value it. I believe when art is celebrated and appreciated, so too is something great and wonderful about human beings, and about life. The purpose and functions of art in our culture are no doubt changing, but perhaps the artists’ purposes, who still seek to inspire, uplift, and apply significance to things, are not changing so much.
Art has contributed many great benefits to our society. Besides being a great field for people to pursue fulfilling careers in, art is also a source of joy, beauty, and satisfaction, for many non-professional artists: the weekend painter who is also a secretary, the night owl writer who is also a store clerk, the unknown musician who is also a waiter. These kinds of part-time artists are plentiful in our society. My father works at a daily job, but paints in his spare time. My grandpa worked as an inventor, but created small elephant sculptures and other similar things in his spare time. I learned how to play the guitar from someone who worked in a hospital. The list could go on, and I’m pretty sure we each can come up with one. I know for these three people that having an artistic hobby really made life more enjoyable.
Art also has therapeutic benefits for people. In his book, “Musicophillia” Oliver Sacks, a well known physician and author, tells how music has helped patients he has worked with and studied. At a Bronx hospital he worked in there were “[nearly eighty] . . . strangely immobile, sometimes entranced looking patients . . . [but a few of them] rather than being frozen, were in the opposite state. . .” They suffered from a Parkinson like disorder called encephalitis lethargica, an epidemic “that swept the globe just after WWI.” Sacks wrote more extensively on them in his most popular book “Awakenings” which is now a popular film. There was no cure or treatment for these patients and some had been in this state for more than forty years by the time Sacks visited them. On occasion, however, Sacks says the patients could move: “with an ease and grace that seemed to belie their Parkinsonism—and that the most potent occasioner of such movement was, in fact, music. . .Some of them could not initiate a single step but could be drawn into dancing and dance fluidly. . .Some could scarcely utter a syllable. . . [b]ut these patients were able to sing on occasion, loudly and clearly . . . Others could walk and talk but only in a jerky, broken way . . . with such patients music could . . .[give] them the steadiness and control they so lacked” (Sacks 248-249).
In Musicophillia, Sacks goes on to write about a number of his patients with varying conditions and how music helped them in some significant way. With his patients suffering from dementia (Alzheimer’s), music therapy “. . . seeks to address the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts, and memories, the surviving “self” of the patient, to stimulate [all of] these and bring them to the fore. It aims to enrich and enlarge existence, to give freedom, stability, organization, and focus [to the patient]” (Sacks 336-337). Music also has benefits in learning and cognitive development and functioning (as is closely examined by in Daniel J. Levitin’s book “This is your Brain on Music,” and the documentary film he was a big part of called “Music Instinct: Science and Song”). Music is also known to aid in exercise, relaxation, stress relief, and let’s not omit that it is a fine source of entertainment and joy for many. The benefits of art could not all be illustrated here, and music is only one form, but it is clear that art plays an important role in the wellbeing of our culture.
What will be the future of art in our society? That is hard to say. I think that art’s role in our society will continue to be a very important one, even if it continues to be harder and harder to understand what exactly that role is. Painting and drawing continue to be appealing and lucrative mediums in our culture, with painters from around the world creating and staging their work here. Sculpture remains an important arena with a presence in architecture, film and TV, education, and private practices across the country.
Music appears to be expanding in composition and consumption. More musical genres and opportunities exist now than ever before. The development of digital media has changed the way music is listened to and marketed. For thousands of years music was heard only through being in the presence of its performers. This changed with the development of recording devices. The musical-expansion era we are now in is unprecedented in history. Streaming radio stations from around the world can now be heard anytime for as long as desired and without interruption. Personal musical libraries today easily range from the thousands to tens of thousands of songs. Music can be heard from some of the most remote and indigenous places on the earth—thanks to the work of musicologists, the music from these remote places often reaches the modern world before its people do. Musical instruments are more widely available than ever before, allowing for more people to potentially play a musical instrument.
Writing also continues to be an important medium in our culture. Books now are printed by the millions, and languages around the world can readily be translated into one another. Magazines, newspapers, journals, books, comics, and the Internet provide many forums for writers to reach audiences and for audiences to discover writers. A large variety of publishers, writers, and genera’s creates a vast and diverse medium that greatly contributes to the wellbeing and development of our culture.
Perhaps the greatest change in the arts is in the development of film, TV, and the Internet. All three of these forums reach their audiences through the audience’s viewing of a screen which uses more characteristics of art than any other medium. The video screen is the most significant medium of all forms of transferring ideas because of the way it combines the use of auditory and visual stimulation in extraordinary ways—it’s becoming greatly effective at mimicking and/or distorting reality. Where painters have sought to share their stand-still images with the world, film and TV turns stand-still images into rolling films. Where musicians have tried to express and evoke emotions and ideas through an auditory (and sometimes visual) medium, film and TV use music only to enhance an already stimulating work of sounds and images. Where fiction writers attempt to recreate the real or a fantasized world in the imagination of their readers through words, film and TV do this through much more stimulating means, leaving almost no space for the viewers own imagination. Film and TV use images, words, music, sounds, and special effects to communicate with audiences in extraordinary and not-so-long-ago unimaginable ways. The impact of film and TV on art, indeed on the modern world, is so significant that its effects are still yet to be made clear. No doubt there are pros and cons with this relatively young medium, but, regardless, it has brought communication into a whole new realm.
With the development of the Internet, film and TV are both evolving into another medium: one that, through a computer, instantly brings films, TV episodes, and personal videos to anyone anywhere at any time. Not only does the Internet provide the ultimate forum for video, it also functions as a major forum for writing, music, paintings, and other art. It serves as a worldwide, indeed the world’s largest, retail store. It has brought instant communication between people and systems to new levels. It serves as an open database to much of the world’s information and, likely very soon, an open library for the world’s music, literature, videos, published research, and so much more. Perhaps it is safe to say that the Internet is becoming the medium of all mediums. It takes so much of our world and places it into an easily accessible and always available digital world. The Internet definitely has a large role in the future of art.
It appears to me that the change art is facing in our culture is not so much a deprecation or an abandonment of it, as it is a movement away from the celebration and appreciation of art. In this regard, I am concerned that art is losing something special. However, the continued presence of art through all of these innovations tells us that it still has an important role today. That role in our society is changing, perhaps evolving into something entirely new, but I believe art is still just as meaningful, significant, and important as it has been throughout history.
Art can uplift people from the suffering of mental disorders, from sickness and sorrow. It can bring fulfillment and joy to healthy peoples’ lives. Art can inspire an idea, a person, a nation, and perhaps even the world. It can communicate the unexplainable and incomprehensible. It can bring light into the darkness of tyranny and war, disaster and chaos. Art can heal broken hearts, broken souls, and broken civilizations. It can bring into the world what is the very best in the human spirit: inspiration, hope, humility, compassion, harmony, beauty, celebration, peace, and love. In its mysterious and omniscient way, art will continue to be a place where we seek, create, and find all of these things. If we continue to create art, appreciate art, and celebrate art, we can be assured that it will not fade away into something we no longer cherish and benefit from.
Gombrich, E.H. “The Story of Art.” London: Phaidon, 2006.
"Purpose Art Quotations - The Painter's Keys Resource of Art Quotations." Resource of Art Quotations - The Painter's Keys. Ed. Robert Genn. The Painter's Keys. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.
Sacks, Oliver. “Musicophillia: Tales of Music and the Brain.” New York: Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.