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About the importance of art

This is a part of my English viva voce (oral exam) I had at school. It’s the spoken text of a presentation (in 15 minutes) about the importance of art. Although it’s not perfect, I got a 10 for this… for the presentations of other pupils were too poor. xD

What is the importance of art? Before giving an answer to this question, I would like you see what we can learn about art by simply looking around us. Many people do not notice, but a lot of things around us relate to art, contain art or are art. A painting hanging on the wall is an obvious example, but a chair has to do with art as well. In fact every piece of furniture is designed. Not only for the practical use, but also to fit in a room, which is done by an artist. It is important to realize that art is everywhere. It has many forms, including posters, portraits, covers, music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, etc. and therefore it is difficult to define it or abstract its importance to one single concept. Art has had a great number of different functions throughout its history. More about that will follow later.

Is art dangerous?
The philosopher Plato argued that art is dangerous and should be banned from the ideal state, since it affords only the illusion of knowledge and stirs up baser passions. The idea that we can gain insight or understanding from art is, Plato claims, a foolish myth. Art is a product of the imagination: looking at a painting or reading a novel engages us in a make-believe world. But knowledge is contact with reality, not make-believe. So art cannot generate knowledge, says Plato.

I don’t agree with this statement. I do understand that art can be dangerous. It can be used for propaganda and influence people in a negative way. In a similar way, it is used for commercialism and may even affect the way we look upon ourselves and our lives. Every day we get attacked by thousands of images of fashion we should buy and perfectly looking people selling it on screens, on the radio, in magazines… everywhere. These forms of art often show ideas of what is beautiful or acceptable and make us think that we should look or behave similar if we want to be accepted by society. The problem: this is impossible to achieve, because the images are edited and show an idealized world of perfection, not reality. We tend to compare our lives with it, which are far from perfect and this can make us unhappy about ourselves or our lives. In both cases I mentioned the purpose of art is to manipulate the observer into a particular emotional or psychological response toward a particular idea or object.

But this is, of course, only one of the many functions of art. Banning it completely, like Plato requested, is impossible. The philosopher Aristotle, a student of Plato, stated that the passions in art are an aspect of being human. Creating art is something humans must do by their nature (no other species creates art) which has to do with basic human instinct for harmony, balance and rhythm. I think that instead of trying to forbid art, it is more useful to study it critically and learn to deal with ‘art-attacts’.

Is art knowledge?
The other statement of Plato: knowledge is contact with reality. To illustrate my aversion upon this argument I would like to use a phrase I heard in the TV-serie Dexter: ‘Trust those who seek the truth, but doubt those who say that they have found it.’ (probably derived from a similar quote from the French writer André Gide) There is no such thing as ‘reality’. The truth might be suggestive, none of us is able to grasp the whole truth/reality, if it exists. I would like to point at scientific developments, like in physics and especially quantum mechanics that drastically changed our concept of reality and showed a world different than the one we knew, a universe (or maybe even a multiverse) we couldn’t even imagine. What I am trying to say is that we should better stay open-minded and be careful when we are judging about our knowledge and the reality nobody is even able to define.

Speaking about knowledge: maybe art can not generate knowledge itself, still it remains a great tool for learning. Arts education is one of the most important areas of child development and it can be found in almost every school. Children simply enjoy art and music activities and this is why they can be useful to learning. Knowledge often requires repetitious learning of concepts already known, and honestly, even to me (and I consider myself an adult… mostly) that sounds pretty much boring! Not to speak about how a kid would find it. However, use of play and imagination requires students to create something, whatever they want, from ‘nothing’.

Scientists discovered that learning causes changes within the brain. When we learn, special chemicals, called neurotransmitters allow communication between brain cells. They help establishing paths between brain cells so there can be more interaction between parts of the brain. And the more interaction, the smarter you are. But sometimes these chemicals do not occur unless emotion is involved. Emotions, which are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain, release the neurotransmitters and help to create more deep-seated paths between brain cells. You are possibly wondering what this has to do with art, well here it comes: involvement in art and music triggers emotion, because creating something from nothing is an emotional exercise. In other words: children are more likely to practice something fun such as arts and doing it they will deepen the neural pathways of existing skills and create new pathways for new skills. This explains why it is easier to remember the lyrics of a song, a text with melody, rhythm and rhyme, instead of a written text. Or why we often understand better a diagram or graphic image than just a bunch of numbers with the same meaning, only differently presented.

This is scientific proof that art can help by learning. But even if it was not important for knowledge, it provides a way to express the imagination in non-grammatical ways that are not tied to the formality of spoken or written language. Some kind of feelings or thoughts one can not express with words, but it is possible to communicate them through shapes, colors or music. And imagination is often valued as important as knowledge. Maybe even more. And not by ordinary people, but by the greatest en most inspiring thinkers in the history of philosophy, art and science. The French philosopher Rousseau once said that the world of reality has it’s limits, unlike the world of imagination, which is boundless. ‘Painting’, said Picasso, ‘is just another way of keeping a diary.’ And my favourite quote about this matter comes from Albert Einstein: ‘The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’ Creating is a form of play. It is a sensing of the possibilities, a free speculation, a learning to be ourselves.

Imagination transfers to every aspect of adult life and work. Being able to think in different ways and to sense the possibilities may inspire the economist, physicist, and political scientist to see interconnections and hypothesize about variables in ways they may not have considered before. Creativity is required in business, computer science, medicine, engineering… in fact everywhere. Book publishers, magazine editors and all kinds of designers – all depend on art, which is one obviously reason why it can not be banned. Without it, knowledge would stall, and the human race retreat back to the Dark Ages.

Art has had a lot of other functions through its history.

  • In many cultures, art is used in rituals, performances and dances as a decoration or symbol. During parts of history writing was not used by certain civilizations such as the caveman. However, they were still able to communicate through art. This is why we understand so much about the past. We can see the thought process of these people.
  • emotions

  • Art is simply a form of communication. Illustrative arts, such as scientific illustration, are a form of art as communication. Emotions, moods and feelings are also communicated through art. It connects people around the world. People do not need to know anything about another language and can draw ideas from what they see or hear. It is universal.
  • Art provides a way to experience one’s self in relation to the universe. Albert Einstein: ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.’

  • Like already mentioned, art can manipulate emotion or mood, but the manipulation has a bright side too, for the purpose of relaxing or entertaining the viewer. This is often the function of the art industries of Video Games and Science-fiction movies. ‘Manipulation’ is here pleasant and in the most cases harmless.
  • Another plus, even better than entertainment is art for psychological and healing purposes. Art is used by therapists and clinical psychologists as art therapy. Music for example is probably a form of art that deals with emotions like no other and listening to it can help to deal with emotional problems or distract from problems by helping you to escape from here and now. Albert Einstein: ‘…one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought.’
  • One of the defining functions of early twentieth century art has been political change. While similar to art for political change, art may seek to question aspects of society without any specific political goal: art for social inquiry. In this case, the function of art may be simply to criticize some aspect of society, like war.
  • To me, the most important role of the arts in the academy, as in life, is to enable us to see the world and the human condition differently, and in seeing the world through a particular work of art, to see a truth we might not have understood before. Poets, artists, playwrights and composers are often sources of truth, order, harmony and meaning. They can unlock our imagination and stir us to pause, think and reflect by raising questions. Composing a sonata, writing a play, painting a painting, or writing a poem forces us to think an observe in alternative ways. The arts can free us to think, dream and sense and unlock intuitive and creative impulses that makes us able to become more free, more natural and to sense truths and meanings that can be grasped in no other way.

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    ~ Hermann Hesse