Why Art Matters
This is an abridged version of a 5-minute presentation to Leadership Akron on "Why Art Matters," including the full text of a 10 year-old note.
The question of why art matters is not all that different from why you matter. Why people matter. Why anything matters.
I believe in the health of art and the power of creative courage. To me, art is an inward necessity. It is a manifestation of the creative impulse, and something we all share. Anytime a person chooses to make a difference, help a stranger, write a letter, pick up garbage, or throw a stone into a lake, they are harnessing an intrinsic part of themselves to shape the world.
Many people see art as a luxury. The word "art” conjures feelings of hope, of pushing the boundaries, of something that inspires and elevates the world to a new level. But when we talk about art, things get difficult.
For a lot of people, the experience of art has been humiliating and fraught with failure. Stick figures. Tone deaf. No rhythm. Can’t write. Social anxiety. – Everyone has an excuse for abandoning some form of creative expression at one point in our lives.
But if I were to ask you what makes something priceless, you would say there is some kind of artistry to it. How is it that we can so easily dismiss something with such an unlimited potential for value?
Would it surprise you to know that last year’s global art sales totaled $56.6 billion? That’s down 11% from 2015, but it’s still twice the brand value of every North American sports team (MLB, NFL, NBA, MLS, etc.).
When people think of the value of art, they don’t think about a child’s drawing on a refrigerator. They think of Picasso, Rothko, Basquiat, or work like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which just sold for $450 million. This needs to change.
And when we think of art that is priceless, it is not that a price can’t be put on it. It is that the value is determined by what the market can bare. That priceless, limitless capacity of art is why art matters for so many.
“The feeling of immortality is not only the result of creating, but the presupposition upon which it rests.”
– Otto Rank
Research from Exeter University’s School of Psychology shows that art in the workplace makes people happier, healthier, and 32% more productive. Art has been proven to reduce stress (78% agree), increase creativity (64% agree), and encourage greater expression of opinions (77% agree). If art does that in the workplace, imagine what it can do in your home or in the public space. Imagine what it is already doing. What it could still do.
“We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
– John F. Kennedy
With that in mind, I’d like to share a note I found last night while preparing for this presentation. I wrote this 10 years ago, and I think there is some artistry to it which is still of value today.
Introducing the Problem
“The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
– William Butler Yeats
I became aware of the problem when I was first asked “Is there such a thing as love?” It never occurred to me that others might not know, feel, or sense it. “Of course there is,” I would say. “If you believe in it then that means it can exist for someone else.”
Recently, my uncle confided in me that he is no longer certain that truth exists. It is often said that hope is a fruit born of youth, but my uncle’s cynicism surprised me. He is a thoughtful, intelligent, and well-travelled man. What could cause this crisis of faith? In a word: humanity.
Never before has mankind known so much and so little about the world in which it loves. Global communication and awareness has shaken the foundation of our trust, forcing new responsibilities and consideration upon those who were all too ready to accept their limitations. Now we fight and struggle for the familiar, desperately trying to slow the change that we know must come.
Throughout the fear and uncertainty, we are all trying to cling to something that we can be sure of: a job, a loved one, a country, an exercise, an excuse.
We live without a unifying theory for all that we now find around us.
My uncle shared his concerns with me. We talked about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Israel. We talked about the media, the American presidential race, Hannah Montana, Benazhir Bhutto, the surge, the internet, and marketing trends. We talked about whether or not the internet is safe for my thirteen year-old cousin and about why we have mass executions in our schools. We talked about the psychology of our country and the common American individual. We talked about immigration, the marketplace, mass media, and guerrilla advertising. We talked about art, terrorism, religion, and liberty. We talked about all of these things and more. Throughout it all I conceded his every concern and fear, but on the subject and nature of truth, I would not move. I could not. If I waiver on truth our world will crumble.
And yet, so the world crumbles around me. Our country was born from the people, by the people, and for the people – yet we continue to suffer as people always have. The exploiter has become the exploit. The abuser is now the abused. The revolution has become the institution and we are all to blame.
I talked to my uncle about truth and how I believed it to be a permanent and constant thing. He mentioned history and political spin while I chipped in preferential viewpoints and still, I maintained the position for the immutability of truth. This only aggravated his concern for the attainment of truth.
Before the discussion could spin any further, something in my uncle clicked without any justification. Maybe it was stubborn optimism, or the response on the tip of my tongue “the truth is not for us to have, but to participate into being.” Maybe it was the scotch.
The debate over the existence of truth ended there, but my thoughts turned to Yeats and the myth of reluctant leadership. What good do our thoughts or considerations do if they are not shared? How many eternal truths of life and the universe have drifted through our fingers as others fervently pursued mortal gains?
I am probably wrong about a great many things, but I realized that I needed to share my thoughts about these great mysteries, if only to brighten the path as it was brightened for me.
January 14, 2008