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Art for Others’ Sake
There is no easy answer to the question: What is art?
In this short article I will seek to answer that question, then try to answer the question: What is the purpose of an Arts Council? Our strategy will be to build the answer layer upon layer
- Art is representation of that which of itself is not art.
The figure of a man is just a man. But when Michelangelo carves a David we have art. A horse is a fine creature, but when brushed on the wall of an ancient cave, or represented in bronze by Frederic Remington, we have art. Nature, human conflict, love, life and death - when represented in paint, dance, music or drama, becomes art.
- Art is story, not in the original events but in the retelling of them.
Then all the arts of poetry, prose, oratory, dance and drama are pressed into service so to make the story meaningful and compelling that the audience gains fresh insight, perspective, enjoyment and even inspiration. Sometimes it is the artistic retelling of story that provides the most penetrating social commentary, raising questions about the nature of power and corruption with more potency than any penny pamphlet or sermon. The Greek playwrights had that in common with William Shakespeare. We often forget that behind nearly all music is the telling of story whether it be a country lament that the dog died and the car ran out of gas, or Beethoven’s mighty tribute to the Emperor Napoleon.
- The Arts are also an aide to memory.
For most of human history there were few books, and certainly no internet to preserve everything in words. Festivals that mark the seasons, culture that defines a community, faith that lifts people to God, all have been preserved by means of the arts. From cave drawings to tribal songs and dance, to hymns; from scrapbooks, to dress making, to the illumination of manuscripts. The list is endless. Without art much of human history would have been lost forever.
- Art is imagination projected.
Arts is more than the representation of that which we can see and hear. It is also pure imagination extruded from the mind into a communicable form. Think of Picasso, Jackson Pollack or the composer John Cage. Every work of fantasy starts in the mind of an artist and creeps out of the brush, the pen, the instrument, takes shape, and molds into a form that begins to make sense to an audience.
- And art is yet more.
For it is not just the objects that artists bring into being but the very talent, skill and inventive genius that unites artistic expression with the ability to model the creations of the mind into the art form. The artistic skill is to be most greatly prized for it not only brings out the creative nature of man but uniquely defines who man is. He is a creator. If you wish further to explore the religious implications of that, please do so.
So now we see that art is very complex. Everything around us is shaped and fashioned by art. Though not everything that purports to represent reality, or even the inventions of the mind, deserve to be called art. And why?
Take photography. Don’t you sense a wide difference between the captivating black and white landscapes by Ansell Adams and the snapshots of party-goers with pints in hand, or cutesy poses of grinning girls destined for Likes on a Facebook page? So much of the true art of photography comes with those careful compositions that capture a view of the world that the casual onlooker misses. Cheap and easy representation is seldom artistic.
Crucial value of the arts.
The exercise of the arts enhances deeper understanding and insights in those who study them. They raise the competence of school children and produce a more flexible and inventive workforce. As such they are highly to be prized by employers who know that a creative workforce brings profit to the bottom line - unless their workers are slaves, hired hands whose task is simply to deliver the product of mindless, repetitive work.
We begin to approach the purpose of this little essay. Those with a finer appreciation of the arts will always take time to enjoy them: music, images, dance, theatre, shapes, photographs. There seems to be little wrong with enjoying art for art’s sake.
But there are those – many – who have been art deprived. The home, the school, the workplace did little to stir the creative instincts that life us above sheer tedium into a world of aesthetic thrills where people sense their own nobility.
So why an Arts Council?
A man recently asked my, Why should I join the Arts Council? I imagined the subtext to be – What will I get out of it? Will I get more recognition, more gigs in pubs, more studio commissions? What benefits will accrue from my $25 or $50 membership?
And I went back to our mission statement:
See that. We have a mission to support, to advocate, to educate to reach out. And why? Because the arts “enrich the quality of life.” Those few simple words pack a megaton of explosive meaning that simply passes over the heads of those who take no time to think.
We, in the Anaheim Arts Council, are not here for our sake, or for Art’s Sake.
We are here for Other’s Art’s Sake.
And that is so important to the “quality of life” at a time when many families are art deprived, that I invite you not only to join us, but to help us with your time and your talent to engage in this majestic mission!
The article was originally delivered as an opening talk at the September 2013 General Meeting of the Anaheim Arts Council.