Art is useful otherwise it would not be made and enjoyed. Yet it is not as useful as Science, since the products of Science are used by everyone: no one questions a car, a smartphone or a computer because they are socially conditioned into a necessity. One of the distinctive qualities of art is that it has indirect effects that are arduous to quantify, whereas science has quantifiable benefits. Everyone uses a smartphone; the esoteric use a Banksy print. That science is useful to everyone regardless of their preferences makes it democratically more important—important in that, if well used, it improves conditions and helps people.
But Science provides the lower needs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – painkillers, nutrition, healthcare, administrative software allow people to exist easily and live reasonably comfortably. Many people dedicate their lives to and are fulfilled by Science alone, albeit with a little design in the mix. Nevertheless for the majority Art provides for the higher needs that must be met once the brain is able to think beyond survival and utility. And has many uses to satisfy the excess of brain we have; to give meaning to life.
Art provides: meaning, therapy, empathy, widely known ideas, appreciation and belonging
- Meaning. Thinking through imagery, emotions and topics gives meaning to life and overall succeeds in persuading (whether it is a trick or not, it is for the best) that anything, art included, thoughts included, matters. It does not always make us happier, indeed can make us cry. But it is the range of emotions that gives meaning and later happiness . Cultivates our minds into things mattering by encouragement that questions and consciousness are not mistakes, or madness, but characteristic of human life. Friedrich Nietzsche says: Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest”. And he is right.
- Therapy and empathy. Art functions as a consolation, or reparation, for the faults of our lives making them endurable and pleasurable. It purges bad emotions and instills an acceptance for the misfortunes of life that in turn fosters empathy for fellow humans that as beings suffer the same things, feel, often more so, than that of the audience.
- Spreads ideas. Ideas will only catch on and change society or have effect on a populace if they are widely known. Art often works to popularise ideas and propagate them – for example in Leo Tolstoy the goodness and depth and humanity of people or as in the original function of blazon poetry- to treat women respectfully, or in Jane Austen the need for partners to co-operate and pragmatically complement each other for a good marriage. Art usually proposes ideas as counteraction to the dominant movements and ideas of the day–against industrialism, say, or for workers rights or for simpler pleasures. Art that has been successful has institutionalised ideas and made them affect people by packaging them in more than logic.
- Appreciation. Altering consciousness gives appreciation and novelty and interest to the world. We overlook most of the every-day as just objects that are incidental or in our way or inconvenient. We treat objects and, even worse, people as though they were merely furniture or extras for our internal lives. In the depiction of the banal, edgy, askance, or rare an artist calls our attention and hence respect and precious attention to what before we barely recognised as being part of Life, or our world, as Vermeer presents the banal (just a milkmaid, say) as being a beautiful and worthy subject and abstract art passes over mimetic representation into the direct feelings that can be inferred from abstract lines and patterns and a love poem partly creates Love. The last is what the philosophy around ‘life imitating art’ means: it’s an inversion where reality is made by art, not the other way round. Imprecise but it does get at what’s correct: there is no art versus life but life altered by art and art altered by life in an intractable loop.
- Belonging. Art is part of culture and so it provides a vocabulary and ritualistic rites (reading, sharing, museum going, art making) for a society, people, culture to have values and something to talk about and do and enjoy and so bind-together over. It provides a means to transcend the self for a group and in the greatest examples to transcend even that group to a more worldly perspective–as I would arguably say of a Murakami novel or a Yann Tiersen piece.
While all these purposes are interlinked and important: meaningfulness, and ultimately pleasure, are most reliable. Because pleasure historically endures where social conditions and moralistic motives wane. For example, The Iliad or The Tale of Genji or paintings of The Passion are not enjoyable, or read, because of their contemporary use or lessons we can extract but because of the pleasure, the interest they provide of themselves–rarely with ulterior motive. No ulterior motive should be needed; just as there need be no ulterior motive or justification to staying alive or thinking: in the end ‘whys’ have no end. It results in infinite regression.
To echo Susan Sontag – one should not ask what it says or what it is for but realise, really realise, what it does.
Why Arts and Humanities Matter