Why Artists Are Essential

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Why Artists Are Essential

From Mary Eaton

Published before 2005

[ Recently, I was chatting via email with a friend who is a budding author and in the midst of the usual litany of money woes and lack of time to write, the topic of why society in general and some people in particular disparage struggling authors and artists as "slackers" (or worse) came up. This was my reply. ]

Oh, yes! I know that reaction very well. I don't know how to explain to people with that viewpoint that working hard with your brain and hands while painting and drawing is just as hard as digging ditches. Maybe it's because the work is mostly internal and not readily apparent to lookers-on. Besides, to anyone who can't draw or paint, an artist's ability to do it can make it look too easy and therefore dismissable.

There is a very real need to earn a living so that there is food on the table, milk for the children and clothes for their backs, utilities to pay for so as to live indoors in comfort -- to say nothing of the rent or mortgage! All that is basic necessities and should be taken care of first. No-brainer, there.

I think what most people lose sight of is that, once the basics are cared for, the human spirit needs more than only the basic necessities to sustain itself -- so we humans make things. We make beautiful things, imaginative and religious things. We create because, psychologically, we are hardwired to. If a person can't draw or paint or sculpt, then that person would sing or write or .... they need to create will find an outlet for it, no matter how obvious or subtle. Sometimes it is hard to discern, but we still create.

There is no denying it. We must do this. It is imperative that we do so. Else we die, figuratively if not literally.

Outside of its religious endeavors and aspects, the Protestant Work Ethic you mentioned is pretty grounded in the tangible, the concrete, the practical. It has its purpose, don't get me wrong: I don't think that the Renaissance would have gone much further than the late 1500s without it. Certainly the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Reason and the development of the scientific method of inquiry would have been longer in coming ... if they arrived at all! Think of where we would be today if not for that.

But you and I know that there has to be more than that, for the spirit in all of us to survive. Much more.

You know, it's odd, isn't it? Before the Industrial Revolution arrived on the scene, beautiful things like handpainted china and artwork and carved and joined furniture and so on were the territory of the skilled artists and craftsmen who made those things and the wealthy people who paid well for them. Art and beautiful goods were considered worth the expense and the maker of those things was deemed worthy of being paid well for his or her skills.

The Industrial Revolution cheapened the value society placed on paying the artist and craftsman for the work even as at the same time it made such things as painted china, art prints, and furniture available to a wider cross section of the populace, a sort of art-goods egalitarianism. Yet egalitarianism aside, I don't think that the skilled craftsman or artist has ever gotten back to his or her pre-Industrial standing as far as perceived worth afterwards. I now understand just why the Aesthetic Movement in Britain and the Arts and Crafts Movement in the US came about as they did. William Morris of England and Gustav Stickley (among others) in the US could see the writing on the wall! They knew that the valued place artists and craftsmen held in society was waning and they did their utmost to bolster it by making even-more lovely things by hand, in defiance of the machines; it was, however an effort doomed to fail, as the price tag was deemed too high upon completion of their pieces and was, ironically, judged as elitist. So artists and craftsmen lost their highly valued place in the grander scheme of things.

Oh sure, we wine and dine our modern celebrities in the entertainment industry and in the sports arena today, some authors and scholars are likewise so honored; there are even some artists in there, too, but the everyday craftsman or artist is simply left in the dust. Unlike our ancestors stuck living in an age when if one wanted something nice or even well made, and thus one had to make it by hand and so anyone who could do this sort of thing for you was valued highly, we in this day and age have a glut of such things made by machines and so no one really stops to think about how it got here or even if a person made it ... All that has the result of masking the real effort necessary to actually write a book or paint a canvas or embroider a length of cloth or make a fine piece of furniture: it has all been reduced to price and perceived value for the money.

Yet how can you put a price on joy? How can one measure the uplift to the soul when a beautiful thing is appreciated for its own sake? Can one quantify the benefit of living where the eye can rest on a little oasis of beauty when so much in the world is simply ugly and utilitarian? Can you put pennies to musical notes to tally the worth of a concerto by Rachmaninov? A symphony by Beethoven? A music recital by your six-year-old? Can one put a monetary value, by the word, to a poem by John Donne? Or a sonnet by Shakespeare? A novel by your favorite author? A handmade birthday card from a child?

Some things are simply intangible and fundamentally important to our well being. Artists and writers and all the rest who create provide that certain ineffable something for those who cannot do this for themselves. The ancients knew this. The prehistoric peoples knew this, too. Modern Man, for all his technological and social advances, should sit up and take note of that.

And while I don't discount the value of having machines replace human labor in labor-intensive or physically heavy tasks, I don't think that the human touch should be placed on a lower par in comparison. There is a very real value in something handmade and the one who made it should be fairly compensated for the time and effort that went into creating that something.

If only we could get all this on a little business card and hand it out to every person who disparages or denigrates creative effort, maybe this art/artist-friendly viewpoint will get out and circulate and take root. Don't you think?

Or why not start when these people are young? Start teaching them to value all this when they are in elementary school. I know arts education funding has been cut drastically in the last, oh, forty years. But really, I can't exactly blame the policy makers when what is held up as Art is simply Modernist Art-crap. If the works of Waterhouse or Rossetti or Bouguereau can be pooh-poohed, doesn't it follow that anything made to a less exacting standard of excellence should be even more harshly criticized?

That this is not the case is one of the cruelest hoaxes perpetrated on the world's population in the past one hundred years.

I can't tell you how many times I've been in a museum and seen a field trip class being led in and made to look at the modern crap, being called on student by student and asked to determine what this piece or that piece meant or was trying to say. What utter and complete bullsh*t! The students know it's bullsh*t, they also know they can't say it's bullsh*t (not without suffering societal and academic censure), and so they learn to dread being dragged into museums to try to make nice with the bullsh*t. They are told that what they do like -- i.e. the Old Masters, the Royal Academicians, in short anyone who painted or sculpted to the degree of excellence that took us 2500 years to reach and which culminated in the 19th century, much less anything even recognisably representational -- is dismissable, that their tastes are merely old-fashioned at best and unforgivably ignorant at worst.

Well, duh. Where do you think the phrase "Well, I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like" and the plea for an exemption from toeing the Party Line that it contains, came from?

And educators wonder why kids aren't interested in art anymore? People wonder why studio artists and craftsmen aren't able to make a decent living anymore ... at least not the vast majority of them. Look to how children are being taught and, more importantly, what they are being taught about art, and I think you'll see the root of the Art problem in our Modern age. I think that it is a cruel irony that, in an era when Fine Art prints in full color can be had for a pittance (or seen on the Internet for free in public libraries) and thereby obviate a possibly expensive trip to a museum to view that art, most people haven't been exposed to that Fine Art ... even those who live in towns and cities with decent museums and collections.

Yet everyone up to the age of 16 is required, by law and pain of legal penalties for non-compliance, to go to school.

With such a captive audience, why not make sure a decent art education is given?

If Fine Art appreciation is cultivated, then a higher societal value on artists and craftsmen can't be too far behind, could it? Furthermore, I would think that as the expectation of excellence is cultivated amongst viewers and buyers, artists and craftsmen would have to produce work that satisfies that expectation ... or they will pay the consequences as prospective buyers and viewers vote with their feet and their pocketbooks in the favor of those artists and craftsmen who do deliver what is appreciated. I have heard it said that Art was supposed to be egalitarian, in that it should be accessible to all and not merely be the purview of industrial giants and the monied, privileged few. I can't think of a more democratic and egalitarian way of making that sentiment true than educating everyone in what makes Fine Art fine. Our schools are the perfect venue for that.

Furthermore, I can't think of a better way to make sure that the artists and craftsmen themselves aren't ghettoized into the many-who-starve vs. the few-who-rake-it-in. If the viewer/buyer pool is expanded, then the artist/craftsman pool would likewise expand and be financially rewarded ... especially if both sides of the equation pursue excellence openly and individually for themselves, instead of leaving it to the so-called Modern Art-Intelligensia to call the shots and set the standard.

Until that enlightened day comes I, as a parent of two small children, will simply have to keep speaking up on this matter and making sure that my children have access to Fine Art and Craftmanship. So I will take them to museums and galleries. I will draw and paint with them, give them time and access to those supplies. I will show coffee-table books filled with all that is excellent and fine. I will, in short, share my love of beautiful things with them and with anyone else who is interested. Whether this is done in the schools or in the home, this is the least all of us can do. In this way, knowledge and appreciation is wealth. Share the wealth, and sooner or later, everyone will have their own personal share of it.