Do we need art?

I have always liked art– drawing, reading, museums. But I went through a very literal phase as a teenager where I sort of didn’t get it. What’s the use? I’d ask. What’s the benefit? That’s nice, that’s fun, but is it important? Do we really need art? Shouldn’t we study engineering, or microbiology, or something? Now, I think the answer is yes, and yes.

We all have feelings, thoughts, orientations to the world. These can arise seemingly on their own and sit there, uninterrogated, shaping our lives. They may or may not be visible to us. Are we at their mercy, or do we have the capacity to guide them, direct them, respond to them deliberately? And how does this impact our well-being, as individuals and as communities?

I think that art— experiencing it, viewing it, reading it, hearing it, making it— is a way to engage with our thoughts and feelings outside of the direct lens we usually experience through. Like maybe we can sidle up to them and get close to them before we put up our guard. Or we can see them from a different angle than the head-on way we usually do.

Art doesn’t have to be formal, or even done with that intention, to have an impact on us. It doesn’t have to be in a museum, or in a studio. Some people are moved by Rothkos. Some people get philosophical about super hero movies. Or street art. It really doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, after experiencing it, you feel more alive, challenged, validated, inspired, confused, inexplicably joyful— something real. And these feelings are life-affirming. Engaging. Connecting. Have you ever bonded with another human over a song, a book, a movie? It’s powerful.

Using art to generate experience could also be therapeutic. In cognitive behavioral therapy, you learn to identify dysfunctional patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. Art can direct us to the un-distorted truths we may have lost. Art holds a space across from us and does a dance with us. There is a new and personal truth that can emerge between a work and the audience, and this is unique and sometimes life-changing.  This is an important idea for people who interact with other people, especially around challenging topics. There’s a great tradition of physicians writing— is it a stretch to think they are processing their up-close-and-personal experience of humanity? Art can guide and filter and reflect and enable our practice, our praxis.

fight fascismArt can also both reflect and shape social movements. Picasso wrote that art was not made decorate in apartments, but as an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy. Yes. Let that sink in. Art can pull people together, galvanize known truths, reflect flagrant injustices.

So the answer is YES, we need art to be happy, healthy, engaged humans. Seek out art in your life. Go to a museum, go to a movie, slow down and have a look when something striking catches your eye.

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