Imagine a world without art

Imagine a world without art.

It wouldn’t be a world without beauty, because—face it—we’re surrounded by more beauty in nature than we mortals could ever create.

And it wouldn’t be a world without creativity, because humans survive by solving problems, and solving problems requires creativity.

And we would still express ourselves, still communicate with one another, because that’s what humans do; it’s who we are.

So what would be missing?

Artists. The impulse to make art. The impulse to express . . . what?

Art is expression. Art is a particular and peculiar kind of communication. Through it, we express feelings and ideas, pose questions, articulate meaning. So how is art distinct from language?

Before language, before expression, art is a response. Art is a particular way of responding to the world, different from thought but partaking of thought, different from feeling but partaking of feeling. Art is a way to process and understand information coming to us from outside and inside of us, a means to connect perception and thought and feeling, to discern relationships hidden in the clutter of the mundane.

Art is how we interpret the world.

And art making begins the moment we clutch our first crayon.

Would we even know beauty without art? Imagine color as a mere signifier of information: this yellow fruit is ripe; those green berries will make you sick; snakes with red stripes kill. Imagine form determined solely by function or ease of production. Imagine being unmoved by color, impartial to shape.

Imagine indifference to proportion, balance, symmetry, line. Imagine rhythm doesn’t matter and melody as simply sound. Imagine your life without narrative. Try to understand anything without metaphor. Imagine yourself unadorned, your home undecorated. Imagine nothing inspiring you to song.

Imagining is an act of art.

Responding to beauty, to symmetry, to rhythm is in our DNA, and making art is a primal response to beauty. We collectively make art because we must. We don’t all agree on what art is, but we all are drawn to whatever we define it to be. I believe we all enter life with the impulse—and the capacity—to make art. If we are able to follow that impulse, we make art for ourselves; if that impulse is thwarted, we find art nonetheless. Artists or nonartists, we gather it and surround ourselves with it.

Art is so much a part of our daily scenery that we sometimes forget how much we value it.

We value it because it gives us pleasure. We value it because it brings beauty to our personal spaces—indeed, it makes personal the spaces we inhabit.

But beauty isn’t the only reason we make art. Art is how we make sense of ugliness, how we find meaning in loss, how we understand pain. Art is how we make sense of life.

And so we also value art because it enables us to see the world and ourselves differently. We value it because it lifts us out of our everyday struggle for survival. We value it because it seems to speak directly to us, reminding us of truths we otherwise tend to forget. We value it because it connects us, and reconnects us, to ourselves and to each other and to the world and to something bigger than the world.

Art is how we talk back to life.

For some of us, art is how we speak with the divine.

Art is the language of the soul. Art is the voice—no, the breath—of spirit.

Spirit is what we express through art.

And spirit is what we need more than ever in these dim, uncertain days.

So take a moment today to experience the art around you, in all its forms—painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, writing, music, dance, drama, film, video, architecture, furniture, craft, fashion, food, graphics, tattoos—however you define it for yourself. Take it in; receive its gifts; know its wealth.

Imagine a world without it.

A rejoinder

I found a perfect rejoinder to my question of whether beauty is enough. It is a poem by Mary Oliver, from her 2005 collection Why I Wake Early.

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air—
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music—like the rain pelting the trees—like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds—
A white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

—Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early (2005)

And there is this quote from an interview with her: “I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us.”