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Is Art Necessary?

Some thoughts from studioNOTES readers.

One thing is for sure...what a co-worker of mine once said about art is not's primary function is not just to record history...I think this function is a wonderful byproduct of art. ...But my answer is more in the direction of art as a handmaiden for the experience of empathy and metaphor...and, through doing it, a chance for direct contact with the unknown . . .both sacred and profane.
Empathy in taking us out of our familiar (and often selfish or ego saturated) selves into the worlds of other people and places, enticed by both attractive and (unattractive) character ridden beauty. A good Tennessee Williams play does the latter easily, for example...or once the senses are primed by seeing a great painting after seeing the Homer exhibit at the deYoung, and noticing a late day reflection and mood in the trees around the lake at the Berkeley Marina in some odd way like the mood Homer painted in the Adirondacks. This kind of empathy can bring joy or feelings that don't exist at all before knowing art...the more you learn, the more you feel. After seeing Andy Goldsworthy's leaf snake in a river, now when I look at any leaf just dropped into water, it has one more shade of meaning it didn't have before.
Metaphor in that we can't live without fiction, Santa Claus, parables, and a connection to the spiritual side of life. (Spiritual more than just the word God, but including a lively connection to everything, including the stock market, people you think you don't like, waiting in lines, etc.-- all can come alive through just the right story, play or artistic re-representation.) Paul Klee talked about the quicksands of reality. It's soooo tempting to just copy it. ..and as time goes on reality is harder and harder to distinguish from artifice. Reality TV, stories 'based on actual events,' etc. But if we think about it, what really intrigues us about reality? Dry facts? or someone's personal view of the facts? What is the truth? Eliel Saarinen said that life can't survive eating pre-digested food. Art does a lot of things..not all good, but I don't know what I'd do without it.
--Jon Larson, architect, painter, Berkeley CA
* * *
Why is art necessary?
In a perfect world there would be no art.
Art is born of necessity to a world of imperfection. In a sense, we all live within ourselves, within our own consciousness, within our perceptions. In this simple fact of human psychology art is born. Through the arts, we have the capacity to consciously shape our perception and the perception of others. The sensations created by an art form are called esthetics. Beauty is a part of esthetics, but only a small part. Often the reason an artist is compelled to create has nothing to do with capturing beauty or perfection. The need to create, the creative imperative, is more primal and infinitely more subtle than the cliche of beauty.

Somewhere in the dark recesses of our being, mind, body, and spirit are washed by the tides of reality. Art speaks of that fateful confluence. If I may borrow liberally from a lecture of a deceased teacher, an illustration may help to clarify my point of view. The workshop of the Master of Flemalle created an altarpiece, a panel of which shows the crucifixion of the Good Thief. The work is remarkable in its graphic depiction of this torturously slow form of execution. The executioners have broken his legs to speed his death. Gangrene has set in. The teacher who discussed this work said that nothing like it can be found in either the works attributed to the Master of Flemalle or indeed in medieval art. He speculated that whoever created the figure of the Good Thief may have died shortly after the work was completed, in other words an unnamed apprentice. This would explain both the singularity of the work and the depth of feeling it captures. It has the ring of truth. There are many other less conjectural examples I could describe, but this is a good story from a great teacher. The arts speak of the depth of the human spirit, which is not always observable in everyday reality. We all need to see a glimpse of that in ourselves and others.

One important observation should be noted within this discussion. As a friend recently commented, "Art is real work."

I wish more people would cultivate their own creativity. People would be happier, communities would be stronger, and the arts healthier.
--Larry Gregson, painter, Iowa
* * *
Lately I have joined the masses of hip Americans who are fans of The Sopranos. Because I have arrived late in the game, I have seen sort of scattered shows and am now starting with the first season and working my way through them.

In the first show when Tony Soprano goes for his first visit to the shrink he sits with his face kind of screwed up and looks intently at a sculpture (Robert Graham?) of a female nude. He is clearly thinking something. My thought was -- here is Everyman -- maybe having his first real encounter with fine art.

In another show he arrives at his shrink, full of emotion. This time his eye is captured by a painting of a red barn with some trees. Once into his session he lays into his therapist for the "trick" painting -- he is not to be fooled by it. All that foreboding and darkness in the painting is some kind of Rorschach test. The painting is innocuous but his response is laden with his own unhappiness. Here is not exactly fine art, but a painting nonetheless having an emotional exchange with the viewer.

Images have connections to us in deep ways. They can help us uncover truths about ourselves and our world. They can soothe us when we perhaps have too much of ourselves or the world. This is from the point of view of the Everyman.

From the point of view of the artist, the necessity of creating is compelled by the thing inside that needs to be said. There are many things that don't find their parallel in the spoken word. Painting and all the visual arts, and dance and music and poetry all approach those truths obliquely. Getting these things out of the artist and into the world is an important function. Once out in the world they can accrue interpretations not even dreamt of by the creator -- but also good to have out in the world.

Later in the Soprano series there is a funny bit about a painting that Tony had made of him and his darling racehorse who has met an unfortunate retaliatory demise. He has received the commissioned work after the horse's murder and in disgust orders his henchmen to get rid of it. One guy, a particularly weasely one, decides that he will keep the painting instead of burning it. He takes it home and hangs it on the wall and sits watching the TV with the painting behind him. He keeps turning around and the eyes of  Tony Soprano seem to bore into him. He takes the painting to a framer who says he can change the figure so it looks different. They decide on a kind of Napoleon look. The resultant painting is a pastiche, a very funny object. Once again the guy takes the painting home and hangs it on the wall. Once again the eyes watch him. The directors very cleverly address the paranoia of a conniving henchman. At the same time they address the power of images.

We are bombarded by advertisement images -- the quality of which is being constantly tweaked by the fabulous software programs that create them. I think there will come a time when these tools actually are exploited to make fine art. In the meantime they are ubiquitous and are filled with the awful vacuum that is capitalist advertisement. They compel us to consume. They are clever, some of them, but their intent is not about the communication of the ineffable. They do not provoke the dialogue or the thought. They DO, however, provide actual paying work for artists so they aren't all useless.
--Judith Dunworth, painter, printmaker, SF CA
Art is a necessary part of life, it is food for the soul. By creating, giving and receiving art, the depths of our spirit are revealed to ourselves and each other. Art is one of the primary methods of forming the cultural bonds of our human community, it links us with something greater than ourselves. Great art dissolves the boundaries between art, life, self, other and spirit."
  --Matthew Purdon, painter, Internet artist, SF CA
Why is art necessary? That is like asking “Why is faith in God(s) necessary?” Humans can certainly exist without art or a connection to the divine, but what a colorless, banal and uninspired existence it would be. The muses of art, music, drama, dancing and poetry guide us to evolve; sometimes with gentle nudges and sometimes with startling bolts of creative lightening. The accessability of art is a gauge of freedom in a society, and the appreciation of it exalts us. Or as Albert Camus once wrote, “There is not a single true work of art that has not in the end added to the inner freedom of each person who has known and loved it.
--Mernie Buchanan, painter, muralist, Benicia CA
Art is necessary because it begins where words end. It is the necessary nourishment for the heart and soul and if humanity is to maintain any ounce of sanity it would not ignore it.
--Maryln Mori, painter, Saratoga CA
Art is a pathway to the subconscious, which taps into our soul, which connects us to the universe. That's a reason art is important to me, besides being fun.
--Jessica Phrogus, painter, tilemaker, Berkeley CA
Same necessity as air used for breathing which has something to do with inspire, or inspiration leading to creativity, birth and rebirth.
 --Rita Ayral, painter, Alameda CA
My wife and I host a monthly gathering of artists at our home. We met last night and discussed your question. I would summarize the consensus this way.
∙   Art is an intrinsic part of human existence, we are as surrounded by art as we are air.
∙    Look around you at all the objects that were designed or created by artists or art trained professionals.
∙    Another viewpoint expressed was that it is the artist's role in society to express the ineffable.
∙    And another said that there is no separation between art and life.
∙    To reverse the question, how could we possible live without art?
 --Guy Marsden, electronic sculptor, furniture maker, Maine
 Art is not
"necessary" to survive, but it may be necessary to flourish.

Art is NOT necessary, any more than Astronomy, Philosophy, or Classics are necessary. There is nothing Tangible that is derived from Art, other than maybe something to cover that crack in the plaster. So why do it? Why encourage it? Why absorb it?

Art, like Astronomy, Philosophy, et al, is an undertaking that expands our horizons, always striving to further the limits of Human accomplishment. It is about never being satisfied with what has come before and where we are today. It is about extending ourselves, using our faculties to the best of our abilities. It is about doing something well.

The true satisfaction from Art is what it says about ourselves to ourselves, regardless of what about it may impress others. This self-motivation is the key to what makes us Human as opposed to being satisfied with merely meeting our physical needs like the lower animals. Just "cruising" is not enough.

Surely this is somewhat of an elitist position. Many people have to struggle so hard (and sometimes fail) to provide the basic necessities for themselves and their families. For them, art will probably not even be in their universe or, as best, be no more than a fleeting stimulation. Their concerns and expressions of humaneness are no less significant, but they are centered inwardly around love and providing rather than through self-expression. Even existing at that level is superior to abandoning all hope and aspirations, so in a way they too are among the population of Humans. We can only regret that they do not have the opportunities that others of us have.
--Dave Himmelblau, collector, CA
For the artist, doing art is as necessary as breathing, it is the reaffirmation and exploration of the Self, it is a process that facilitates coming into self knowledge at least to some level, art can glorify this incredible many faceted creation and brings images, feelings, ideas, etc. to light that otherwise would not exist, it is the vital process of coming into greater awareness -- am I repeating myself?-- if so it deserves repeating many times over because our materialistic society still doesn't get it -- for the viewer, it is much the same but in a less intense mode -- it all depends on what the artist is offering and whether the viewer can personalize the art or not and how they approach the art whether for entertainment, "investment/social" purposes or to dialogue with it or other reasons -- hopefully, the viewer's spirit is uplifted, or he/she gains some insight into themselves and they grow from the experience -- art can take the viewer out of themselves, out of the humdrum of life and connect them with their feelings (music esp. but also visual art) -- I'm no doubt saying things you already know, so I'll quit.
--Othmar Tobisch, printmaker, painter, Berkeley CA
I have given up trying to save the world except by becoming a better member of the world community. Art is necessary for my own spiritual alignment and growth. When I am aligned, I move through life with more compassion and love.
--Diane Williams, painter, Benicia CA
Art is a gift brought forth from the sea of intuition by those who are not afraid to cast their boat on its waves. It is as necessary for the artist make it as it is for the public to receive it because it is a link to truth and beauty (although the message may not always be lovely or pleasant). Artists understand the necessity and drive to make art, but perhaps the public does not always understand why it needs to receive it. In a confusing and troubled world, I find a safe place in making it, and want my role as an artist to be helping the general public think in a more lyrical, joyful and less fearful way.
--Nancy Clark Lewis, San Carlos, CA
I know that art is necessary to me, but I don't think it really hit me until I was in my fifties -- when the children trooped out of the house and the career started winding down -- that art was really important to me. It occurs to me that I might never have realized how important it was if I had not had a wonderful mother -- an immigrant from Germany who came to New York and became enamored of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick. She began taking me to them both when I was very small. At the same time, in the New York public schools art was offered on a regular basis from grammar school though junior high school. In other words, the foundation was laid, thank God, and as I see my grandchildren developing today and see that they, too, are being offered art in a school district where parents value it I am hopeful that art will also be important in their lives. Paintings, sculpture, film, theatre -- they enhance our view of our everyday lives -- they help us see...hear...use all our senses. Without them, we are unformed, a bare step out of the cave.
--Heidi Seney, writer, painter, Berkeley CA
Off the top of my head my first answer is "art feeds my soul." There is nothing else in my life that connects me to the universe in such a meaningful way.
--Patricia Tavenner, printmaker, video artist, mail artist CA

We are wired that way.
--Biganess Livingstone, painter, printmaker, Benicia CA
I would say, "art is involuntary"
--Tamara Wyndham, printmaker, mail artist, NYC
 Fine art is necessary in the same way that poetry, dance, music, and theatre are necessary. It offers substance for the heart and soul in a world that is caught up in a feeding frenzy of endless, superficial gratifications leading no where. There are moments in which, through art, whatever the medium, as audience or as creator, one slips into the experience of the work and enters another dimension where everything is clearer, cleaner, purer, more real than what we call "reality" because it has struck a chord deep within that tell us we are looking at/listening to a core truth as essential as the blood in our veins. It brings us face-to-face, heart-to-heart with ourselves and the world in which we live.
--Barbara Jean, painter, Pleasanton CA
For me a current source on this question is Gerhard Richter. A member, like all good German boys of his era, of the Hitler Youth, he practiced in the soviet realism school and then defected to AE in West Berlin. An enormous oeuvre, well represented at SFMOMA until 1/16, he has also written of his positions extensively. I especially like his work on Benjamin, a member of my personal pantheon! Don (in dark times...and what a spur that can be)
--Don Cogswell, writer, photographer, Vacaville CA
When creating art it keeps one focused on "self" which allows the creative self to build self esteem -- a must for a congenial life, long journey.
--Connie Millholland, painter, public school art teacher, Vallejo CA
When one speaks of necessities it is important to keep in mind a checklist of these items, beginning of course with food, shelter, security, clothing (optional in some cases), and the possession of basic materials to construct art with. Here in Mumbai the first four are always in question for most of the population. Art is basically an elitist activity, produced by and catering to the upper middle class and higher -- people who have acquired an education, and know what they are looking for when they confront art. So yes, art is a necessity, but only for those who have the leisure to be moved by it.
--William Bruner, architect, painter, currently in India
This is my personal response as an abstract expressionist painter on why art is necessary. Art is necessary for expression of things we cannot and will never be able to verbally express. There is much to read in the non verbal expression of those we talk with, those we walk with and those we watch from a distance as we eat in a park or watch from our cars as we drive by. Art captures the essence of the time it is created and non verbally captures the feelings, emotions, struggles and energy of the moment. If you look at a brush stroke you can tell if it was done quickly, carefully, slowly or with a light hand. You can tell what a painting or sculpture's texture is by looking at it and never touching it. These are things that make art necessary. A chance for our minds to just be and to experience something from within when there is no one from the past to explain the past. Art is necessary as a recording of the energy of life past and present. The viewer is its only future.
 --Joan Elan Davis, painter,  SF CA
I would like to address the wholesale elimination or drastic cutting back of art in schools. I have many years of experience teaching and in administration and this has become a crisis particularly in the state of Oregon where the economy has been far worse and there are more hungry people here than in other areas of the country. Art has been viewed as nonessential and has been cut drastically. The problem is this: some children and adults have talent in art only because they are primarily visual learners and are not gifted in other academic areas. We have told them to ignore visual information. If we eliminate those art programs, we are speaking to a large population of future citizens and telling them that they have no place to shine in our most important systems and that if they shine anyway in visual areas like art that are not covered, we will not value that effort because it is outside the system. That is the same as telling all of us that we should go through our days ignoring our senses, with endless days of extreme frustration, extreme difficulty and rare success doing things we do not enjoy, with no hope the situation will ever change. If art is eliminated, there is no appreciation of good art -- we have lowered the bar and allowed the acceptance of mediocrity in search of any visual stimulation at all. If art is not seen as necessary, it is not included. Under these circumstances, it can easily be ignored and whole segments of our population are excluded. Art was an integral part of living in caves before the advent of our more advanced civilized human society. Ask this: have we suddenly decided to quit our humanity?
--Zel Brook, artist, Corvallis, Oregon
 Hi, have a great trip to Jonesboro, Arkansas -- where I lived just prior to my school years. 1951. On the corner of Cherry Street and Kitchen Street, about 1.5 miles from ASU. So, here is a pic of me and my sister in my grandpa's 1949 Dodge coupe, on Cherry Street.

Why is art necessary? If one believes that as human beings we have been given a unique ability to express ourselves creatively, then art is necessary. It is necessary for our own spirits and for the spirit of humanity, that we be able to touch that within us, beyond our consciousness and into our soul to be all that we can be.

That ability to both CREATE art and separately to RESPOND to art is every individuals connection to the depth of ALL life and the spirit of generations past and future. It is our necessary connection to an honest sense of who we truly are as spiritual beings and what our experiences mean to us.
--Carol Durham, graphic artist, Brooklyn NY
Art is necessary because it allows the artist to express feelings and also allows the person experiencing to art to see ,hear , feel, someone else's truth in another sometimes less confrontational way. If beauty is truth and truth beauty as some poet wrote, it also expands the views of beauty.
--Lois Gene Roberts, painter, SF CA
 A difficult question because art is a difficult word to define. Some art has a direct connection to our societal infrastructure, such as advertising or religious art. Some art is conceived as an act of protest against society or is propaganda. All these forms borrow from the art which exists solely for our pleasure of it. I believe this is the art we are deriving the question "Why is art necessary?". The first thing that popped into my head was the union protest song "We need bread, and roses too...". A world without art is a world without spirit. If you can imagine existence without spirit We would see a world of automatons. A bee hive with no flowers around it, no honey, robotic insects in a machinistic rhythmless drone. To say that it is what makes us human is also false. Animals will also perform acts, dances, leaps, songs that have nothing to do with territory or mating but seemingly are but expressions of the joy of life; Assuredly as necessary as breathing, or we would not only suffocate, but also all of life on earth would simply choke.
--Vincent Avalos, sculptor, assemblagist, CA
It keeps me saner.
--Dave Lofton, painter, SF CA
Art is about teaching how to feel. "Teaching" is probably the wrong word -- showing, allowing or training perhaps. In my case, creating is a process of understanding and defining then transcribing my mostly subconscious initial response to something. It's a process of making a statement about how I feel. And how I feel results from a response from all my senses -- smell, taste, touch, hearing, sight, and intuition. If I can express in my art even a part of what I felt and get another to respond to it, then both of us will understand ourselves and our shared humanity better. A connection is made with another person.

Being conscious of the sensory response to life, to existence, makes one aware of the connections among all things. As a result it's impossible to think only of oneself without being conscious of the impact on others and all things. Acknowledging feelings is the basis for creating a moral code. The value of art is in its humanizing qualities. A populace without an art education, and I mean all the arts, is a dysfunctional one: self-involved, in which making money is the main goal, and anger is the primary emotion. Wordsworth's poem about "getting and spending we lay waste our powers" is true. Therefore, in my view, art is necessary for our survival as a species.
--Nikki Ausschnitt, painter, SF CA
I think there's no question that art is as much a part of our human nature as eating, breathing, sleeping, procreation, communicating, etc. There is no time in history that people did not make art or perform art. It's just how we are. The issue becomes not if art is necessary, but how much we choose to nurture and support what is innate in us.
 --Miriam Grosman
Art & Physics, by Leonard Shlain (Perennial div. Harper Collins)  is well done, easy to read and without mathematical notation. $15.00 or less from Amazon. He is a practicing surgeon in SF and lives in Mill Valley. Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light by: Dr Leonard Shlain, Published by Harper Collins, reprinted 2001. Well done description of how some artists had pre-cognitive notions about quantum mechanics and their ilk. Available from Amazon or your favorite bookie.

Dave Slaven's Web Page [not currently available --ed.] Poker shark makes simple of leading edge topics like: Entropy, Relativity, Uncertainty (Heisenberg's), the Atom and of course Dave's Microcosm. You will get you"aha" light turned on!  Signifying Nothing: The 4th Dimension in Modernist Art and Literature Essay by Brad Ricca only on the WWW so far, Case Western Reserve University Phd candidate explains how Faulkner grasped the 4th dimension, and how the mistresses of Einstein beat Duchamp at chess. Heady stuff. The 4th Dimension
--Benbow Bullock, sculptor, Vallejo CA
 Here's my answer: Art is necessary for the soul to breathe.
--Emily Duffy, sculptor, fabric artist, El Cerrito CA
About 35,000 years ago, early men painted images on cave walls. Most art, until fairly recently, had a religious and architectural context. Regardless of the image or the sculpture, the art was always evocative; it always contained a message: messages that transcend words and time. Later on, art flattered royalty and, with the rise of the mercantile class, ordinary people who wanted to become immortal through portraits or sculpture. The great artists always gave us something transcendental to contemplate: the hips of the goddess, the dolmens of Stonehenge, the intriguing body of Venus from the Golden Age of Greece, the petroglyphs of early Americans, the snarling Jaguars Gods of the Maya, the beatific faces of the Saints that adorn Notre Dame in Paris, the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, the glint in the eyes of Rembrandt's self portraits, the shimmering light of Vermeer, the dissolution of light of the Impressionists and the dissolution of reality by the abstractionists, the boldness of Picasso's line. Each great work of art gives us an insight into the men and women who created the work as well as sharing their unique perception of the world.

As artists, that is all we have to offer.
--Michael Childs, painter,  Sausalito CA
I thinkk life is art. Every transaction we make is creative. Every day we have to make decisions, as when we drive what route to take. Everything becomes creative and artistic. Art is thought or Thought is Art.

Therefore everything we do derives from art itself. Why is it that we are fascinated with building great bridges, structures, cars, skyscrapers, because we have an idea and we want our legacy to last further than life.
--Cristina Rivera-Hess, photographer, SF CA

Art is necessary because there are lots of things that can't be expressed in any other way. Art is a way of being able to touch eternity for a moment. Art doesn't care if the bills are paid or what you are watching on tv. Art feeds the soul. Thank goodness somebody long ago thought up the idea "ars gratia artis", or "art for art's sake" because in this heavily-commercialized, painted-up version of reality most of us live within now, it seems that everything has to make money, everything has to be worth something or be sold for a certain price. Those of us who know better than to buy into that are comforted by the idea of "art for art's sake" because it gives us a reason to sit down and paint, write and make music every day (these are the things that I do) and not go slowly insane with the sense that we are shouting very loudly into a void that doesn't care about us or the things we do, the things that we rip up from our very souls and present for examination.
That is why art is necessary!
--Anna Huff, artist, writer and musician, Terlingua TX
* * *
Art is not necessary. Not necessary at all. That is what makes it beautiful.
--Tim Jones, Painter, Rogers, Arkansas
Art is necessary
because without it, artists would have no excuse for their odd behavior.
--Ricardo Toronto, photographer, Vallejo CA
We use art to remind us of what we so often forget, namely the importance of our intuition and our feelings. We all tend to get too specialized, "too responsible", become to rigid, and forget those elusive little things that lend a quality of mystery and magic to our lives. Art is a tool we need to re-humanize ourselves. I say don't leave home without it!
 --Philip Koch, painter, Baltimore MD

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Last updated Jan 28, 2005