Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why Make Art?

Osiris (Decommissioned)
Moral philosopher Peter Singer's famously provocative essay "The Singer Solution to World Poverty," offers a very readable and straightforward set of arguments which culminate with the assertion that anyone who has money s/he does not strictly need should be giving it away: "I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening." It's an essay that generates good discussion, and often a fair amount of squirminess, when I ask my students to read it. The squirm factor arises from the fact that while the logic of the essay is quite compelling, its conclusions do not square with the vision the students have of their place in the world nor with the sense that they have that they are entitled to what is their own. That's exactly why I ask them to read it. I want them to at least entertain the notion that there are questions of equity and justice and moral obligation underlying the routines and habits of mind of our everyday lives. The way it is is not necessarily the way it should be. If you see it as a worthy objective to spend your life in a way that creates value, then what sorts of value do you endorse? And how would you wish to spend your time in the furtherance of those values?

The other day I wrote a post about some of the questions that were presenting themselves to me as I somewhat reluctantly went about the process of throwing out a number of pieces of my own artwork. One question that I raised, and promised myself to try to work through, was the question of time/value as in applies to art?

Questions abound. What is the point of art? Does it do anything positive? Does it make our lives better in any way that can be convincingly articulated? Why bother taking pigments and smearing them about on a canvas? Would a world without, say, Rembrandt and Picasso, be any less full or miraculous than the world we have now? Following Singers's logic, given the enormous number of hours it takes a Rembrandt or a Picasso to learn his craft and the lifetime given over to the practice of it, would not that time be better spent in doing work which would be of some direct benefit to others who are in real need of help, rather than in doing work which will only be of interest or value to people with enough wealth, education, leisure time, and expendable income to be able to decorate their lives with it?

These are not new questions. Throughout history there have been those who have, on religious or political or philosophical grounds, argued for the destruction of artwork, the burning of books, the leveling of class distinctions based on wealth. Some of these people have been psychopathic autocrats, some of them have been intellectuals, some of them have been celebrated as saints. A full-fledged review of these questions and how they have been answered throughout history would take me the rest of my life to conduct. And the question would re-present itself with regard to that enterprise as well: why study art or art history? Why not serve meals at a soup kitchen instead, or plant a garden, or work on a cure for cancer, or spend one's hours in meditation or in prayer?

In my own case, the time/value question I was posing to myself was whether the time I myself am spending, as an amateur artist, results in the creation of any sort of value I can endorse, or whether it's simply an act of self-indulgence, the frittering away of untold hours in the creation of work which the world could well do without.

So here, in the spirit of a thought experiment, are some of the things that occur to me as I attempt to justify the ways of myself to myself:

The Value of Attentiveness

Let's start with the idea that it is better to be attentive than to be inattentive. Being alert to, and aware of, and taking care of, our environment and the things and people in it, would seem to be a positive good, just as being inattentive, careless, or oblivious would seem to be conditions of mind to be avoided. So if attentiveness is a habit of mind to be cultivated, if it's something we'd rather be good at than bad at, how might we go about developing it? It stands to reason that practice would help. And what better practice than drawing? Drawing forces you to focus, to take note of what you see and to direct your hand to re-present what you see. Other kinds of artwork as well, even collage and abstract art, demand first of all that you attend to the materials at hand, and then assemble them in some purposeful way. Time that one spends in the creation of artwork allows us to practice and strengthen our capacity for focused attentiveness. The same might be said of other disciplines: writing, meditation, gardening. It doesn't have to be art. But if it is art, there are personal benefits to be reaped from one's engagement in it, even if the products are not at the level of Rembrandt and Picasso. Or even if they are not very good at all.

The Value of Engagement

One might imagine having to pay attention to something but not deriving much pleasure from it. "Engagement," as I am using it here, is the experience of doing something that you enjoy in a way that produces satisfaction and makes the time feel rich. There are some people for whom drawing or artwork might not be engaging. In my case, I really do take pleasure in the physical process of doing artwork. Thirty years ago, I was perhaps most completely engaged when I was playing basketball, another activity which produces not overt social good but which indirectly confers other benefits (fitness, camaraderie, the development of a set of skills). Now that my basketball days are over, I find the same kind of personal satisfaction in the creation of artwork. I don't expect that every piece will succeed. But from time to time there are pleasant surprises, and the in-between times feel like time well spent.

The Value of Appreciation

I never played hockey when I was growing up. In my middle years I taught at a school where hockey was a big thing, and I went to a number of games to see students I taught playing in them. But I could never really distinguish the better players from the rest because I did not really understand or appreciate the skill set involved. With basketball it was different. I spent forty years playing the game and twenty coaching it, and to this day I can "read" a basketball game much more skillfully and with greater appreciation than I can a hockey game. My thesis is this: if you want to improve your understanding and appreciation of whatever it is—hockey, basketball, basket weaving, carpentry, guitar—it's enormously helpful that you have some hands-on experience in that area. As an English teacher, one of the core experiences I try to provide for my students involves learning how to read as a writer and write as a reader. For example, a student who has actually been recently and actively engaged in the writing of poetry is going to bring a different set of eyes to any poem s/he reads than a student who has never even tried writing poems. Likewise, a student who has read a great deal of poetry brings a fuller experiential sense of what a poem might be, how it might be constructed, how it might unfold, than a student who loves to write but has no real sense of the work that others have done before.

I can say this from personal experience: until I began drawing and painting, I did not notice or register the artwork that was in my environment, and even when I did, I very often did not "get it." After five years of working on my own artwork, I am much more aware of and appreciative of the work that other artists have done and are doing. In other words, doing art is educative. As I began to develop my own ways of working, I became more interested in and knowledgeable about other artists locally and throughout the world who share my particular quirky set of obsessions. Appreciation, whether of literature, or of art, or of any other area of human endeavor, is a good thing.

So yes, while I understand the reservations some may have about whether the time I spend, or anyone else spends, producing art is justified, for my own self it has brought, and I hope will continue to bring, real benefits.

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