What is art for?

Top 5 reasons why art is such a vital force for humanity: 

 

1. Art keeps us hopeful

It's an obvious but striking fact that the most popular works of art in the world show pretty things. Happy people, flowers in spring, blue skies. This is the top-selling postcard in the world, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

WATER LILIES AND JAPANESE BRIDGE | CLAUDE MONET

(Figure 1: Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge by Claude Monet

This enthusiasm for prettiness worries serious types a lot. They wonder: "have people forgotten what life really is like". But that seems a misplaced worry. We need pretty things close to us. Not because we're in danger of forgetting the bad stuff, but because terrible problems weigh so heavily on us that we're in danger of slipping into despair and depression. That's why prettiness matters. It's an emblem of hope, which is an achievement, prettiness, those flowers, and blue skies and kitten Meadows is hope bottled and preserved waiting for us when we need it. 

 

2. Art makes us less lonely

The world often requires us to put on a cheerful façade, but beneath the surface, there's a lot of sadness and regret that we can't express from fear of seeming weird or a loser. One thing art can do is reassure us of the normality of pain. It can be sad with and for us. Some of the world's greatest works of art have been loved for their capacity to make the pain that's inside all of us, publicly visible and available. By putting on a sad piece of music, somber works of art don't have to depress us. Rather, they can give us the welcome feeling that pain is part of the human condition. Art finds the false optimism of commercial society. It's there to remind us with dignity, that every good life has extraordinary amounts of confusion, suffering, loneliness, and distress within it. And that therefore, we should never aggravate sadness, by feeling we must be freakish simply for experiencing it quite a lot. 

 

 

3. Art rebalances us

All of us are a little unbalanced in some ways. We're too intellectual or too emotional, too masculine to feminine to calm or too excitable. The art we love is frequently something we're drawn to. Because it compensates us for what we lack. It counterbalances us. When we moved by a work of art. It may be because it contains concentrated doses of qualities we need more of in our lives. Perhaps it's full of the serenity we admire, but don't have enough of, perhaps it's got the tenderness we longed for, but that our jobs and relationships are currently lacking. Or perhaps it's suffused with pain and drama. We've had to stifle but want to get in touch with. Sometimes a whole society falls in love with a certain style in art, because it's trying to rebalance itself, like France in the late 18th century. That wanted Davi as a corrective to its decadence, or Britain in the 19th century that looked at the pre-Raphaelites to counter the effects of brutal industrialization. The Arctic country or a person called Beautiful, gives you vital clues as to what's missing in them. It's in the power of art to help us be more grounded, more balanced, and more sane.

 

4. Art helps us to appreciate stuff 

The media is constantly giving us hints about what's glamorous and important. Art also tells us about what's glamorous and important but fortunately given that you weren't invited again to the Oscars this year, it usually picks on some very different things. Albrecht Durer makes the grass look glamorous, John Constable draws our attention to the skies, Van Gogh reminds us that oranges are worth paying attention to, Marcel Duchamp challenges us to look again at the seemingly mundane. These artists are falsely glamorizing things that are better ignored, that justly teasing out a value that's been neglected by a world with a deeply distorted and unfair sense of what truly matters. Art returns glamour to its rightful place, highlighting what's genuinely worth appreciating.

Wall poster of Van Gogh's painting café terrace at night designed by Galerie de Claire

 (Figure 2: Café Terrace at Night by Van Gogh

 

5. Art is propaganda for what really matters 

Nothing seems further from good art and propaganda, the sort encouraging you to fight or what government to support.

But one way to think about art is that it is a sort of propaganda in the sense of a tool that motivates and energizes you for a cause. Only it's propaganda on behalf of some of the most important and nicest emotions and attitudes in the world, which uses its skills to make the newly appealing and accessible. It might be propaganda about the simple life or about the need to broaden one's horizons, or about a more playful, tender approach to life. It's a force that stands up for the best sides of human nature and gives them a platform and an authority in a noisy, distracting world.

For too long, art attracted a little too much reverence and mystique for its own good. In its presence we’re like someone meeting a very famous person, we get stiff and lose our spontaneity. We should relax around it as we already do with music, and learn to use it for what it's really meant for as a constant source of support and encouragement for our better selves.

 

Transcripts and all rights belong to:

Guardian Culture - Philosopher Alain de Botton on the top five reasons why art is such a vital force for humanity.