October is National Arts and Humanities Month, so it’s fitting to take a moment and recall why art is as necessary to a community as stable bridges and stocked grocery store shelves.
The artist’s value lies in her finely tuned ability to understand the unity of things and see connections where others see disparate ideas. Artists are not unlike scientists in this way. Both share a keen attention to the world around them and willingness to explore and interpret what they observe, which are essential skills for human progress. However, while the scientist seeks to make sense of data, the artist endeavors to make sense of experiences. Aristotle put it this way: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things but their inward significance.” In this, the philosopher answers the enduring question of why art matters. Art matters because a society that can appreciate the inward significance of things is a far more just, prosperous and innovative society.
Unfortunately, art’s power to inspire reflection and self-awareness often must fight against a cultural tide of numbness, reactivity and isolation. The symptoms of this are easy enough to spot: the opioid crisis, rising rates of anxiety disorders, internet comment boxes filled with hateful (and misspelled) words, an intolerance of silence, gun violence. It’s naïve to suggest art is the cure-all for our modern ailments. It is equally naïve to think art does not play an important role in addressing these problems.
Yet, when budgets are tight and tempers flare, those we hope will defend the arts instead wrap themselves in the sentiment of Oscar Wilde. The writer, in a shining moment of hypocrisy, wrote to a colleague: “Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility.” It’s difficult to imagine any legislative body enthusiastic to fund an industry promoting moodiness, inaction and sterility, but Wilde failed to note the most important aspect of art: beauty.
Humans are naturally drawn to beauty, and for good reason. As the Polish poet Cyprian Norwid wrote, “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up.” Art inspires us to act and challenges us to do something more than just collect superficial experiences for our newsfeeds. If we’re going to be reactors, let us be like Dante who, overwhelmed by the beauty of Beatrice, composed “The Divine Comedy,” arguably the greatest work of poetry set to parchment. This is the artist at his finest, reacting to beauty and then going off to create beauty of his own so that others might in turn be spurred to action.
What do we do, then, when art takes hold of us? For starters, we look up. Art on an Instagram feed is like a shadow on a cave wall, so we look up from our phones and tablets and go in search of “real life” art, whether on a stage, in a gallery, or on a shelf. Next, we advocate for the arts. We have to challenge legislators to see the intrinsic value the arts have in education and the economy and the social benefit art contributes to a community. Finally, we support the arts. We cannot expect governments alone to bankroll the arts — in fact, we’d be fools to advocate otherwise. Art is for the people and should by and large be supported by the people.
Challenge yourself during Arts and Humanities Month to find a local organization promoting art that ignites your imagination. There are plenty to choose from in Fairbanks. Volunteer for the organization, donate, buy a ticket to one of their performances, or attend a gallery opening and bring a friend. Allow yourself to experience the beauty of something new, even something strange.
Why is art necessary for a community? For our community? Because the beauty art reveals makes the beige colorful, the mundane tolerable, the despairing hopeful and the pain purposeful. Because, as Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.”
Samantha Reynolds is executive director of North Star Ballet, located in Fairbanks.