What Would We Lose If We Had No Art?

27 October 2020

Think about the art you’ve enjoyed in your life: the novels, the television, the music, the poetry, the sculpture, the paintings—the list goes on. Now try to imagine a scenario in which none of this art had ever been made. Even though non-fiction books have been published, and warning chimes still witness the closing of subway doors, there are no symphonies, and no novels for you to tote to the beach. There’s no such thing as an art museum, even though natural history museums everywhere still proudly display their fossils and dino bones. Network TV broadcasts news all day, every day. 

 

What would we lose in a world like this? 

 

Some of the losses are obvious: without the arts we would have a whole lot less fun. The joy and diversion of Wet Hot American Summer would be gone. We wouldn’t be able to feel the real wonder we do feel in front of Michelangelo’s David. We wouldn’t have access to the spooky thrills we enjoy while watching The Ring. The exquisite pain of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor would be unavailable, too. If it weren’t for sports and other games, we might find ourselves bored and unsatisfied in our leisure time. (Of course, sports and board games could only exist in a world without art if they are not themselves art—and there are those who insist that they are. For more on that, check out this week's episode where Josh and Ray are in conversation with Thi Nguyen, author of Games: Agency as Art.) 

 

An artless world would have more profound lacks, too. The greatest art doesn’t only bring us joy and thrills; it also expands our understanding of one another, allowing for greater empathy and kindness. Art can model those attitudes we need to adopt in order to be good to one another, and it can display the horrors of the actual world (as opposed to the supernatural horrors of counterfactual worlds) so that we can go and do something about them. It’s not just that art can bring us entertainment and comfort in hard times (anyone else watching Gilmore Girls?); it can also bring home uncomfortable truths we would otherwise not understand (Josh and I are discussing Jordan Peele’s Get Out in the class we're currently co-teaching). 

 

To flatten the subtleties of these points, we could simply say: art gives us what we value, emotionally and epistemically. I don’t deny this. I think it’s an important fact. But leaving things here would dramatically understate the importance of art. Artworks aren’t just there to meet the needs we already have, or to provide instances of the things we already love. Artworks can teach us how to value things we don’t already know how to value. They show us how to love new things, how to want new things, and even how to need new things. 

 

The examples that come to mind are personal ones. Proust taught me to value the sensory details of my everyday world—most of all those smells and sounds of my early childhood, which squirrel away in association the entire texture of my life back then. Chopin’s waltzes showed me how to find the beauty in those depressive thematic variations, themselves endlessly more complex than their cheery cousins. André Derain’s beastly hues gave me a yearning to see the physical world in a new kind of color—color which reveals not the surface properties of objects, but the intensity of the light thrown onto them. 

 

Changing our values doesn’t require changing them in a positive way. The arts can show you how to abhor something that previously seemed innocuous. Shirley Jackson taught me to feel the horror, and not just the humor, in the absurd gaslighting of women in contemporary America. David Foster Wallace brought out disgust at sheer diversion for diversion’s sake. These lessons weren’t rosy ones, and they didn’t leave me caring more for gaslighting, or for diversion. But this transformative power of art is no less important than its own cheery cousin.

 

If all this is right—if the arts can give us new loves, new abhorrences, new needs—then perhaps a world without art would not be as boring and dissatisfying as I said above. After all, a world without art would be one less structured by specific values. Without the arts, we would care for less. We might find less to be angry about. We would genuinely need less than we do here in our real world. So perhaps we would find fewer gaping holes in our lives and our communities.

 

Does that sound like a good thing? Not to me. And I don’t think it would have sounded like a good thing to the poet Audre Lorde, either. “Poetry is not a luxury,” she wrote in an essay by that name

 

It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

Lorde explicitly spoke to women here, and to Black women in particular, and she saw poetry as a necessary aspect of a fight towards freedom. Lorde knew that fight was not over in her lifetime. But her point has more general implications, too, for all of us, and for all of the arts. Poetry is not a luxury for any of us, and the arts are not luxuries for any of us, either. 

 

We might be able to think the nameless only in poetry, as Lorde put it, but its not being thought at all does not imply that we are better off not thinking about it. The same goes for all sorts of needs, wants, and values: the fact that we don’t have them now, and so we now don’t see how our lives could be richer, does not mean we are better off without having those needs, wants, and values at all.

 

Photo by Sajad Nori on Unsplash

Comments (1)


Carter Gillies's picture

Carter Gillies

Sunday, November 1, 2020 -- 8:40 AM

This is a necessary question

This is a necessary question for anyone interested in supporting the arts. But I don't think the answer you give does as well as it was intended. Looking at the arts as discrete practices where they have some effect on some individual at best only answers how this one example of art in this one circumstance had this one effect. Different arts have different effects. The same art will have many diverse effects. Some non-art will have the same, or better, effects. To look at art as merely instrumental undercuts the idea that art has value in itself.

So asking what we would lose if we had no art perhaps shouldn't be answered piecemeal. That is, looking at individual examples of art will not teach us why art itself has value, and consequently what we would lose in its absence. Art itself's value isn't diminished by shoddy manifestations and it isn't secured by the glorious. We need to look beyond the examples to find why art actually matters.

So, imagine a world without art. Not just some person washed up on an island, but generation upon generation devoid of singing, dancing, or appreciating beauty. Imagine a ‘culture’ that never had art, never told itself stories of who they were. Imagine ‘people’ who failed to find poetry in the world, who had no moments of aesthetic amazement. Strip away anything constructed on the basis of art or influenced by it. What would be left?

Can we imagine it? Would beings in such a state even be recognizable as human? Would we see ourselves in them?

We are not already essentially human, simply with art added on the top. Art isn’t an accessory. Art is a part of what it means to be human. A necessary part. Art is one among several things that constitute our humanity. We learn to be human through art. There is no human remainder without an environment and ancestry of art. That is why art matters.