If the past month of my life has had an unintentional theme, it’s been art.
I’ve spent time in NYC, DC, and Baltimore – all of which provided opportunities to enjoy everything from museums to street art. I saw Riverdance (a belated Christmas present, and maybe my favorite show ever); attended a preview performance of The White Snake at Center Stage (also a gift, and especially cool because their new renovations are AMAZING); and just the other night I saw something a little less highbrow but a lot of fun. . . The Bodyguard, which is now a musical, and which will cause you to sing Whitney Houston nonstop for the following twenty-four hours.
It’s been kind of a whirlwind. . . not that I’m complaining! I’ve just had to increase the strength of both my coffee and mascara.
But the point of this recap isn’t to bore you with my schedule. Rather, it’s to highlight the fact that I’ve spent the last few weeks surrounded by all kinds of art. . . theater, music, dance, paintings, sculptures, and modern pieces that I can’t even begin to classify.
Perhaps the art overdose has inspired me, because I’ve been feeling very passionate about the importance of artistic efforts ever since.
Let me be clear – outside of dance, which I studied for years – I know practically nothing about art. In fact, one of my biggest regrets from college (aside from lacking the time to study abroad) is that I never took an art history course. It’s one of the few areas in my life where I feel completely uneducated, and sometimes that makes art intimidating to me. It’s sort of like the first time I found myself at a fancy wine bar. . . everything was expensive, in a foreign language, and something I really didn’t want to knock over.
Thankfully, I have a friend who’s practically a walking art history class, and he’s taken me under his wing. I’ve been to a lot of incredible exhibits I never would have discovered on my own, and I’ve also found the confidence to explore independently. Just because I don’t know much about art doesn’t mean that I can’t admire the creativity and talent that goes into designing a piece, or track down a docent to give me more context than what I can glean from the placards on the wall.
I think the art world (and the theater and dance worlds, as well) often get a bad rap as being stuffy or out-of-touch with reality. Perhaps on rare occasion this is merited. There are certainly some modern art pieces that leave me cold, and I once went to a very strange avant-garde ballet that just left me confused. But most of my experiences with art have been eye-opening and thought-provoking – two things that I believe are essential for a society to survive and thrive.
Unfortunately, it seems like (and I’ll admit I’ve done no research on this, so perhaps it’s a misconception on my part) arts are always one of the first things to get cut when funding gets tight, whether it’s in school systems, or federal budgets, or merely our own lives.
I understand this, to an extent. Some school instruction like basic math, reading, and writing, will always take priority over creative arts. But what good is it to be able to balance a checkbook or crank out an essay if there’s nothing in the world worth investing in or writing about?
This brings me to my ultimate point. . . society needs art. We need it for a number of incredibly important reasons. It gives us a safe space to explore explosive, uncomfortable, unusual, or rebellious ideas. It serves as a reflection of our history, and sometimes a commentary on our present. It proves that humanity is capable of more than just survival – that there is more to us than merely self-interest – and that we can be introspective and compassionate and connected to struggles we haven’t even lived. Art is powerful, and we do ourselves a disservice when we discount its impact on our lives.
I could go on, but in writing this I remembered a quote from that George Clooney movie which came out a few years ago to little fanfare: The Monuments Men. The movie – which is about a group of people during WWII who worked to protect and recover works of art stolen by the Nazis – is actually based on a book, which is based on true events. The book does a better job than I ever could of articulating why art matters:
“If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we… must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future. Art is the imperishable and dynamic expression of these aims. It is, and always has been, the visible evidence of the activity of free minds.…” ― Robert M. Edsel,
Free minds. Intellectual and spiritual resources. Final and lasting values. At the end of the day, art is all of this and more. It’s an expression of things so much bigger than us – bigger even than the era in which we live – and it is worth our time and our defense.
So I would encourage you, the next time you consider passing by that museum, or wrinkling your nose at a theater production that wasn’t what you expected, or even just telling yourself that a ballet or a book of poetry are too erudite for your taste, that you would first give it a fighting chance.
Fight a battle for art now, and maybe one day you won’t find yourself fighting a war for freedom.
*Main image via A. Bradley Needle Arts