Does art matter? Does culture matter? It is tempting to say that our belief in these things is a matter of faith: it is axiomatic – we assume as a first principle that art matters, and we use this assumption as a starting point for arguments about philanthropic support for the arts.
By contrast, economic rationalists would point out that most artists are economically unviable. That is true. Creative artists generally have miserable incomes from their art, and survive by teaching or waiting on tables. Performing artists do not have it much better. Depending on their speciality, they may have just as difficult a time as creative artists.
Economic rationalists would argue that pouring money into the arts is irrational unless the consumer considers the transaction to deliver a nett benefit to them.
The economic rationalist will buy the painting which delivers them the greatest pleasure for the lowest price, allowing that part of the pleasure might derive from the conspicuously famous name of the artist.
The economic rationalist will not be tempted to provide philanthropic support for the arts, because that produces no saleable return; the economic rationalist will not be tempted to commission music unless it has a good chance of generating royalties.
I want to explore briefly the assumption that Art matters, and set the argument against economic rationalism.
Vincent Van Gogh sold very few paintings, and those for very little money. Cezanne was once booted out of his lodgings and the angry landlord hurled some of his paintings out of the attic window into the courtyard below. Similar examples can be multiplied endlessly.
Would the world be poorer if Van Gogh had never painted Starry Night, or if Cezanne had not painted Les Bagneuses; or if van Gogh and Cezanne had never painted at all?
Would the world be poorer if Michelangelo had never painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or designed the Duomo in Florence; if Leonardo da Vinci had never painted; if Beethoven or Shostakovitch had never written a note of music?
Imagine a world without Shakespeare or Balzac and ask whether it is better or worse than this world.
It is no answer that paintings by Van Gogh and Cezanne now sell for tens of millions of dollars; that original scores of Beethoven are priceless, likewise the manuscripts of Balzac and Shakespeare.
We do not value these works because of their price tags: the price tags are almost entirely irrelevant to the value we see in these works. Few people would accept that a person who buys an iconic painting could withdraw it forever from public view.
No-one would accept that the purchaser of a great work of art was entitled to destroy it.
The reason this is so is that we all acknowledge that a work of art is more than simply a physical thing capable of being bought and sold.
In profoundly important ways, every work of art carries part of our shared culture and it is that fact which gives the work its true value: a value which bears very little relation to the operation of a market for unique commodities.
The destruction of the library at Byzantium in 1204 and the looting of the national museum of Baghdad in 2004 represent losses which not even the crassest economist has tried to measure in economic terms, because the calculation would be seen by everyone to miss the point completely.
In a remarkable short story by Frederic Raphael, the author speaks of a man whose father was a judge. He grows up with the unstated expectation that he will be a lawyer. In his early adolescence starts writing poetry. He is quite good a it, and keeps writing poetry when all his friends have returned to the cricket pitch. He does well at school and is accepted into a law course, but keeps writing poetry. During his university days, he meets the girl he later marries. She gently persuades him to forget about poetry and concentrate on law. He abandoned a hopeful career as a poet for the much more prosaic career of a lawyer. He prospers in his choice and is eventually appointed to the Bench. Upon his appointment, he has to vacate his chambers and this leads him to the bitter-sweet task of going through the accumulated papers of decades to decide what may be disposed of and what should be retained.
“He had quite forgotten about his adolescent poetry and was astonished to come across a batch of it at the bottom of a cupboard. He smiled – golly! – at the sight of it and took it out and started to read, for a laugh. He expected clinching evidence of the folly of youthful pretensions. His whole happy life had been founded on the assumption that he had been right to abdicate before his wife’s gentle, unmistakable judgment. He sat on the floor of his chambers, boyishly grey, and prepared to be embarrassed by those unburnt embers. Instead, the poems passed sentence on his life. At last, he closed his eyes to escape their indictment, but the unblinking eye in the centre of his forehead gazed and blazed with unique and undeniable vision. He cowered on the floor of the dusty cave and saw that the years of his life had escaped, like Odysseus’s men under the panicky sheep of the blind, deluded Polyphemus. ‘Who are you, who are you?’ he cried. And the voice of the man who had blinded himself replied ‘No-one. No-one.’”
In that short, compelling paragraph the author shows the result of comparing the valuable with the priceless.
If we suspect that the world would be poorer without Beethoven and Mozart, without van Gogh and Cezanne; without Shakespeare and Balzac, we acknowledge the value of art for its own sake.
None of those people created material wealth. None of them derived great material wealth in their lifetimes. The value of unique paintings is a quirk of the market for commodities: the true value of the works is spiritual.
If the manuscript score of all of Beethoven’s symphonies were destroyed, it would be tragic but we would still have the works themselves and our cultural heritage would remain intact.
I recently heard an enchanting story from a friend of mine called Mary who works in a large Melbourne bookshop. She told me about a middle-aged Melbourne woman who ventured shyly into the bookshop. Noticing her bewildered hesitancy, Mary approached her and asked if she was looking for a book. “Yes” she said, “I’ve never bought one before.” This startling comment turned out to be literal truth. She had never bought a book in her life, and was unsure how to go about it. My friend helped identify a book she was likely to enjoy, and the transaction was settled. A couple of weeks later she was back and bought another book. And so it went for some months and as Christmas approached she confided in Mary that she had suggested to her friends that books would be welcome Christmas presents. Mary asked her how she felt now that she had begun reading books: “It is wonderful” she said, “I no longer live in a flat in Kensington – I live in the world.”
There is great force in that comment.
There is great force in the notion that art connects us to the world, to each other, to others we can never meet or know. It affirms and reinforces our integral relationship to the rest of humanity. The wider our encounter with art, the richer that connection becomes.
So art is valuable, in and of itself.
Human language has a vocabulary adapted to accommodate our daily needs and functions: the vocabulary of any human language maps approximately to the needs and activities of our mundane lives.
But few would deny that there is another dimension of human existence which transcends the mundane: call it the soul, the spirit, that part of the human frame which responds to the call of the non-rational.
In the domain of the human spirit, other vocabularies emerge.
Painting, music, poetry, sculpture are all different languages, each with its own unique vocabulary. The vocabulary of each artform gives it access to areas of human experience which are not available to other sorts of language.
This is why works of art are considered less meritorious – at least less interesting – as they become more literal and narrative. If an idea is best expressed in words, why bother expressing it in paint or music instead?
By contrast, some ideas can only be expressed in paint or music: the vocabulary of paint and music share little of the vocabulary of spoken language. I once heard someone ask an abstract expressionist to say what one of his paintings meant. He said “No, I can’t tell you, but I will try to hum it.”
It is neither useful nor interesting to ask what Beethoven’s 5th symphony “means”, or what Carl Vine’s 4th string quartet “means”, if the questioner wants you to say in words what Beethoven or Carl Vine said in music
This is the key to understanding why Art matters. Every form of art is a unique way of seeing, and at its best each form of art says things which cannot be said, or said as compellingly, in any other way.
Deny this, and you close off part of the human spirit. As Victor Hugo said:
Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.
A history of the Weimar Republic speaks of the same things which occupied Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz, but their work reaches out to us in a quite different way. The story of that time and place would be incomplete without their work.
Try to imagine this country if all practising artists perished overnight. Imagine this country if, for the next generation, there were no new paintings made, no new novels or poems written, no new music, no new sculpture.
Imagine looking back on that bleak and wasted generation in 50 or 100 years time. Like a layer of ash in the archaeological record it would stand as a silent marker of a period of desolation.
Culture is the accumulated record of artistic expression of a time and place. It may present an unattractive picture, or a brilliant one, but it is an essential record unless we take the nihilist view that human existence itself is irrelevant.
The nihilist would see no point in having children. If any one of us matters, then art matters and culture matters. A Society without culture leaves no children; with no past it can have no future.