The Real Value of Art
August 13, 2012
I was appalled when a visitor from Germany expressed contempt that Canada would spend tax money on public art. Where is the value in it? she asked. Her practical nature could see any utilitarian value. I, as a writer of fiction, felt duty-bound to explain for her the value of art. She remained unconvinced.
Then, the very next day a group of friends met for our monthly Sunday brunch. I look forward to sharing stories with them. They too, of course, have stories they are eager to tell about the highlights of the past month. Unexpectedly joyful events, or imminent disappointments, storytelling, it was obvious to me on that Sunday, is the very bricks of our lives. We are entertained by both true and make-believe stories, either in person or in books or on film. When we connect with other people, be it over the internet or in person, it is through the medium of our mutual life stories. We are characters in each other’s biographies, but the protagonist in our own.
Of course there was a time when spirituality was transmitted by way of stories and art. That said, I wonder, what is the significance of the professional storyteller in this contemporary, secular society? What is the contribution fiction writers(and other types of artists) make to our community? Is that German visitor correct?
In my opinion, the artistic contribution is vastly underestimated. As the world moves ever forward, writers and artists are taking on ever new roles. It seems to me that at times being a writer or artist is a spiritual occupation (or should that be preoccupation?). I mean, the very process of creating itself demands spiritual maturity. Take the example of creating a fictional character. I, as a South Asian male, do not only write characters who are exactly like me. Sometimes I might write from the perspective of a young English girl, or an African muslim perhaps. This requires the ability to set aside my ego and see, hear, feel, taste and touch from the skin of another human. When creating characters, I find it liberating to think of people I have known and then strip away the superficialities of their race, gender, age, styles of clothing, habits, and search for the essence of their humanity. The very process forces a writer to question what exactly is the self, and which is clutter. What is more, if a writer’s work is to communicate with his readers, he requires the virtue of empathy with his invisible audience. To create a sympathetic drama, he must feel compassion for the people who live in that world. To connect with alien cultures, he needs to discover his core unity with the world. If all of that sounds rather spiritual, that’s because it is.
When you think about it, the process of creating is parallel to spiritual practices. Both require solitude. Both ask us to dive deep into our sub-conscious, where, if we are lucky, we discover pearls of wisdom. Both seekers and writers find significance amid the mundane. We uncover order amid seeming chaos. The very act of creating requires a writer to be self-disciplined. He must possess concentration, and clarity of mind. It demands that he be brutally honesty and question objectively all that he takes for granted. Strange, these are the same skills that my guru tried to teach to me. Make no mistake; writing is a type of meditation. And reading can be a meditation also.
Whenever I go to an art gallery it feels to me as though I am in temple or church. I experience the same awe, the same wonderment. My mind dissolves temporarily. I am removed from the realm of mind and thoughts. I am thrust into awareness. Not all paintings speak to me but some certainly do. There a communion that happens which is really incredible when you think about it. The artist created that painting in another place, in another time; the fact that it communicates illuminates that the awareness which is common to both the artist and me the viewer is beyond time and space. And that awareness is one. Without the common medium of awareness, how could there be a communion through distance and time? I seem to spend hours in a gallery without being conscious of the passage of time. Isn’t that proof that art transports us out of the space-time continuum?
Great fiction, like any good scripture (though one may argue that all scriptures are fiction), has the ability to redeem. I know for me creative writing was a tool if lifting me out of depression. At a recent Descant meeting, we heard about the success of one our programs with young offenders. Whitney French conducts poetry workshops with delinquent youths. We were informed by the people who run that institute that in the last fifteen years this is the only program that has affected a positive change with the young men. By learning to write poetry, these young men also learned to examine their own feelings and inherent goodness. Now if that is not proof of the power of art to rehabilitate, I don’t know what is. Great art can indeed reshape the way we see the world and our place in it.
We live in a time when political conservatives want to portray artists as being irrelevant. More and more funding is being slashed from the arts because they, like the German visitor, see no utilitarian value. They consider what we do as somehow frivolous and our work does not contribute to society in any meaningful way. In this age of atheism, I put it to you that art fulfils the needs that religion used to once. It enlightens, it inspires, it helps make us better people. At least it has for me. Art is indeed the oxygen of my soul.