Sunday, November 15, 2015

Why Art Matters

Parisiens display graphic designer Jean Jullien's Eiffel Tower Peace sign to say what words cannot.

As a writer of words, it pains me to acknowledge the truth of the axiom that all too often, a picture really is worth a thousand of them.

In the wake of the Paris attacks -- attacks which, it is worthwhile noting, mirror other recent acts of terror in other parts of the world that have gone unnoticed and unremarked by the western world -- we all struggled to find the right words.

Words to express our outrage (always easiest it seems), our sorrow, our despair about the state of the world.

Often words fail.

Often, they trip us up. How many times have we seen someone stammer "that's not what I meant..."

Sometimes, but less often, words can unite.

But it would be hard to point to any set of words which compares with the impact of a single simple image which has, as we say these days, "gone viral" and united those moved beyond words by the events in Paris.

The universally recognized "Peace" sign, transformed by two lines fusing it with another universally
recognized symbol for Paris, says more than most of us can express.

It says what most Parisiens no doubt wish for; what we wish for them now in this time of horror, and, more universally, what so many of us who tire of a lifetime of never-ending war wish for ourselves and our families.

This is the power, the reach and the depth of art and we disregard it at risk of losing a vital part of our humanity.

I am a self-professed idiot when it comes to art, particularly modern art.

If I had a dollar for every time I said to myself "I don't get it" in the Museum of Modern Art, I could afford to do local journalism as a hobby.

I am literally a literal person. I need things spelled out. I need words to tell me what's going on here. I even need to write words to think things through sometimes.

Fortunately for me, I married an art history major who has helped guide my often-unwilling self through the finer points of pointillism, taught me to recognize the passion of Freida Kahlo, why Andy Warhol's work was a commentary on his times, and not an artist just being lazy.

Me? I'm a simple guy and I like landscapes, things I can recognize.

I particularly like Chinese and Japanese landscapes which show human beings dwarfed by the grandeur of the world around them.

So I decided to get through life by adopting the Hudson River School of art, probably more because I grew up there than because of, as my wife explained to me with dwindling patience, its particular way of treating light, which only made me appreciate it more.

But art is more than a pretentious over-priced past-time, something that hangs in museums or keeps our living room walls from looking too dull.

Consider that the earliest humans were not really considered to be so until they had been demonstrated to have created not only tools, but art, symbolized, most appropriately in today' context, by cave paintings in France.

Art preceded language as a way to communicate, as a way to represent something that was not there right in front of you.

How can we have lost sight of the importance of something so basic to our humanity?

We have largely because we don't recognize the art that surrounds us for what it is. Or, as an artist does, we don't see the art in every day things.

Today, in our schools, art is considered an "elective."

When budget cuts come calling, it is always art, music and athletics -- the things "that are not required" -- which are the first sacrifices offered. How they could not be considered central to a human being's education continues to baffle me.

Perhaps we should collectively take note of how strongly proposed cuts to arts programs are protested to recognize their importance in people's lives.

Consider that when our children sit in those history classes which are (thank God) required, how are ancient civilizations described? When we talk about the Egyptians or the Mayans, the Greeks or the Romans, is it their taxing systems, although important, that we point to when we describe them as "advanced?"

No, it is their art, their architecture, that describe the height of their culture.

That may be because that's all that's left behind, but that fact makes it is no less powerful or inspirational.

And perhaps there is a lesson there for us as well, particularly as the events in Paris leave some of us wondering if our civilization is teetering on the brink of all those which have preceded it.

What will we leave behind?


The Kardashians?

Why would we ever consider choking off resources to the teaching of what our own culture recognizes as the yardstick by which ancient civilizations are measured?

Without an education that includes art, would Jullien, who graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2010, have known how to give us this symbol that says so much?

Look at how one artist's perspective on a global crime has united more people in agreement than a thousand words by a thousand politicians.

With that last sentence, I have written 4,015 words. I think it can be easily argued that a picture is worth more than just a thousand of them...

The New York Daily News published this photograph of a memorial in Hong Kong to the victims in Paris.

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