You sit in your office annoyed that your students were surfing the web during your lecture. And now your friend calls while he chomps away at his chicken sandwich. Outside your window a dad nudges his son’s stroller with his belly while texting. And your daughter complains that recess has been reduced to one ten-minute period.
What do all these people have in common?
They need a little art in their lives. Art? Yes, they would all benefit from aesthetic stimulation to counteract the strive-for-efficiency, get-rid-of-play, and pack-as-much-as-you-can imperatives of modern life.
By art, I don’t mean just a visit to a museum or some time spent with a book of poetry, beneficial though these may be. I have in mind those principles, originally associated with art, which encourage us to enjoy the texture of grass, appreciate the pitch of a voice, linger on the emotional cues of a conversation, or engage in a game of hide and seek.
In the course of the day we rush past the aesthetic qualities that enhance but don’t really transform life: the tree changing its leaves in autumn, the wafting of lentil soup through the kitchen, the beat on the Ipod, the language of the poem in class, or children playing doctor.
We organize our day according to the rules of efficiency and practicality, employing the least amount of energy for the maximum results. We value what can guarantee output in the end. We strive for our goals without much thought to the ornamentations of life, things that make life more vivid but which won’t get us to work faster.
This tunnel-like progression through life is necessary to get our jobs done. We use our senses to navigate through the day. We depend, for instance, on street signs to lead us to our house or the shopping center.
But what happened to experience for the sake of that experience, signs, events, and things, which lead us nowhere beyond themselves? There are moments when we do stop and appreciate the shading on the walls of the neighbor’s house, smell the basil on the summer tomato, or listen to the flow of a child’s voice. Or we engage in play, an open-ended, imaginative pastime where the goal is the activity itself. This is where art becomes relevant.
The idea of cherishing something for its intrinsic worth, rather than a practical end it can deliver, is originally an aesthetic principle. For it is art historically that claimed for itself a space free from economic, ecclesiastical, and political concerns. Moreover, art first posited that an experience could be worthwhile for itself—beauty for the sake of beauty—rather than because it could bring bread to the table or help students master arithmetic.
While other acts, such as prayer and medication, may also foster this type of in-the-moment awareness, historically this particular endeavor has been associated with art. In art we bring together our thoughts and our emotions, we create alternative realities and connect them to the here and now.
And, if many of us today are looking for ways to justify the arts in the public sphere, surely this is one of the reasons—what German philosophers called the Ding an Sich, the thing in itself. We can argue all we want that literature courses help students become better writers, that music lessons can push up children’s SAT scores, and that theater can boost a city’s tourism. We may make these arguments but we do so on the table laid out by materialists who see value only in end result. Not everything in life is good because it is productive. There are things that are good because they are unproductive.
The aesthetic is important because it encourages us to appreciate our senses, it coaxes us to slow down and linger on depth and surface, and it advances the expressive aspects of daily life. This does not make art superior to other realms of human endeavor such as journalism, law, economics, business or medicine. Nor is art the opposite of these.
Rather, art represents those dimensions of life that exist outside the exigencies of work, of instrumentalist thinking, of end-means type of reasoning. There is nothing pure or refined about these experiences. We participate in them because we are human beings, sensory creatures attending to the world around us, cooperative beings that like sharing experiences.
We shouldn’t have to justify these experiences, therefore, to our conscience that feels guilty over ornament or to our work-obsessed society that marginalizes play, reverie, and song.
Art is not just opera and hip hop, Jonathan Frantzen and Agatha Cristie, the Parthenon and Viet Nam Memorial. It is a means of creating and delving into those experiences that are vital exactly because they don’t bring tofu to the table.