When I was younger I was obsessed with bumper stickers. I think it might have been the only way I felt like I could safely be heard: gluing other people’s words to my car. Most of them were political in nature: “If you feel attacked by feminism, it’s probably a counter attack,” and “Invest in America. Buy a Congressman.” Stuff like that. I also had this sticker that read, “Art is NOT a luxury.” I always felt a little iffy about that one.
I grew up in a lower middle class, single mother home. Art most definitely SEEMED like a luxury there. We had a couple prints up on the walls, and a watercolor that my mother’s uncle made forty years before. My mother’s sister (“Crazy Aunt Charlotte” is what she prefers to be called) would show up at Christmas with slides of artwork that their cousin Libby (a real honest to God artist) had made. We’d all “ooo” and “ahhh” and no one but Charlotte (who had no kids and a nice job) would ever buy anything. It wasn’t necessary, and so it wasn’t done. So, while the sentiment of the bumper sticker struck a chord, actually having it on my car made me feel like something of a fraud.
I’ve got a big something coming and so I’ve been thinking a lot about art and about that damn sticker. What I’ve finally figured out is this: that bumper sticker wasn’t talking about original oil paintings by the latest up-and-comer, or evenings at the opera. That bumper sticker was just pointing out an irrefutable, but often overlooked point. ART.IS.EVERYWHERE.
That movie you watched last night? Someone MADE that. That’s art. That cute chevron pillow you picked up at Target? Someone DESIGNED that pattern. That’s art. That book you just read to your child for the twentieth time? Yep, art. Not all art is good art. Not all art suits our particular tastes. But still, 90% of the man made world around us is art. Are you reading this post on a phone? Well someone designed that phone, not just the way it functions, but the way it looks, the way it feels. Someone else designed the look of this blog. I wrote the words you are reading right now. ALL ART.
Ask a four year old, busily coloring on page after page, if art is a luxury. Ask the teenage girl, bawling her eyes out as she sings along to a song of unrequited love, if art is necessary. You may get blank stares, but the proof is in the pudding. Show me a home where a child grows up without access to crayons, or songs, or books and I’ll show you the very conditions of abject poverty (poverty of all kinds) that has our government spending millions of dollars on early intervention. ART IS NOT A LUXURY.
Even during the Great Depression, the proving ground of true necessity, flour companies had their bags printed with lovely patterns: floral prints and art deco designs. Why? Sure, people were making clothes out of these bags, but plain white would have worked just as well. Not really. It’s one thing to craft a dress from a cotton bag, and another thing entirely to craft a dress from a piece of patterned fabric. The first provides merely covering for the body, the later also provides a balm for the spirit. It provides a little beauty, a little joy. And a little joy is an antidote to despair. Utah Phillips, that great curator of grifter melodies, would tell you that the hobos of the Great Depression wrote hundreds of songs that were passed over trash can fires, and down through the decades. Why? With all the time in the world couldn’t those rail riders just talk? But music makes connections, it builds community, and community is an antidote to loneliness.
There is only one historical circumstance I’m aware of where people survived in a landscape completely devoid of beauty: The Holocaust. I’m not even certain that it was true there, but whether it was or it wasn’t, I’m pretty sure we can agree that it sets a horrifically low standard of living. As my friend, Melissa, would say, if we are using concentration camps as a bench mark, we’ve got a big problem. And yet, and yet, how did we as a people process and understand that horror? Through the words of an adolescent girl, Anne Frank; through the words of Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who writes in his landmark work, Man’s Search for Meaning:
“I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.”
ART IS NOT A LUXURY.
Art builds bridges. Art translates experience into a thousand different languages. The right words, the right images can sneak past our defenses unawares, and cause just the finest fissure. And through that tiny, tiny crack a little bit of humanity, a little bit of compassion can escape. And if we allow it to, art, ordinary, everyday art: the drawing of a child, a line from a song, can break us open so that we realize the truth: We are all connected. We share a common experience of longing, of grief, of unadulterated joy. We are all humans together. Centuries of art show us that we have more in common than not.
And yet, I’m not idealistic enough to believe that art can save the world. Art cannot singlehandedly solve poverty or injustice or religious warfare. But it can get us closer. It can make us care. Art is what makes the world worth saving.