All my life, I’ve been attracted to artistic things. I’ve taken dance lessons for years, I love classic movies, and obviously, I love literature too. Believe me, I’ve tried to like STEM subjects in school, or rather, I tried not to like arts as much. Studying math and science just seemed so much more useful than studying art. Think of it: not only can you can make more money at a job in a scientific field, but also, there are more jobs to be had. Have you ever heard a story about a starving software engineer? I didn’t think so. For those reasons, I thought I ought to at least try to be interested in math and science, but when I did, I became the proverbial fish out of water. Math and science just don’t throw me. You say Alfred Nobel, I say Alfred Hitchcock. 😉
Knowing that math and science are extremely valuable fields, but ones that I could never work in, I wondered, “What value is there to art? Has it any value other than the fact that it gives people pleasure? Is that enough reason to respect it, to get involved in it, or do I need another reason?” I got the answer after I read To Kill a Mockingbird.
I’ve talked about that book on this blog plenty of times before, and that’s because quite honestly, I love it! I love the book, Atticus, and everything he stands for (OK, maybe not everything he stands for, but that’s a debate I’m not going to start right now). After reading TKM, I found there were people who, for whatever strange reason, don’t love Atticus as much as I do. They made all sorts of wimpy complaints like “He’s too good to be true” and “He’s too unrealistic.” Now, I knew perfectly well while I read that book that it should have been in the fantasy section of Barnes and Noble because frankly, it’s hard to believe that any lawyer could be as honest and upright as Atticus. Even so, I thought it was silly to tear down a character for being everything he is supposed to be, even if such men are hard to find in the real world.
That’s when it hit me: the point of art, the value of art, is in showing the world what it should be like. It is there to teach just as much as it is to entertain and delight. It tells the stories of great men so that we are inspired to be like them, and it shows us terrible men to scares us straight. As I mentioned in my post about the Nazi book-burnings, it’s not the art itself that matters, but the ideas behind it. If your art can put a good idea into someone’s mind and make it stick, your art has value. If your art carries no ideas–or a bad one–it’s meaningless trash.
But there’s another purpose behind it too, I think.
Usually when we think of art, we think of painting and sculpture, of pictures of beautiful women or brilliantly-colored flowers arranged just so or of shapes and colors that, for whatever reason, we find pleasing to the eye.
Why is it that we long so after beauty? Why do we like these pictures where everything is pretty and symmetrical and in its place?
I believe that our yearning after beauty comes from the part of us that longs for the world to be unbroken, for everything to be perfect, the way it was in the beginning.
In the Bible, we learn about the Creation, when God created everything in the universe and then said that it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). It had to be good because God not only made it, He inhabited it! Anything He makes is perfect because He is perfect and anywhere He is is filled with joy and beauty because He is wonderful and beautiful. However, later in Genesis, we read about “the Fall of Man,” when Adam and Eve, the first man and woman ever created, rebelled against God and were cast out from His presence. With sin in the world, its influence brought the whole world down, giving us pain where there used to be peace, toil where there used to be rest, and ugliness where there used to be beauty. Romans Chapter 8 tells us that all of creation–people included–is longing for the day when we can put all of this strife and corruption behind us. It’s human nature, really, to want to make order out of chaos and to wish that everything was as it should be. We want things to be the way they were in the beginning: beautiful. I think that when artists create beautiful things, they are rekindling in us that longing to see the world set right. Isn’t that what art is, reclaiming a piece of chaos and making it into something worthy? Where there was a bustling cityscape, we now have a perfectly composed photograph. Where there were twisted tubes of color and empty sheets of canvas, we now have a scene or a flower or another human face. As G. K. Chesterton contended in his book The Man Who Was Thursday, haven’t we scored a win against chaos when we change it into something good? Isn’t that what we all want, to get away from the chaos? I think so, and I think that longing can be traced straight back to Eden, back to the tree and the snake. We’ve never had it that good since, but we still hope that one day, we will. That’s what art does for us: reminds us that there is something above and beyond the ugliness of the world.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying that, despite what Neil deGrasse Tyson and others may say, science and math are not the only valuable fields in the world. True, science and math are ideas in action, but art is the genesis of ideas. Not only that, but art has an even higher purpose too: it teaches us to find order in chaos and gives us a love for beauty, a love that, if we chase it, will lead us right back to the Creator of beauty. At least, that’s what it’s about for me.