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Why We Need Art

by John DeMarco on 4/27/2012 9:26:15 AM

This post is by guest author, John DeMarco.  This article has been edited and published with the author's permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here. We've promoted this post to feature status because it provides great value to the FineArtViews community.  If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 19,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  This author's views are entirely his own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.


Here’s a topic that demands a whole book rather than a few quickly noted ideas in a blog. There are lots of good and valid reasons why we need art, and it’s my intention to explore many of them at later dates, but my purpose in this first installment is to focus on a few which, for me, are fundamental.


I’ll start off by saying that art is an undeniable aspect of the evolution of our species. When a new connection is made in the mind, or when a new feeling registers in the heart, you can be certain that it will find its way quickly, in some form or another, into art. I’m speaking here, generally, of all the arts. They are one and the same in that they act as a channel for the changes that we go through, and they serve not only as a means of embodying new ideas, but as a means of disseminating them. In this way, the arts serve as a language.


An artist’s chosen field of expression depends on his or her nature, and all of the expressions are equally important and serve a function to the whole of the Arts. They are like the organs in a body, and function as a mirror for the soul’s experience of its own humanity. Vision, both inward and outward, are expressed through the visual arts, movement of the body, is expressed through dance, dreams are expressed through film, both smell and taste are expressed through the culinary arts, listening is expressed through music, and so on, through all possible combinations of feeling and sense perception. In this way, the arts are a vehicle for how we sense our world.


In an age of politics, where entire agendas can be hidden behind words and flimsy promises, the world of art is usually pretty lucid about its intended message. Indeed, it may appear in code, contained in metaphor or symbol, but art is a language meant to speak the things that can’t be said in mere passing words. In this way, art can provide a much more honest, immediate, and multi-dimensional means of expressing what we’re sensing, allowing awareness to spread more rapidly in its outreach.


Art, now more than ever, is a necessity of life. It’s here to remind us, even in these confusing and rather unstable times, that there’s a reason to press on, to follow our passions, and to celebrate. Art offers authenticity in a world of duplication, honesty in a world of deception, and subtlety in a world of heavy-handedness; art offers a glimpse into another’s soul, which in turn will give you a glimpse into your own. These, I believe, are the central reasons why we are driven to create and to appreciate the creations of others. Art is expressive, expansive and evolutive. And it is spiritual and sacred in that it leads us to a deeper, broader, more honest awareness of what, and why, we are. The arts, if they’re properly fed, can help our world avoid a crash and burn; and if they’re not fed, and we do crash, it will be the arts that lift us back up again. Why? Because whether you are artist or audience, they open a threshold through which creative energy enters our lives. This is really why we need art. Creativity is the blood of the soul.



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Kathy Chin
Thanks John for putting words to feelings about creating and art that may not have been explored before. Those words made me feel a little uncomfortable and yes, vulnerable...because they hit so close to home. Good job!

Sharon Weaver
The word "need" implies that without art the world would not be able to survive. I like to think that is true but I'm not convinced. I think for me, "beauty" is the optimum word needed for the world. Without beauty the world becomes a dark, depressing place with little to believe in. Of course, art is one of many ways to manifest beauty but certainly not all art is beautiful. Art is my life but many don't give a hoot about it.

Hasn't art been around for as long as mankind itself? I'm thinking about primitive cave drawings and so on. Even primitive people decorated their bodies with woad, feathers, or crudely made jewelry. Doesn't this mean that art really is fundamental to our well-being?

John DeMarco
Thank you, Kathy. I'm glad that you found my words to be in some way beneficial. I was having a conversation with friends the other day about uncomfortable experiences. Not necessarily the discomfort of a twisted ankle or such, but the discomfort brought up when we push against our limits. I consider this a good sort of pain, because when I experience it, it usually leads me to look deeper at myself. What's holding me back from being completely satisfied? I think it's important to ask ourselves these kinds of questions.

I don't even know if it's possible to feel completely satisfied with my work. If I did I might stop, because it might well mean that it no longer serves as a medium for growth. I do, of course, find satisfaction in what I create, but I also realize that I'm driven by dissatisfaction just as much as by satisfaction - and perhaps even more so. But I consider that kind of dissatisfaction a blessing. I guess that what I'm leading up to here is that by pushing the limits of what we create we're bound to get a bit uncomfortable, if only because we're headed into territory for which the maps have yet to be drawn - but the experience will coax us deeper into ourselves and, through this, I should hope, broaden our potential and clarify our sense of purpose as artists.

I really appreciate your response and wish you a great week.

John DeMarco
I appreciate your comments, Sharon. I wholeheartedly agree that beauty is a necessity. Beauty is to life what nutritional value is to food; it imparts a sense of balance and of natural order, and it's something that, if we don't have it, our spirit will fade and die. Yet we humans have very complex needs. As essential as beauty is to us, I don't necessarily see it as a cure-all for the world's darkness. As you say, "certainly not all art is beautiful", and I think there's a very good reason for this: not all of our feelings are beautiful. Yet, all of our feelings want to be attended to, want to be expressed. Is it proper to deny the uncomfortable feelings? (See my response the Kathy, above.) Or is it healthier to touch them, poke around inside, give them the attention they're calling out for? Art, especially since the onset of the 20th Century, has become an open vessel for the whole range of human experience. It doesn't always produce great works of beauty, as you say, but it does allow us to express ourselves honestly. This is something I value greatly about art.

Picasso's 'Guernica' is a startling piece - not something I would call 'beautiful' - yet it contains great beauty in its power to convey the violence and terror of civil war and the broad spectrum of feelings coursing through the artist. Even difficult and ugly feelings can be conveyed meaningfully and with a great degree of beauty because of how they tug at the soul. 'Hamlet' isn't a exactly a feel-good play, but it tells us deeply of the shadows within human nature. But paying it heed we can perhaps see more clearly into ourselves and avoid needless suffering. The list, of course, goes on.

This is why art is necessary to me - it opens up this wonderful opportunity to look into myself and, in doing so, helps me to grow as a person. If it makes the world a slightly more beautiful place in the process, so much the better, but it isn't the beauty alone that drives me. I do, very much, need art, just like I need air to breathe, or words to speak.

Thanks for your response, Sharon. Wishing you all the best.

Walter Paul Bebirian
Thank you John -

This is an absolutely fantastic article and it makes something that I wrote a few days ago seem even more relevant and real than before - my take on the Ultimate Source of Renewable Energy - I hope you don't mind me posting this here:

What an absolutely fantastic time it truly is that we live in -

thank you!


John DeMarco
Absolutely, Jackie!

John DeMarco
Thanks so much, Walter. I don't mind the post at all - I'm looking forward to checking it out tonight after dinner. Cheers!

John, I also like your comment "arts serve as a language". I've often heard that music is the only truly international language but you're right, the visual arts are too.

But music and the visual arts can say so much more than mere words!

Sharon Weaver
You make a lot of very good points. I agree that poking the uncomfortable is important too. There are many works of art that evoke emotions which are transforming and important. I just wish the commercial aspect didn't always erode the original intent. Shocking just for shock sake is where everything seems to wind up.

Susan Holland
Thank you, John, and your chosen subject links into one of my own perennial favorite concepts.

The word "needs" that Sharon is wondering about seems to me perfectly chosen-- as the cyclical business of life moves around, I like to think of it as an ecosystem, of sorts. The output becomes fuel for the things needing energy to grow...and so the art we see/hear/experience feeds us all, not only artists, but all people receiving the input, and so it is meeting a need.

A bit esoteric, maybe, but the spirit of art needs to go into and out through artists in order to continue. And it is just as much a part of our life as food, shelter and clothing! Our inner lives and thoughts and ideas and emotions need feeding, and sheltering. Maybe the allegory could also extend to the "clothing" that our art wears-- its presentation to others.

Nice thinking post here, John.

John DeMarco
So true, Jackie. As the old adage goes, 'a picture is worth a thousand words' - I'd add to that 'and a multitude of complex feelings and profound concepts as well' - of course, the same applies to a passage of music that can stir you to the depths. It's a very concentrated and effective means of conveying information, and it can go as far as we humans are willing to evolve.

John DeMarco
So true, Jackie. As the old adage goes, 'a picture is worth a thousand words' - I'd add to that 'and a multitude of complex feelings and profound concepts as well' - of course, the same applies to a passage of music that can stir you to the depths. It's a very concentrated and effective means of conveying information, and it can go as far as we humans are willing to evolve.

John DeMarco
I couldn't agree with you more, Sharon. If shock is being used to challenge an audience to reach beyond its limits and deepen its understanding, it can be a very useful tool; but when shock itself becomes the meaning, it's just as shallow as the smiley-face imagery that it claims to oppose.

John DeMarco
Well said, Susan. I suppose the extent to which your comment could be seen as esoteric depends on one's perspective. I've had that feeling of being 'fed' by art so often that it's very tangible. Really, it was the very thing that led me to painting when I was young. I remember having the feeling that many people would look at a piece of art, perhaps ponder it, but it seemed like very few would absorb it. It was as if there were a boundary line between art and audience. This was odd to me, as it felt more like art would radiate and seep into me. I think maybe this is the sort of thing that turns people into artists or aesthetes, an active connection like that.

Carol McIntyre
Beautifully stated John. Thank you.

John DeMarco
You're very welcome, Carol. I appreciate your taking the time to read.

Walter Paul Bebirian
And then the question came up in my mind - is there a "need" or is it a "want"

Susan Holland
It is a need. Look at the Lascaux Caves paintings and the hieroglyphics and the totems and the icons and the stones of Stonehenge. Look at the music! Look at dance! Expression comes from inspiration... beauty in, beauty out.

It's our spiritual breathing, art. We tend to think that non-physical stuff is "fluff." It's not fluff, it's very much central to our life.

Yes, it is a need. Basic needs are motivated by "wants." Hungry? It's the "want" generated by a need.

Pardon my earthiness, but it's the same thing as compost. Without the output, there would be no regeneration.

Susan Holland
It is a need. Look at the Lascaux Caves paintings and the hieroglyphics and the totems and the icons and the stones of Stonehenge. Look at the music! Look at dance! Expression comes from inspiration... beauty in, beauty out.

It's our spiritual breathing, art. We tend to think that non-physical stuff is "fluff." It's not fluff, it's very much central to our life.

Yes, it is a need. Basic needs are motivated by "wants." Hungry? It's the "want" generated by a need.

Pardon my earthiness, but it's the same thing as compost. Without the output, there would be no regeneration.

John DeMarco
A need implies something that is vital to our survival, while a want implies an action fueled more by desire. It seems to me that art fits into both of those categories - on one hand, it's essential to the health of the soul, while on the other, the 3rd version of Munch's iconic 'The Scream' is expected to fetch $80 million at auction. That's a whole lot of want and very little need. I think our culture had a need for 'The Scream', and that's why it appeared and then promoted to its status as an icon, but the matter of personal ownership is something else entirely, perhaps pointing to a deeper need to possess.

But, yes Susan, the Lascaux paintings are a perfect example of art arising as purely as a plant thrusting out a leaf. I really don't think it was a matter of 'You know, we really have to do something with this wall.' This leads me to conclude that, ultimately, art arises, circulates, and fills space for a variety of different reasons, ranging from, 'this is who I am and expressing it is partly my means of survival' to 'this gives me tremendous status in the world, which can then be transformed into power'. It's all part of the world of art.

This really is a fascinating topic.

Walter Paul Bebirian
In the case of the cave paintings - is this something that a small percentage of the population at the time was involved in - or perhaps a large percent was involved with but that we are not aware of this - as our society advances is there more art being created in order to stimulate greater thinking?

Susan Holland
Lascaux paintings were about food/hunting. They were about desire for food and for the ultimate quarry-- a nice fat edible animal. They were about the stuff of life-- hunting.

Passion arises from need. The Scream arose from a need to say something loud about a real-life emotion. It's said that the colors behind that screaming face are from volcanic eruption sources.

But The Scream doesn't need a historic reason to be an important piece of art. It shows something that even little children with bad dreams can relate to. It's a way of connecting with other humans, that piece of art. And all art does that..whether it's a pretty thing or a frightening thing. (e.g., Guernica.) Art is visual words. As natural as a need to communicate.

The poet was resident even in Igluk. He made signs in the dirt. Art.

My strongly held opinion, of course.

John DeMarco
I'm not sure about the cave paintings, Walter. Given how far back they date, it's quite possible that there were many more that have since eroded, gotten buried, or been otherwise destroyed. And, yes, I believe that since art is a part of our evolutionary process, the type of art we produce (and, to some extent, the amount of it) will reflect the needs of that process. Not just advancing the nature of our thoughts, but our awareness.

John DeMarco
Well said, Susan. Yes, The Scream doesn't have a historic reason, but it does have a psychological one.

Kenneth Jensen
John, your question of “Why do we need art?” is a good question and food for thought. The fundamental reasons you give have caused me to stop and ponder those reasons. The arts are an important part of my life especially music and the visual arts and I agree that art is unique to the human species. I believe that the arts are fundamental to our God given inborn desire to create which is one of the things that differentiates us from all other species on earth. While I agree that, “the arts are a vehicle for how we sense our world”, I do not see the arts as some mystical entity unto itself that if fed properly will be the means to save humanity. Of course if one's belief system is based only on evolution as the source of their existence then I can see how the arts may become something to give reason to their soul.
There is some confusion caused when one speaks of “the arts”, which is plural, as a single thing that needs to be fed properly to lift us when we “crash and burn”.
I do not see the arts as so pure and lucid as you propose. Art can be just as duplicitous and vague as people can be. To think or to propose otherwise is in itself deceptive and vague.
It is the artist that makes art uplifting or degrading, clear or vague, enriching or depriving. The way I see it art doesn't make the artist it only mirrors the artist's character, motives, perspectives and/or values. One need look no further than the film industry arts to see how it in a large part is taking our society down a path of deceptive degradation. It keeps lowering the moral standards promoting vulgarity, immorality, and rudeness. Where fidelity in marriage used to be the standard, movies now depict infidelity as the standard. Where forgiveness used to be accepted as noble, revenge is now the standard in movies. Alexander Pope said it very well in his words.
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Movie arts have depicted vice so frequently that people endure, pity, and even embrace.
In contemporary music the same thing can be said.
I agree, “Art can provide a much more honest, immediate, and multi-dimensional means of expressing what we're sensing”, but it does not follow that it will; that is dependent entirely upon the artist. Art can be just as, “duplicitous, deceptive, or heavy handed as those who create it or those who view and use it. To the point, art is just what the artist and people who view it make of it, not the other way around. We need good people with high moral character to keep the world from crashing and burning, art alone will not do it.
I do not believe the arts in and of themselves can keep the world from crashing and burning as you put it. It will take us living true and correct principles that will raise man. We need art only if it is good art.
Your statement that, “The arts if properly fed, can help our world avoid a crash and burn; and if they're not fed and we do crash and burn, it will be the arts that lift us back up again”, begs a few questions. Where in the history of the world have the arts saved a society from decay? It seems the arts are being placed on a higher pedestal than the people who created it. I think the cart has been put before the horse. Is the cart supposed to be pulling the horse and making it go? Are the arts what drive people or is it people that drive the arts? If the arts are what are going to save man from, “crashing and burning,” and if they have to be fed properly to do so, then who or what feeds the arts properly, what is the proper food, and who determines what is proper? Could that be a person or persons or do you mean that it is self feeding? These thoughts unanswered can be confusing and don't provide clarity as to why we need art. I have always felt we need the arts as a form of expression to enrich our lives and as a means of helping others enjoy the beauties that surround us. I don't see the arts as something that will correct and prevent society from “crashing and burning”.
This then prompts a bigger question which needs to be premised by an observation, which is that people are fallible. Even the most intellectual are fallible and it is evidenced down through history, people make mistakes and if a person thinks otherwise, there in is the biggest mistake. So who or what is going to feed those arts properly if we cannot depend on fallible man to do so? The arts do not guide a society but society's character, its morals and values are depicted in its arts. The arts are not a form of intelligence, or entity that can save man from himself.

Susan Holland
Kenneth, I say "hear hear" to all you say. You have moved back to the God view, and of course, the God view is that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God." (hope I got that right.)

So what we have been discussing is "of the world", but not of eternity. I don't see us bothering with Mona Lisas or such when we move on to the greater world of eternity, do you?

One has to think that like the quest for food, shelter and clothing that we know are human needs, the need for spiritual input and output will graduate to a different set of principles.

So the nourishment we get in this imperfect existence is a need now, but not necessarily at all necessary in the greater view of things.

Motivation toward an understanding of the God principles that fit us for eternity, however, may come from the artistic output of man-- we see evil as well as good coming into view through arts, and we are moved to ask eternally important questions.

That man is inclined to decadence is a given, at least in the revelations of the Judea-Christian scriptures, so that mankind's expressions would be decadent as well is not surprise.

And I would also like to tell you all that it's so fun to delve into these we used to do on the college lawn on a spring afternoon after classes. Thanks to all for the chance to do so.

Kenneth Jensen
And I would like to thank Fine Art Views and all those who take their time to contribute interesting topics to think about.

Donald Fox
Art, which includes all of the arts or artistic expression, has a long and varied history. This cannot be encapsulated in a few paragraphs nor can it necessarily be precisely spoken since meanings of the words used would have to be continuously defined. People do see things differently and experience things differently. This is borne out in the arts. Then again, it's also borne out in religious and spiritual doctrines. I suppose it's inevitable that as one discusses art, one also has to address religion. It, religion, has had at least as colorful a past as art. In both there are the true believers, the self-righteous, and the scofflaws. If anything, art is a tool that individuals and groups use for conveying a message of sorts. Whatever may be said beyond that is more about individual belief than about art.

An interesting book that discusses many of these issues is the late Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. He pulls together a number of perspectives as well as presents his own.

Thnaks for an interesting and engaging topic of discussion.

John DeMarco
You bring up some very interesting points, Kenneth. While I wouldn't exactly call the arts a mystical entity, I would say that art (of potentially any medium) provides a versatile basic form through which the soul can express itself. We need art, as it performs this function. I guess what I'm saying here is that the arts have evolved as a natural means for us to express the mysteries of our spirit. They exist as a potential vehicle for the spirit, and we know this because there is evidence of it in the great works that have come before us - works that reflect profound changes in how we perceive the world and express its stream of ideas. In the great works of poetry, or painting, or music, we are shown how deep the soul has gone in its human experience. This is one reason why the great works are great, because in some way they contain the power to inspire us to take our own deeper journeys. So, really, I'm talking about the potential of art to serve as a tool for discovery, change, and recovery.

The arts, plural, are merely a set of tools that, in and of themselves, can serve both the best and the worst in us. As I tell my kids, a hammer can be used to either build a house or tear it down. It's not the tools, but what we do with them that counts. We're pretty much saying the same thing here, though. I don't remember saying anywhere that all art is magically endowed, but more that art itself is a means by which magic can be endowed unto the world. Looking back at the original post, I see where my words could have been more clear. By 'feeding the arts', I was coming from a somewhat organic line of reasoning - that the arts are plants which, if fed and treated properly, will yield great fruits which, in times of famine, can save our lives.

You ask 'Where in the history of the world have the arts saved a society from decay?' My reply is that the arts have saved every society from decay. Take the arts away from a society and what is left? When we wish to know about a culture, we usually turn to its arts. The ancient Greeks may be gone in body, but they're still with us in spirit and, though the arts, remain a great influence to us in many ways. I'm not putting the arts on a pedestal here; in fact, I'm saying to take those tools down off the pedestal and use them to build a more sensible world.

I feel that the arts and people drive each other. Of course, people drive the arts, but aren't the people who drive the arts inspired in part by the art that has come before them? Seeing how the tools were used years before my time teaches me how to use them now; and as life goes on, I will make certain adjustment in how I use those tools and maybe those adjustments will in the future provide other people with some form of realization or inspiration. From this point of view, the cart and horse are pulling each other.

I do feel that evolution is the major driving force of our existence, and that as we become more aware of our human experience, learn to use more of the brain, extend deeper into sense, align more with our spirit, we are honoring the highest reasons for our being. The spirit isn't a static thing - it's stillness, but it's movement and breath as well. It's silence, but also music and poetry. It's not in our nature to merely survive here, but to advance and grow. I feel that the primary object of the human spirit, individually and collectively, is to face challenges, remove obstacles, and summon its powers of creativity to further give shape to itself and the world. Do human beings get distracted and lose sight of that primary object? You bet they do. It's happening in epidemic proportions, and the arts do indeed reflect this. Yet, at the same time, the arts remain as a ready vehicle for the greatest possible ideas and the deepest of feelings. They are a potent means of conveyance; they are a time-tested language of the soul. That's the gist of what I'm saying. They are here for us and we have a need for them because they are vital to our growth.

Thank you, Kenneth for your thought provoking words; and, yes, thanks to Fine Art Views for providing this forum, and thanks to those who participate.

John DeMarco
That was very well said, Susan.

I like this very much: "So the nourishment we get in this imperfect existence is a need now, but not necessarily at all necessary in the greater view of things." Because when there is no longer a need for something, we tend to drop it and move on. Asking whether the soul will need art when it graduates 'to a different set of principles' is something like asking if we'll still need religion as we stand before God. But as we are now, in this world, yes, what a blessing for us to have the tools to say what's most important.

John DeMarco
Thank you for your addition Donald. Yes, it's all very much a matter of perspective, isn't it? Art, and our individual reasons for doing it and supporting it, is pretty subjective territory. When we open up a topic like 'Why We Need Art' it's pretty much like prying the lid off of Pandora's box - our reasons are great and they span the course of humanity's march across time.

Robert Sloan
Beautiful essay. Thanks for sharing your view of the arts.

John DeMarco
Thank you very much, Robert.


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