Art’s worth

October 13, 2010

The following post is not ‘against’making a living with one’s art, but is rather a plea for the society to frame art in another context than just an economic one.

Years ago, I was part of a committee of artists and project developers (not building projects, cultural ones) whose task it was to determine how to use European subsidy money to promote tourism in our area. The idea was to use artists as a tourist attraction which would then channel income into the region. It was also thought that artists would welcome the chance to profile themselves and hopefully generate some sales.

There is nothing superficially wrong with this concept, it has worked successfully in many areas. But it still goes from the assumption that art’s main worth can be measured economically. And this I challenge.

That’s why I was so happy to hear a Dutch writer and journalist lucidly bring this assumption into question. Rob Riemen has recently compiled a book of stories by writers from around the world about a time when their lives were radically changed by an encounter with a work of art. The book is called,’Hoop en vertroosting'( ‘Hope and solace’), and in it Riemen argues that our society has eradicated something profoundly important to our lives- art and culture. He proves this point by reminding us of what gets the most media exposure; easily digestible entertainment(at best, porno and violence at worst) produced for the most accessible public, and how hard it is to get a high quality non-commercial film, play, piece of music, etc produced.

He sees the arts not primarily as entertainment or products but rather as places where people can grapple with the mystery of life and where life’s big questions are addressed- questions that each one of us are eventually confronted with.

Riemen personally had suffered some devastating losses, among them the death of his young wife shortly after they were married. In the interview I heard, he spoke of how he slowly descended down to a point of despair, but just at that moment was helped to find meaning again by a film he saw. I won’t go into detail about the film here, but it too was concerned with questions of life, death and finding a purpose that makes life meaningful.

Rob argues that art, like friendship, has an intrinsic worth, not an economic one. And that the economy’s purpose should be to serve art and culture rather than the other way around.

Money doesn’t bring happiness or a deeper sense of purpose and connection, the larger things do. Friendship, community, family, and being passionate about something do. He declares that our  internal worlds are not being addressed by this society.

When people are denied art and culture, frustration, noise and aggression result, because people have lost the language to evaluate their experience and express their feelings. Art has always provided that language, but it is no longer available to everyone. 

According to Riemen, for the last 100 years,  the intellectual elite has brushed aside great artworks, works that could give hope, as ‘metaphysical nonsense’. This leaves us with no common cultural heritage that could offer spiritual value to our lives.

So what can be done? According to Riemen, there has to be a new concept of what is really important in life. What is the worth of our human existence? Something is of value when it radiates a certain truth. It is important for people to realise that a totally commercial world is of less worth for their lives than what a painting or piece of music could mean to them because these things can help with questions like, ‘Who do I want to be?’, ‘And how do I create meaning in my life?’.

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