Art for Life’s Sake: The Necessity of Making and Viewing Art

By LIZ HAGER

Bruce Beasley, Arristus, 1981
Stainless steel, 148″ (h) x 168 “(w) x 132” (d)
(Courtesy Bruce Beasley)

Yesterday, the formal remarks of Bay Area sculptor Bruce Beasley at an Art in Action event reminded me once again of the absolute necessity to humankind of making and viewing art.

Beasley acknowledged that he was preaching to the choir; the room was filled with artists, educators, and parents sympathetic to the mission of Art in Action, which for 28 years has been bringing an otherwise-absent art curriculum into K-8 grades throughout the country.

A sea of heads bobbed in assent as Beasley talked about the right/left-brain dichotomy. Today there is much empirical evidence pointing to the hemispherical location of various cognitive tasks—sequential processing (left brain) versus parallel processing (right brain); rational versus intuitive thinking; recognition of parts versus recognition of the whole; rational thinking versus spatial recognition; words (labels) versus pictures (images).

Why should contemporary humankind, which operates in a culture that prizes  left-brain competencies, care about fostering right-“brainedness”?

Simply put, survival of the species.

In prosaic terms, humans with well-developed “ambi-hemispherical” cognitive abilities have had a better chance of survival (and thus of procreation). In a culture that focuses nearly exclusively on the development of left-brain skills, art is compelling for its ability to develop the right-sided brain.

Artists understand the ways in which they benefit from right-brain competencies, even beyond the process of making their art. While fashioning a piece of art, for example, an artist makes hundreds, maybe thousands, of decisions. That decision-making skill is invaluable for success in the world-at-large.

Dayak Shield, early 20th century.

Further, the ability of artists to imagine the whole picture (a right-brain activity) is a fundamental to problem-solving, no matter what the problem. Imagine what a fantastic holistic tool is created when seeing the whole is combined with a well-tuned ability to conceptualize the parts (a left-brain activity).

Artists are trained to see patterns, enormously beneficial in the navigation of the array of stimuli life throws up.

Organizations like Art in Action understand that teaching kids art is not necessarily about teaching them to be artists; it’s about fostering right-brain skills to make them better at creating open-ended ideas; better at solving problems; better at trusting their intuitions.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Tomato Soup, 1962
Synthetic polymer paint on thirty-two canvases, Each canvas 20 x 16″
(MOMA, New York)

The profound answer to “Why should we care about (making and appreciating) art?” which also has to do with the role of art in evolutionary adaptation of the human race. It’s a complicated discussion that has been approached in diverse ways not just by scientists, but by ethologists and aestheticians as well.

If art were just nice, instead of necessary, they reason, it would have disappeared long ago from the repertoire of human activities. Quite the opposite: from the Paleolithic cave paintings onward, making and appreciating art have been universally important to human beings. It has stayed pervasive across cultures and time.

Hmong girls in traditional costume.

Ellen Dissanayake, who has devoted her career to exploring the biological reasons for art, cautions that this is a topic that requires us to “step outside our Western-oriented paradigm of art as something rare and elite.” She looks back before the Renaissance (when our modern concept of “art” took shape) to conclude that at its core art has to do with “making special.” It is a fundamentally non-trivial social activity, which, in its various forms, articulates a group’s deepest held beliefs and concerns. I would add that, in this construct, a group includes both “artist” and “audience.”

“As the vehicle for group meaning and a galvanizer for group one-heartedness, art-conjoined-with ritual is essential to group survival; in traditional societies ‘art for life’s sake,” not ‘art for art’s sake,’ is the rule.” (Homo Aestheticus, p.222).

The separation of art from life is peculiar to modern (“advanced”) societies. Still, there’s no denying it: “making special,” whether in visual endeavors, singing, cooking, or dressing is still a fundamental human need.

Wider Connections

Ellen Dissanyake—Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why
Betty Edwards—The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Malcolm Gladwell—Outliers: The Story of Success

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16 Responses to “Art for Life’s Sake: The Necessity of Making and Viewing Art”

  1. This is nonsense. Art has purpose, one as a part of mankind, not apart from it. It defines who we are, creates a common mythology not splinters and brownnoses to the rich like contempt art. Nor therapy for the brain addled. Art explores nature, massive wastes of material like the above ceratinly doesnt do that, its arrogance, about how clever the artiste is, no humility before the universe. It is searching for god, wahtever that maeasn to you, but essentially, the artists true role, revealing purpose a common one of humanty, not the individual.

    Art for children is attempting to find and define who one its, self expression is fine. But thats for children, not adults. We explore, we have a role in society just like a soldier, a baker, a farmer. No more, or less, important than any of these, or anyone else anywhere.

    It is about US, not I. As Pre Obama said, it is time to put aside childish thngs, time to get back to fundamentlals. Back to arts role in humanity, not making a few soft and over sensitive weak souls feel better about themselves. Half a brain is better than none, and I dont see much content of knowledge of the world, nor seeking connections here. One must learn be a part of the world, before one can filter out the garbage and reveal what connects us as one.

    art collegia delenda est
    fine art collegs must be destroyed
    Save the watts Towers, tear down the Ivories.

    • Donald,
      I confess, I’m not really grasping the points in your rambling commentary here… Perhaps you didn’t read my post carefully enough or didn’t reach the end. Or were just using this forum as a bully pulpit from which to espouse your general philosophy of art. . .

      Whatever the case, you will note that in the second half of the post I discuss (albeit briefly) the notion that art is about “making special” i.e. that “embellishing” objects is ALL about articulating ” a group’s deepest held beliefs and concerns.” Perhaps I didn’t make my stand clear enough; it’s a compelling notion, which resonates with me.

      Not sure it’s much different from what you advocate on your own site. To wit: ” Art has always been the embodiment of Purpose in humanity. It was the physical manifestation of who we are as a people. It identified each group, whether tribal, national, ethnic, or religious based.”

      On a side note, your Latin “slogan” should be rendered properly as: Athenaea artium honestarum et liberalium delenda sunt!

      According to a reputable professor of Classics (and VR reader): First, colleges are not equal to collegia. A school of higher learning is Athenaeum; the plurall being Athenaea.

      Second, the concept of art is hard: artes honestae are the honorable arts, which in ancient Rome didn’t really include pictorial arts, because those were often undertaken by slaves (but perhaps this could be seen as a minor point). Liberalium (genitive plural of liberales) are the ones befitting a free and well born person (which more accurately conform to our modern concept of an art college).

      Happy that Venetian Red could be of service.

  2. …Art considered as an urgent need for the survival of the species.
    Every one should be aware of this reality. And politicians should put it in their programs !.. Thanks for this post.
    Regards from France

  3. Thanks so much for the provocative ideas Liz! Many of those of us who love art consider it almost like food. In the context of the research you cite perhaps it is like food for the brain although I swear my soul gets nourishment as well. As a great collector of contemporary art told me once, “It’s hard for me to imagine what my life was like before art.” I’m also reminded of poster I once saw. Clichéd but still relevant. It showed a black and white picture of an ugly desert landscape with a beat up busted truck tire and the copy said. “A day without Mozart is a day without sunshine.” What I found memorable about this was the implicit hunger. You raise a fascinating concept and although I don’t really need an evolutionary justification for the enjoyment art brings to my life, it’s good stuff to know.

  4. Theresa Yondo Says:

    Dear Venetian Red,
    How wonderful it is that science is finally catching up to understanding the function art for life’s sake. In our current state of the union with the arts funded so poorly, I have many concerns about our children who are medicated on drugs for supposed diagnosis such as ADHD instead of channeling their energy into a subject like art that will teach them decision making skills as well as history and the idea of invention. Life is just more intersting with the inclusion of art.
    Thanks for continually presenting such scholarly papers.
    Theresa Yondo

  5. Creating public art gives me unique opportunities to see how art can change daily experience. I just installed 3 huge, climbable, woven wolf sculptures in an outdoor plaza space at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. What was an empty and nameless place on campus was filled. Students touch, interact, climb and play. An engineering based, research university’s mascot is reinterpreted as a real metaphor for the students . Administrators, teachers and scholars get a break from the grind. Engineers, too practical and left brained to commit to art, learn to think sideways and outside the box. Looking inside the sculptures shows all that an engineer worked with an artist to make the sculptures structurally sound. Art is the last thing we have to have, the first thing we need.

    In his song ‘First We Take Manhattan” Leonard Cohen writes “….we are blinded by the beauty of our weapons” which sums up the priorities of our culture. Starve kids of art so they can pass a “spit-it -back- at cha” test. Billions for bombers, but make sure “frivolous” spending on art stays out of the stimulus. Art is education. Art celebrates. Art lasts. Art defines our spirit when the weapons are obsolete.

    Stutz Wolves, NC State University

    Stuz Wolf, NC State University

  6. I’m sorry I missed this post earlier in the week. I appreciate knowing about it, Liz, and will link to it in next Friday’s All Art Friday.

    It’s distressing (to me) that in the 21st Century we still debate the need to make art and to have art (and I interpret the word “art” in its most all-encompassing sense) in our lives. That debate, as we all know, undoubtedly will continue, no matter the empirical evidence.

    There is a wonderful article On Gerard Richter by Wayne Adams in ImageJournal (No. 64) that gets at a related set of questions about art (and about Richter’s in particular) as a vehicle of meaning outside itself.

  7. Uh, no. You obviously are not a history major. Carthago delenda est, is a simplified phrase of what Cato the Elder always ended his speaches with, we dont know the exact words, and probably varied, but always pointing towards the destruction of Carthage as a rival that was rising again after the defeat of Hannibal in the second Punic war, and led to its obliteration in the Third. Collegium is Latin, so why use Hellenic words, and means colleagues who gather with a purpose, in a structure, to promote themselves. Perfect for the art world, as that is its only concern.

    And you give exactly one line about bonding, about art being of the whole, and then basically write it off as primitive, and over. Wrong. What we have now is decadent and destructive, and about the individual and a splintered groups self interest. Sorry you have difficulty following, artistes these days can only handle one thought at a time, when true art is layered, and all communicated by complex relationships that reflect life, yet must become smoothed out and simplified, to reveal the oneness of all, and the falshood of contradictions, which are but the human brains limited outlook and ability to comprehend the whole. The visualization of which IS the artists sole function in our culture. An evolving notion, that requires knowledge of the past as foundation, of fundamentals, mastering them before one can rise above them, and add another link in its chain, human evolution through adaptation and finding what is basic to us all.

    The brain is but a fatty substance of electrical impulses. It is not logical, which is but a tool of man, but an organic development of evolution, of our nervous system, and so ruled as much by hormones as outside data. To be an artist is to be outside oneself, to look at oneself in the whole, and realize we are not more or less important than anyone, or anything else. Yet humanity matters, and yes, finding patterns key to developing a lanugage and understanding, feeling, not through words, the world we life in and our meaning, god. To splinter the brain is harebrained, it is not a computer, but a cobweb, that overlaps and though centers, can be oragnically grown to rewire when damaged. It is not a series of computer chips. Mapping is great for surgeons and understanding its physical functions, but absurd as a philosophy. The brain is not of only itself, it is but the growth at the end of the nervous system, which cannot be seperated from the whole being except for study, for data retrieval, not life.

    There is no pattern in Warhols soupcans, its monotonous marketing, pumelling you with a silly hook til you cant get it out of your head, like the terrible pop and artsy fartsy alternative music we are inundated with, when true creative music is that of Bach and Miles Davis ,weaving and discovering, findng the simplist is true, and the complex passionate. Pop is just that, its not art. its commodities of a particular times and place,a dn so dated as son as it is created. It is fashion, entertainment for the effette, not creative art. It is attempting to see something in nothing, to seperate onself and pretend to be superior, Imperial Clothing. True art bonds, this splinters.

    And so, over. Fundamentals are now needed, return to line, color, and form, the structure of mind, body adn soul as one. The academics are Pharisees, they are supposed to simply store knowledge, and present it, but have presumed to be Prophets, and so brought art low. As low as it can go, and now dead. time for a true Renaissance, a rebirth, for the trash heap of Contempt art. Though it does lack of nutritional value in its rotting carcass we can overlook it as the false god of the few it was. And get back to who WE are, what is life about, and what our Purpose is. The goal of all artists as Gauguin espoused.

    And yes
    art collegia delenda est

    • Donald,
      I invite you to read Ellen Dessanayake’s books, they are incredibly well-researched and comprehensive on this subject. In consideration of space I didn’t provide a full book review. I think you’d ultimately find that you’d actually agree with what she says.

      And yes, in the lef/right brain discussion, I should have added consideration of the Corpus Callosum, the connecting communication cable between the hemispheres. . . It’s not like electrical impulses stay isolated on either side of the brain.

      Finally, I won’t argue with you over appropriation of a war cry from Cato the Elder. But please AT LEAST honor Cato by making your own slogan grammatically correct. To wit: the word “art” isn’t even Latin and should be the plural genitive (possessive) of “ars” which would be “artium.” Any verb must agree with its noun, in your case the verb would be “erunt” (they will be) to agree with the PLURAL noun “collegia.”

      On the other hand, if what you are after is a psuedo Latin-sounding phrase that makes you sound erudite, then “art collegia delenda est” is best.

      • Hahah, oh snap. Nice one, Liz.

        And I liked the post! I’m in a class right now on Adorno’s “Aesthetic Theory,” (which has a very different view of aesthetics from the one you outlined above) and so have been thinking a lot about the “purpose” of art in general this semester. I’ll definitely check out Dissanyake’s book…putting her ideas in conversation with Adorno would be very interesting, based on what I’ve seen so far.

        • Dae,
          Thanks for weighing in with another point of view. Dissanyake is an ethologist, concerned with the “biology” of art, i.e. how and why art evolved as part of the human behavioral repertoire. In all that I’ve read, she doesn’t posit a theory of “beauty” (the aesthetician’s role).

          I am not versed at all in Adorno, and I understand his work was dense and sophisticated. However, I wonder if there is anything you can sum up (from Adorno’s perspective) that would be germane to this discussion????

          • Haha…I see that Adorno has successfully infiltrated my brain, as I’m now seeing aesthetic theory everywhere, *especially* where it isn’t.

            Your point about the artist’s ability to see the whole while simultaneously conceptualizing the parts is right in line with Adorno’s way of thinking. In his system, art’s role is to draw attention to everything’s non-identity with itself. By non-identity Adorno means that people, things, and works of art aren’t coherent wholes. He hates “identity;” to him talking about identity is like saying “India is…” when India is not a cohesive whole, but is made up of bazillions of parts.

            For Adorno, art’s role is to draw attention to the simultaneous existence of fragments inside a whole. Things that focus on creating an expansive whole (say, Dickens) are baaaad. Things that focus our attention on parts in relation to and in conflict with a whole (say, Gothic cathedrals) are good. I’m oversimplifying a little, it’s true, but what I find especially interesting in all of this is that this ability to conceptualize parts and whole together is biologically hardwired.

            I’m not sure exactly what I think about this yet – apart from the fact that it’s interesting. I’ll have to run off and read a few things before I have anything more concrete to say…

  8. as always, an interesting subject although somewhat heated this time –

  9. don’t want to leave off without saying how much I loved the scuptures – all of them –

  10. Wonderful reflection, thanks Liz!
    I think we are in such an interesting time of mulch and compost in art– taking from the past, and making new art from it– and also cross-culturally beginning to have more understanding and nuances. Today I was in San Juan Bautista, at the Mission Gallery. They have some marvelous work– beautiful work by an artist whose work I have loved– etchings– by Stephen McMillan, from this area; and also from a Japanese artist who lives in France and does the most exquisite mezzo prints you can ever imagine of nude female flesh. The curves of the body are marvelous in his work. Mr. McMillan’s work is fantastic, and my favorite is of a path at Point Lobos, which is edged by the ocean and fog, and is meticulous and understated in colors. He uses copper plates for his traditional etching work. There are some fantastic paintings of the Sierras, and fog over live oak trees. Thinking about art in that setting, where I am like a hungry person eating great food, makes me like very much what you said about the hunger for art. I also love to sing in the church in San Juan Bautista– it is amazing that it has such perfect acoustics for singing. I talked to the man who arranges choral work for the place, and he said every group who comes loves to sing there, because they sound so heavenly.
    “It seems to me you live your life like a candle in the wind”– one can only be moved and deepened by such work, and give thanks for having had it feed one’s soul.
    Thanks for what you are saying about what it does for the mind and soul.

  11. Another very interesting link to art and it’s actual meaning as insufficient as the word is; ‘Art’ my legacy…Wm. Sidmore

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