The second reason the arts don’t immediately command respect like the sciences tend to is because of a cultural perception around practicality. (The first is over here.)
The argument generally goes…an EMT can save your life, but a journalist can write a nice obituary for you. Or, a chemist can help lower greenhouse gas emissions, and a pharmacist can help lower your cholesterol…but what can a pianist do other than offer the background music?
So what use are the paintings hanging in the Louvre or the National Gallery of Art? And what use are the shelves of fiction and poetry lining the walls of libraries all around the world? What is the purpose of art? Is it an utterly excessive, impractical luxury?
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
Writing and design are service-based professions. The immediate purpose may be “to communicate something,” which, though seemingly simple, is important. If writing and design are used to expand perspectives and support diversity in thinking, then these crafts are as influential as primary education.
But their ultimate purpose is much grander: to provide emotional connection and pleasure.
It’s clear that feeling connected with others is important to our wellbeing. For starters, check out the research of Dr. John Cacioppo on the effects of loneliness, and the research of Dr. Jean Decety, who examines how feeling socially connected affects wellness. It’s evident that feeling pleasure alters your body chemistry (dopamine, oxytocin, and a dash of serotonin). And it’s popularly suggested that happy, connected people tend to have more resilient immune systems than depressed, lonely people.
So then the work of art is not longer so simple. If emotions are chemical responses, then museums and libraries are powerful drugstores…and writers and designers are biochemical engineers. If we read a novel whose characters resonate with us, we might feel understood. If we watch a film where someone expresses a truth of the human experience, we might discover that we are not alone in our sorrow, our joys, our jealousies, our dreams, our worries, and everything else. If we see a painting that transports us somewhere we wanted to visit, we might feel pleasure, which could be wrapped in sadness; “nostalgia” and “saudade” describe such experiences. But even with the pain, we still turn to art for comfort and understanding.
By providing emotional connection and pleasure to us, art makes a serious contribution to society. It’s as important as that toothpaste in your bathroom, as important as that orthotic in your shoe, as important as the energy-saving lightbulb in your ceiling.
Art is emotional sustenance. And we, as human beings, universally need it.