Are the Arts Essential? Yes! or, Why We’ll Be Back

Are the Arts Are Essential? Yes! or, Why We’ll Be Back

As I read more and more bad news of cancellations—not to mention gloom-and-doom prognostications—in the arts (and athletics, too), I’d like to share the following thoughts, which end optimistically, not because I intend them to, but in actuality.  Allow me to explain.

Essential professions are defined as those professions whose operations and products cannot cease without tangible and significant negative effects–physical, societal, or economic–on the world at large.  Therefore, if we want to test the essential-ness of any certain profession, we can shut it down, and examine the effects of the shutdown.  For example, if there were suddenly no doctors and no grocers, the effects would very quickly be tangible… and we’d all be in deep trouble.

As an experiment, let’s hypothetically shut down the arts, and furthermore, let’s shut down the arts as a profession.  Every art and arts profession, completely, if only just for emphasis.  Here are some rules for our cessation, and some of the possible consequences:

Let’s start with the one that would truly turn the most people’s lives upside down: no TV.  Even reality or documentary television requires at least the artistry of directors, camera operators, editors, narrators, grips and gaffers, and so on.  And of course, there would be no more film, in theaters, on television, on the internet, or DVD, or elsewhere.  I guess you can watch cute animal videos on YouTube, but they can’t have underscoring (see below).  Tik-Tok, well, that’s borderline, I guess.

And probably #2 on our “uh-oh” list, no music.  Not on the car radio, not on the sound system at the grocery store, not around the campfire, not at the gazebo in the park this summer.  And you might as well tell your kids they needn’t practice the piano or flute or guitar or whatever anymore.  Or sing, for that matter.  As a matter of fact, no more “Happy Birthday” song.  Just count to 20 while you’re washing your hands, and send your friends a birthday cake emoji.  Oh wait, no emojis—they were drawn by an artist.

While we’re at it, you can also toss your kids’ crayons, chalk, watercolors, pencils, drawing paper, and other art supplies.  Not gonna need ‘em, because there are no fine arts.  No Play-Dough; no Etch-a-Sketch.  (Forgive me, I’m old.)  Cameras are ok, as long as the pictures are just snapshots, and not aesthetically valuable in any way.  Instagram? Again, it depends on the photo, right?  By the way, that advertising firm just fired its creative and design departments. More artists unemployed…

Hey over there—I saw you tapping your feet—no dancing!  Dancing is an art form!  Someone might see you tapping your feet and get an idea for choreography, which is absolutely non-essential!  If you must dance, keep it to yourself, and please, don’t do it with any grace.  And certainly no passing the hat!  That makes it professional!

No prose? now that’s a thorny issue… for instance, isn’t this very essay that I’m writing now an art form?  Do I have any professional motivation to write it?  (I’ll never tell…)  Isn’t non-fiction writing artistic?  Certainly storytelling is, at least when it’s artful… so in an arts-free world, I guess it’s time to recycle all those books, and cancel our Scribd subscriptions, and maybe Reddit, too.

But take heart. There may also be an upside of sorts. Now that kids have virtually NOTHING to do after school, maybe we can produce a generation of brilliant scientists who will solve the many other dire problems that society and the world face: hunger, overpopulation, climate change… But wait–I seem to recall that creative scientific thinking typically correlates with artistic abilities, and some of our greatest thinkers have also been excellent artists, and that almost all are great appreciators of the arts.

Actually, no, when you look at the bigger picture, there’s really no upside at all to civilization without the arts–which is one of the two main reasons I think that they are essential, and will return.  It isn’t even a matter of the arts being essential in the sense of being necessary (although it seems that they are). The arts are truly essential, meaning that they are at the essence of our human existence. They are also now a crucial component of the world’s economic flow, and as we well know, corporations can be even more resilient than individuals. Obviously, there is a deadly obstacle to art at this moment in time. The arts, in particular the performing arts but really all artistic and cultural activities, involve human interaction, and human interaction is at present potentially dangerous.  Yet the other reason I believe the arts will soon recover is that modern people are too inextricably interconnected to one another, by proximity, lifestyle, and career, to relinquish their social interaction. Otherwise they would not be flocking to the nearest cafe or watering hole the moment the untrustworthy government says that it might, sorta, be ok to go outside if you wear a mask and stay six feet away from other people.

There’s no real possibility of the above artistic doomsday scenario ever happening, even in part.  Living in today’s world understandably breeds paranoia, and ironically, the wealth of information that is readily available to us is often unreliable, incomplete, or sadly misinterpreted. But we as a civilization are painfully aware that human behavior as we know it does not change overnight, and one thing seems certain: humans are forceful advocates of the arts, and the arts are fundamental to us, even if we are not aware of them, and even if we are consumers as much as we are aficionados.

Okay, let’s get to the FAQs (Fully Anticipated Questionings).

  1. How can you be so bold as to compare the importance of arts professions to things like medicine, or agriculture, or the civil servants who keep our infrastructure running?  I’m not comparing.  I’m merely pointing out that the arts have become such a common thread in the fabric of our lives that their removal would leave a conspicuous hole.  If civilization someday approaches a point where we are forced to choose between survival and making music, well, then, I promise, I won’t be making this argument.
  2. Don’t we already have enough art to sustain us?  I mean, there’s so much good stuff out there as it is.  Well, sure, for a while, anyway.  That’s what we have been doing these past months, sustaining ourselves on what we already have.  But seriously, how many times can you watch your favorite raunchy comedy, or all eight seasons of your favorite zombie serial?  Or listen to your favorite songs, or watch videos of your favorite musicals?  And remember, a lot of that older stuff is already thought of as “museum pieces,” that is, it’s somehow outdated–even if it’s only a few years old–and belongs in a museum. (Oh, and don’t forget, the museums are closed.  They’re nonessential.)  Not to mention that a lot of it is seriously politically incorrect, or outright unacceptable by 2020 standards.  Art of all kinds thrives, indeed it survives, on novelty, originality, and long-term progressiveness.  Besides, if no one is making art, then eventually appreciation of art is going to disappear, too.  The Kars 4 Kidz commercials will seem like Citizen Kane.
  3. Can’t we just put all art forms on recorded media, so no one will have to get close enough to other people to get sick?  We already do, so why not just do it for good? Again, yes we can, for a while, but look once more at history.  Here’s one prime example.  Recorded music first became widely available in the mid-20th century, making considerable profit for artists, but by 2000 was virtually cost-free to consumers.  Did either of these very different events suppress the desire of artists to share their art with an audience, for either personal/artistic satisfaction or for financial gain? Or did either occurrence slacken the public’s appetite for music performed live? Most definitely not.  Until the fateful day when circumstances demand that people isolate themselves completely, or until a time when virtual reality supplants our material world, that is to say, as long as people are permitted to leave their homes and experience what’s out there, they will want to attend live performances, dance in the nightclubs, go to exhibitions, cheer on their heroes at the stadium, and see their favorite celebrities in the flesh.  Let’s face it, those Zoom versions of talk shows and cooking shows and home improvement shows really can’t hold a candle to real television production, done by craftspeople and artists, professionals who are experts in their discipline, and dancing and making music are more fun in groups.
  4. Was art ever meant to be a profession?  I mean, do artists really deserve to make money at all?  Originally, I suppose, the answer is no, but art that arose from passion or devotion very quickly became valued to the point of being what we now call “monetized.” Some Neanderthal certainly had better cave-drawing chops than another, and thus was in higher demand than another as a wall decorator.  Mozart and Beethoven were sponsored and commissioned by those emperor types because Mozart and Beethoven did what they did so damn well.  Soon, art and cemented itself as a professional pursuit.  Nowadays, the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry is so much a part of the economy and collective consciousness that the arts are a viable career choice, beckoning the younger generation to enter into the profession as never before.  If at times this has come at the expense of artistic quality or integrity, on the other hand, it has encouraged technical excellence and virtuosity.  One may generalize that the greatest artists are usually the most recognized, and more often than not, recognition translates to financial success.  Whether or not this is so, in order to perpetuate art in the modern world, there must (usually) be a financial incentive, even a modest one.

Indeed, the arts are not just artistic now, but are a business, for the artists themselves and for those who surround them, support them, and bring their art to a wider audience.  Never in modern history has any cataclysmic event—no world war, no terrorist attack, no natural disaster— entirely halted the arts and entertainment businesses, nor ended the work of artistic practitioners.  The arts are now and always have been an ingrained feature of humanity, and persist even in the face of disaster.  That they have become a source of income for so many has only given them additional fortitude. Just witness how the frustration of artists and producers during the current shutdown has fueled their indomitable attempts to fill the void with extra output and new art forms.

This is not to say that the outcome of the current crisis should be underestimated. But sadly, the most unfortunate result of “hitting the pause button” might be an even greater widening of the socioeconomic gap in show business, as the extended hiatus has the potential to filter out all but the already wealthy, and those so deeply dedicated to their craft that they’ll work for peanuts. Let’s not let this happen. Let’s stand up for each other, and for the organizations like our unions who are there to protect us, and let’s work with our employers and collaborators to restart an engine that can never really die.

We know full well that things are better when the arts are alive and well.  Artistic pursuits encourage creative thinking and critical analysis, and these two fundamentals of knowledge have sustained people and made them smarter, happier, and more durable ever since people started thinking rationally.  These are the same approaches that eventually will help us overcome the pandemic. (Those schools canceling their arts and athletic programs for the coming semesters to save money are doing their students and society a grave disservice.)

It may take a while, but it will all come back.  As soon as there is perceived safety (as opposed to genuine safety, which is a questionable notion anyway), the performing arts will be back, and in force.  It is no longer trivial to say that “the show must go on.”  In recent years the show has NOT gone on a few times, but only for a short while.  This current “while” is longer than most generations alive today have known, and may seem even more interminable because our normal lives, artistic and otherwise, function at such a breakneck pace, with so much commanding our attention.  And a lot of that which commands our attention is art: music, drama, dance, the painting, the photography, the fiction, the stunning voice, the spectacular goal, the impossible catch, the unpredictable ending, the breathtaking splash of color… we cannot live without any of these forever.

Please, be patient, and keep yourself and one other alive and thriving so that we can all get back to what we live for and love.

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