On Art and Necessity

I once asked my old art professor why she was a painter. After stumbling around for a while, she said something like, “the process of painting teaches you how to live.”

I’ve been thinking about this response for a few years now. It’s a statement I believe in wholeheartedly, but I also stumble around before ever repeating it. In the studio, I often feel like I’m reaching in the dark, but I rarely feel like I am being taught.

Five weeks ago my wife and I had our first daughter. She came five weeks early. Twelve days in the NICU completely reoriented my priorities. The second Augusta was sent down the hall for breathing issues, my wife and I clicked into survival mode. Nothing else mattered besides caring and advocating for our daughter in the NICU. Now that we’re back home, I’ve haven’t clicked out of that mode. The impulse to create, replaced by the impulse to survive, now seems ridiculous. How could anything be less urgent than smudging oil and pigment around on a flat surface?

Obama shared my sentiments lately. A few weeks ago he was criticized for his thoughts on the art history degree:

“I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” [sic][laughter]

This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Skilled manufacturing is so much more urgent, so much more relevant than discussing the well-smeared paste of artists long past. Who has time for that? I’d rather feed my family, or fix the problem in Syria.

The College Art Association responded to Obama’s remarks. If we do away with such degrees, “America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities.”

But art making never seems so urgent as saving future generations. When so much of what we encounter on a daily basis offers an escape from reality, isn’t art just another way out? So many paintings offer pastoral windows into other worlds. These pleasant getaways rarely challenge our beliefs or craft our values.

Of course such paintings have their place, but I really believe that art was born out of a much more urgent necessity. The Chauvet Cave drawings, some of the earliest known, are anything but decorative. Painted in the far recesses of a cave, most of the drawings feature predatory animals or buffalos or horses in states of movement. There is a palpable searching in these drawings, an urgency, a need to really figure something out. One drawing features a combined female and bison figure. Here two fabrics of life are awkwardly knit together in charcoal. Sustenance and generation, death and life so intertwined, it only makes sense to draw them as one.

The Chauvet Cave Drawings, photo from the Bradshaw Foundation

Such images often express what words cannot. More recently, drawings have been used in refugee camps as a successful way for children to express their thoughts and feelings. With a simple drawing, they can express what they could not put into words. The process of drawing accesses a different part of the psyche. It is a process of seeking, digging, carving until you get somewhere. You only need to keep your hand moving. Art does not offer a way out, it offers a way in. Born out of necessity, art making unfolds new topographies, new ways of charting. A drawing or painting becomes an extension of seeing, and even when it’s not necessary, we still turn to these mediums to know deeper.

Even still, art seems like an extra-thing, a we-could-get-by-without-it thing. But I think we can say its superfluousness is only matched by its necessity.


  1. says

    Great insight, David. I’ve been meditating on the story of Martha and Mary as I move into a position of leadership (and corporate leadership at that). It dovetails with what you’re saying a little. Our time is best spent in important, but not necessarily urgent, activities. Martha’s urgency is quieted, not rebuked, by Christ, so that a different sound can be heard that desperately needs to be heard, that the world has waited to hear: the sound of the Word.

  2. says

    I don’t think that art and the nitty-gritty of life (if you will) have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I don’t think they should be. Our existence is richer, and the world a better place, when art informs life.

    There’s a temptation to think that we can make the world a better place by putting aside our desires for “frivolities” like art, literature and beauty, so we can get to work on “the important stuff” like science, medicine, and engineering. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, taking this tack DOES lead us further and further from the truth. Science answers questions like “Can we create human beings through in vitro fertilization, sperm donation, surrogates, and
    cloning?” but art answers questions like “Should we create human beings via these methods?”

  3. says

    My grandmother used to say something wise that may apply here; “Never let the tyranny of the urgent outweigh the burden of the important for very long.” Sometimes we have to handle the urgent things that arise, like the recent premature birth you and your wife experienced. everything else goes away while you deal with that ONE URGENT THING. But eventually, the urgency is handled, and we return to what is important in life: our jobs, our families, our Lord. Important things actually matter more, in the long term, than the urgent things. For example: When our children were young, we decided that reading aloud to them daily was important, while things like getting the dishes done were merely urgent.
    This all said, art and the making of art is important. It may not be urgent, but important is a larger piece of the puzzle of life, a heavier burden, a more needful thing than mere urgencies.
    It may help also to remember, God does not call us all to be the hands of the Body. Some people (my sister for instance) are called to do massive international outreach works that bring clean water to villages and rescue people from imminent destruction. Some people (me) are called to teach. She would be a terrible teacher. I would be a terrible international aid worker. You are called to be an artist. So be an artist, be the best damn artist you can be.
    A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. — Thomas Merton