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Why Art?

Defining “art,” first of all, is an unwieldy business. I attended a graduate school of “arts and sciences,” which was that institution’s way of saying that a fully educated society values both art and science. But the “arts” in this name signifies the “liberal arts,” a nod to medieval education in the liberales artes. That used to mean “arts or studies for free (liber) men” of the upper classes (topics like grammar, logic, but also geometry, etc.) as distinct from the serviles artes (occupational pursuits of the lower classes).

Today, “liberal arts” is more of a name for the humanities—such as literature and languages, philosophy, history, art history and the history of religions (my own field), etc. The term “sciences,” however, can also be broad, meaning both the life sciences (like biology) and the physical sciences (like chemistry) along with the social sciences (like sociology). Education itself is hard to define.

But where is the ordinary meaning of “art” in all this? I have in mind that my daughters attended a “school of the arts” for high school. They had to choose an “art area”—painting and sculpture, creative writing of fiction and poetry, theater, music, dance, even film. These areas are sometimes called the “fine arts.” Of course, my daughters also had to study enough liberal arts and sciences to get into college.

Yet why is art in this special sense of a fine art so often in financial trouble? I recently heard a professional dancer complain in the hallway of a dance studio that his students’ schools were funding “STEM”—science, technology, engineering, and math—but not “STEAM,” meaning they were leaving out the “Arts.” He did not say why this was happening nor why dancing is important, although it was clearly important to him and (one assumes) his dancers. He added that it was okay that he did not make much money in a profession he loved. But I don’t think he meant it. Money, after all, usually follows what is valued.

It appears that our culture increasingly values only science and the occupational pursuits. It is a measure of our materialism and how we really “collude” with Russia.

Unfortunately, when persons in the arts explain their calling, they often sound “scientific.” I am told in program notes that I have attended Mozart’s opera in order “to bring our community together” (sociology). When arts teachers argue before legislatures, they point to higher test scores, as if studying Gauguin’s style to find one’s own or acting in a play by Albee were good for the brain (biology). Of course, there are also thoroughly unscientific explanations: that we need the film, “Gone with the Wind,” in order to escape the everyday (a terrible reason since alcohol does that, too) or that Ratmansky’s choreography is exciting (another bad reason since we could say that about sports).

One sometimes wishes no explanation of art were given or even needed. That it was obvious to everyone that being fully human simply includes expressing oneself artistically—or experiencing or observing or listening to others who do that well. The nineteenth century slogan, “Art for art’s sake,” is no longer shocking, but we might ponder its subtle wisdom. Then, again, much in the world of art is beautiful. And we do need beauty. The poet Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” And we do need joy.

Should one need a psychological argument for art, Jung has a few things to say in an early lecture (1922), “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry” (Collected Works, vol. 15). He acknowledges that a work of art cannot be explained except in its own terms (“for its own sake”) but says it is also a response to the “creative urge” built into the human psyche. While present in everyone, it “grips” some more strongly than others:

The biographies of great artists make it abundantly clear that the creative urge is often so imperious that it battens on their humanity and yokes everything to the service of the work, even at the cost of health and ordinary human happiness.

There are two levels of art, however, one of them more consciously intended and the other in which the artist “fancies he is swimming, but in reality an unseen current sweeps him along.”

In the first, the artist knows what he or she is doing, what rules of style are being kept or broken, and with a purpose in mind. Still, it is imaginary, a prompting from the unconscious that wants itself expressed so that at least one person—then, perhaps a whole society—can see a fuller truth. It may be a disenchanting truth, like that in Arthur Miller's play, “Death of a Salesman,” exposing to view the illusions of a failed life—and how it is that we lie to ourselves. It may be a re-enchanting truth, like Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” composed in 1949 and teaching us by their touching beauty that the German soul—the human soul—is not merely destructive. Jung would call this “personal” art that “compensates” an inadequate view of life, making us wiser.

Then, there is “impersonal” art. Jung thinks of Goethe’s poem, “Faust, Part 2.” I think (again) of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The novel was not well-received, and its author died in obscurity. But, then, Melville had confided in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written an evil book.” It was “evil” for a number of reasons. It openly stated that a Presbyterian’s religion was no better than that of the “idolator,” Queequeg. It reversed Calvin’s view of God and man—“Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and man all ill, lo you!”—by considering the opposite to be true. It was perhaps especially evil by giving voice to the profoundest source of fantasy, the promptings not just of a personal unconscious but of the archetypes that swim like whales in the depths of the collective unconscious. It is this level of the psyche that contains “forbidden truths” that Christian culture had been resisting for two thousand years.

One of these “Whales” breached into an American writer’s consciousness, and it took a hundred years for that event to be taken seriously. There is much to learn from Moby-Dick. It could easily take another hundred years.

Jung writes about the “secret of great art”:

The impact of an archetype, whether it takes the form of immediate experience or is expressed through the spoken word [or the symphony, sculpture, etc.] stirs us because it summons up a voice that is stronger than our own. Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring. He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and outlive the longest night.

“And that, Senator, is why I believe you should fund the arts. Thank you.”

WANT MORE? Read Edward F. Edinger, Goethe’s “Faust” (1990); and Edinger, Melville’s Moby-Dick (1995). Go to an art museum, etc.

Paul Gauguin, "Vision After the Sermon"

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