Why arts ?

14 minutes read —

Arts seem useless

Humans are weird in all kind of ways. Take laughter for example. What is that, really ? This percussive air squeezing and hyperventilating at random times doesn’t seem like a particularly practical thing to do. Especially when it comes as a reaction to punchlines we failed to predict. One might even argue laughter is essentially our brain going rogue ; no less or no more than a full-blown processing bug when encountering one of those nonsensical one liners.

Well, let me tell you, the arts share a lot of characteristics with laughter. For one ; they appear pretty much equally useless at a surface level. I mean ; they are nothing compared to other traditional human activities such as hunting, gathering, cooking and the likes. Yet, just as laughter, we’ve been doing it for quite a while now and kept passing it down through generations as if there was in fact some benefits to do so. Art history goes back to at least 70.000 BC. We’re talking late stone age here. That makes for a lot of seemingly useless art-making time.

Arts might even be bad

So, are arts a bug ? Is it just some sort of anomaly without a reason to be, coming out from nowhere, surviving despite odds again and again ? The purpose of the arts used to be so self-evident to my eyes that I never stopped to ask the question. But then all of a sudden through some life shenanigans, it stopped being quite so clear.

From an artist’s perspective who has lost touch with the meaning of the arts ; one might be left wondering : is it all just a sophisticated addiction. Some egotistical self-indulging ? At times, it might cross many of the boxes needed to qualify as such : “a compulsion to engage in a rewarding behavior, despite negative consequences to a person physical, mental, social, or financial well-being.” And be sure that such negative consequences can arise. The arts can be so time consuming and focus intensive that one can easily skip meals here and there, forget to seek out friends altogether, not see much sunlight. And should I mention the difficulties that can occur when trying to turn them into a financial well ? Yet people choose to do it despite the stress, despite the odds. And I mean a lot of people ; as can be seen from the number of art schools that have been popping out all over the world and online in the recent years alone. Are they all somewhat crazed ?

It certainly doesn’t make much sense for people who aren’t creative. They would argue artsy people are able to do what they do for the sole reason that everybody else is busy actually working and being more and more productive with each passing year. You would certainly need excess production to allow an entire class of people to spend decades doing nothing but arts ; something who does not feed nor shelter anybody. And it is certainly the case that some time periods are more auspicious to artistic flourishing than others. Think about the birth of the Renaissance in Florence consecutive to its economic development as a striking example from the past. All that brain power could have been used learning medicine or something. At some point, it becomes really easy to wonder why anyone would choose to do it.

Maybe the arts are only there to cure boredom and we shouldn’t overthink anymore than that. Sure enough, you’d find all sort of attention “disorders” in the artistic community. Hyper-focus on one thing is often the flip-side of an inability to focus on most other things ; or to say it bluntly ; finding most things boring. But then you can’t avoid the question ; why do we get bored at all ? Surely we could have evolved without a feeling of boredom and maybe that would have spared us the trouble of having to create all that arts stuff. Truth is ; in the current state of affairs, people would rather administer themselves electroshock rather than experiencing boredom. And why aren’t the arts boring ? It really doesn’t answer much once you start digging.

Is it all just vanity, you might even ask ? In crude words, are we doing art to get laid ? The idea of the guitarist song writer getting all the girls is a tenacious one after all and clichés tend to live on some degree of truth for them to catch on. Rest assured that some people where curious enough to test the hypothesis, and sure enough, you get more phone numbers carrying a guitar case than you do walking around empty handed or with a sport bag. Therefore maybe there is some narcissism that’s driving it after all. And yes, it seems narcissists tend to come out on top of the field. To verify that ; a psychologist measured hundreds of signatures then matched that data against historical auction prices, numbers of museum shows, and artistic reputation. As there seems to be a long established link between the size of one’s signature and self-regard, the study concluded that artists with the bigger egos get greater than average attention. In fact, a one standard deviation increase in narcissism would increase the market price by 16%.

Yet artists exhibit desirable traits

But another way to frame it would be ; what is it in that artistic persona that people get attracted to ? Why do we turn our best artists into glorified figures ? What is it that’s good that they represent ? Surely there must be something there.

One idea we need to establish right away is that artists do not truly “choose” it over other pursuits. People genuinely differ in their inclination towards creative endeavors ; a trait captured under the “openness to experience” umbrella in the big five personality test (the one that’s currently used by psychologists). Turns out creative people that aren’t being creative ; they kind of die inside and stack-up on the depression square ; the same way any extrovert person that isn’t seeing people would feel disheartened and lifeless after a while. What kind of choice is that, then ? Try as you might ; we do not control what grabs our attention and artists-type people certainly act like arts matter (duh).

And it’s not just artists that find it appealing. Let’s zoom-out a little bit and see what happens when the arts gets common place. At that scale, it is a part of culture. And that sure is a powerful thing. England gets a large share of its gdp from its creative industries. We’re talking over 100 billions pounds a year, something like that. The USA influence is all over the place, for better or worse. Visitors come to France and Spain for the beauty stored from the past in the form of churches, castles, gardens and museums. Looking from afar, it becomes hard to entertain the idea that the arts don’t have value. Numerous industries, from real-estate to tourism, are benefiting from what is called “cultural influence” and that mysterious yet crucial soft power is built in big part through artistic production. If arts are useless, we sure as heck don’t act like they are. How peculiar.

Plus, one error we might make when assessing artists value towards the greater community would be to believe artists are just artists anyways. In most situations ; that’s simply not the case. A significant portion of artists are also working non-creative jobs. They are some engineers doing drums when coming home ; restaurant workers painting oils at night, teachers writing fiction each time they get the chance. In fact you would even find that artists are more likely than the general population to contribute to associative and charitable work. Not bad for a population often stricken by the “recluse” label ; what’s up with the false dichotomies ?

What’s more ; there’s sort of a conflict between the ideas of arts and cold efficiency. So much so that in an education system that’s all about uniformity and standardization, there is in fact a zero to negative correlation between creativity and the grades at school. But could we do without ? Is efficiency enough ? The creativity element in the arts is all about newness and originality. That’s why everybody and its grandma in the field is chasing the idea of having one’s own style. To answer a question previously opened : the purpose of boredom is to encourage exploration. And it is necessary. It’s about expending the realm of what is known ; pushing the edge. Criterion for art quality are constantly evolving to account for the displacement of that line ; it’s like a living thing. And although the most efficient way to do anything is to do it the proven way and follow the recipe so to speak ; we tend not to call that arts though. Arts are rebellious in nature. Artists are typically more inclined to risk-taking. Creativity is how we get from surviving to then thriving.

Plus, our brains like it

Maybe the solution can be found in neuroscience. It turns out arts seem at the very least beneficial for the artists themselves as has been discovered and exploited by the entire field of art therapy. It is believed to help improve self-esteem, self-awareness, and emotional resilience. Maybe arts-making simply provide some sort of evolutionary advantage to arts-makers in the larger scheme.

When we get fully immersed into art-making endeavors ; our cortisol levels significantly go down. They are responsible for our experience of stress. Thus, we get less agitated, and achieve a calmer state. In fact such a state is often called the flow state. One way it achieves that is by providing what is called an optimal challenge. Because arts present infinite possibilities, they are forever capable to push an art student an inch forward in a way than more definite day-to-day activities could not. No matter how far we’ve come, there’s always further room to grow and we tend to respond to that positively.

In fact, the arts train prolonged attention according to research, which in turn improves cognition. Through their practice, children learn how to engage and persist, how to learn from mistakes and press ahead, or even how to commit and follow through. I’d say those are all kinds of beneficial values for anyone to display.

What’s more ; individuals engaging in the arts have been shown to display greater emotional regulation which has been proposed as a component of empathy. After all the arts feature some ambiguity and respect for the viability of different perspectives and judgments, so it only makes sense that it could be beneficial in that department. Need I argue about the necessity of perspective-taking in the context of the social world we inhabit ?

In fact the arts might truly have played an important part during the development of our pro-social behaviors. Music improvisation for instance uses the same brain regions as language and syntax does. The two might have co-evolved. Any theory for the evolution of language might have implication regarding the birth of music and vice versa. Some even draw hypothesis of an intermediate stage of human evolutionary history characterized by a communication system that resembled music more closely than language, but was identical to neither.

However you want to look at it, the arts and the development of our brain definitely share some history together to the point where it becomes hard to even distinguish the two of them. It seems to me we are fundamentally an arts-making specie.

So, are the arts language ?

Let me get back to laughter. Turns out tons of people have been left wondering about that puzzle. Some of them got sufficiently upset to sit down and properly research that topic. Some key findings they uncovered : in a conversation the speaker is about 50% more likely to laugh than the listeners ; we’re also 30 times more likely to laugh in a group than we are doing it alone. In other words ; laughing is almost always social. It’s communication.

In a similar vein, let’s pretend that arts’ purpose is indeed communication. Do you know what else has the same purpose ? Language. Talking ; words. Yeah. That’s one of our superpowers as a species ; truly some incredibly sophisticated prowess. We’re capable of passing knowledge and understanding with such precision that it is jaw dropping when you stop and think about it ; and we’re doing that real-time. You are yet to find a dog capable of such a feat, nor any animal for that matter.
Let me ask, how valuable do you think that is ? Do you believe we would have succeeded in organizing our societies to the degree that we have if it was not for the ability to talk ?

Saying that, you would notice people making a living from sheer talking are rather rare. We’re talking teachers, politicians, humorists. If that’s the case, is it useless for the rest of us to ever talk ? Why do we bother learning to speak when it’s not providing a roof nor the food on our table. Maybe we should stay on our lane and just learn our trade, never bother with the whole language thing.

Does that sound appealing ? Right, for me neither. Language is all encompassing. It is even used to heal from trauma as the label “Talk therapy” suggests.

What has been occurring for most children : they have been surrounded early on by all those adult figures that were talking around them all the time -exchanging information, trading jokes, yelling even from times to times- and then found that instinctively interesting. The kid wants to join the conversation ; and so pays attention to all those shiny words. He in fact, pays so much attention that he makes associations between the sounds coming out of people mouths and all sort of contextual clues. Soon enough, he understands, can reproduce those sounds, and even recombine them to form his own sentences.

Arts happen the same way. You’d be hard pressed finding a kid that doesn’t find drawing inherently interesting for example. They use it to express feelings and thoughts long before they can even write. In fact you might be aware that scripture evolved from drawing. The letter A for instance was once a symbol representing an ox. It got passed along from the Egyptians to the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, all the way down to us.

There you have it you say ; drawing became writing and that’s that. We’ve found new and better ways. Maybe arts are just obsolete. What kind of added value is there to be found ? Why are we keeping it around ? After all, when it comes to description ; painting got tackled by photography a long time ago ; and 2D animation should be irrelevant in a world where video is a thing. It seems to me what we do with paintbrush and pencils lacks a lot in the precision department compared to digital lenses. Yet what’s the deal with say, abstract art ? Music isn’t even representing anything. How could there be any sort of meaning in there ?

Well. This is where the symbolic comes in. Can you picture a smiley for a second ? The standard one. A circle, two dots and that banana-like mark. It looks nothing like a face at all. Yet we universally recognize it as such. In the animation field, they got into the habit of exaggerating the features of the face a great deal of the time. Why ? Turns out it’s more effective at conveying emotion to the viewer, even though it looks nothing like a real person. This is where the idea of hyper real comes in. There is a distinction to be made between what is ; and what it means. It is possible to make art that feels more real than reality. Video cuts are more effective at conveying a story than a proper unfolding of events in real-time. Realistic painters soon found-out that broad brushstrokes tend to be more convincing than fine classical-period-like details. How do I know that your red and my red are the same red anyway ? Artists are not to trying to depict what is. Not exactly. They are trying to depict the experience of what is. In that sense ; it is erroneous to think that images are pre-verbal. They are meta-verbal. They offer ways of knowing that are linguistically inaccessible. That sentence alone tells a lot about the unique value of the arts.

Stories are powerful

Stories are an important part of the human experience. They help carve out meaning. Meaning is the difference between courageously pushing through a hard life and an all too banal suicide. People are able to tolerate so much more tragedies when they are blessed with a sense of purpose in their lives. It is where we draw our strength from. In fact meaning seems to me vastly more valuable than happiness. Think about parents ; most of them would report being happy they had children and would not trade it for anything, yet if you look closer you’d notice most of them score not only low, but in fact very low on measures of happiness while they live with them. Pregnancy and delivery are full of suffering, let alone what comes next. It more closely resemble a long and epic fight than it does tranquil vacations on Serenity Beach. Yet parents choose to do it again. Nobody would get more than one child if this happened on some sort of misunderstanding. In fact it’s been theorized that meaning is not a luxury but rather a need. The arts, through their unique ability to tell stories in hyper-real, poignant manners, help all of us in our sense making endeavors.

For the artist, there is a lot to be gained ! You might be aware that arts are often being used for therapy purposes. Writing and journaling often allows a process of self-reflection to take place. This introspection helps notice patterns and bring order to thoughts as they arise and acts as a positive buff for mental health. Painting with intent or trying to translate emotions into music all share the same virtues ; they help make sense of our tormented lives and bring order to chaos.
But it goes beyond ourselves and find its place in society at large. Most people would agree a world without arts would feel dull, inhospitable, uninspiring. Perhaps even undeserving of being lived through. If all there is to experience is a long string of unexpected challenges and problems to solve, one might get disillusioned pretty fast and choose to disengage from it all. In that scenario, everywhere you would look would feel crude.
How is it that we ever recover from such a sight ? How is it that we get back up from trauma, injuries and all adversities ?
I propose that it is the stories we tell ourselves that get us through. In fact, maybe everything we create is made of arts. Maybe they are part of the mysterious fuel that carries us through suffering and makes us so immensely resilient.

There’s one story that the art themselves are very good at telling. Think about what happens when you are watching your favorite artist perform. Maybe it is a jazz musician pulling a solo out of thin air. It has never been done before. Not like that. The harmonic super-impositions are otherworldly, the rhythmic variety is attention grabbing, the tones are spot-on. You are in awe. There is tension in your body, what you are witnessing is impossible. Yet here it is, being performed before your own eyes. How is that even happening ? How is it that a mere human that has roughly the same two arms and feet as you do is capable of such a feat ? Seriously though, HOW ?! What are we even capable of as a specie if we’re capable of that ? What is the upper limit to human potential ? At times, there seem to be none. And that’s damn miraculous. And in that instant, we can feel it.
And so the arts story goes something like this : there was once men, there are still men, there will be men. Look how far we’ve come. Imagine how far we can go. This is us. We are remarkably humans.

Art is hope.