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An Appeal on Behalf of Visual Art

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Think for a moment about your earliest memories, before you could read or write. Imagine that you have a crayon in your hand. What are you doing? Odds are that you are scribbling or drawing a vaguely recognizable image. Drawing begins for children as a physical activity that later develops into creative expression.[1] As you grew, the scribbles began to take shape and you began to associate images and colors with emotions or experiences. Perhaps you were like me when you were little and drew on the underside of a table, on a wall, or in a book when your parents were not looking, leaving a mark wherever you went. Some of our earliest artistic whims reflect this innate impulse to creatively express emotions, particularly through visual art.


For thousands of years humanity has roamed the earth leaving remnants of their presence wherever they went. Throughout time humans have made art both as an expression and a testament to their existence. Yet, even though we live in a society as materially privileged and efficient as our own, we have been taught to view visual art as impractical and even irrelevant. This is a tragedy. Of all civilizations, ours has the greatest opportunity to produce and view art; yet we have disregarded the virtues and benefits of visual art and starved our capacity to empathize and self-actualize.


I believe that a practice of viewing and making visual art is not only natural but can also benefit each individual and society as a whole in three unique ways. First of all, because it is a method by which we can understand the whole history of humanity. Secondly, because it is a process that can strengthen and heal us, giving voice to joys and fears that lack verbal explanation. Thirdly, because it is a medium through which we can foster empathy for others, both past and present.


Before we begin, we must come to a general understanding of what qualifies as visual art. The Encyclopædia Britannica defines art as “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination.”[2] Here we see that art must be created consciously, meaning that a sentient being must make it. And while art can reflect both skill and imagination, it does not necessitate both. A common misunderstanding about art is that it must always display skill. However, this is both a false and a destructive understanding of art because it excludes many creative expressions that may not be realistic or technically outstanding, but nevertheless remain intrinsically valuable.[3]


Each one of you has made art at some point in your life, whether you thought of it as such or not. With this in mind, I can confidently assert that, like you, every individual has access to art and that art is natural to each human being. In an article regarding children’s artwork Sidney White says that, “All art is inexorably rooted in human processes of thinking, feeling and perception. It is for this reason that there are many characteristics common to the art of children and the art of ancient and modern men.” [4] This common thread of artist expression from children to ancient and modern individuals is what forms the basis for art history, the first benefit that I will be discussing. I contend that the history of art is one of the richest sources of information that we have about humanity because of its range, depth, and relevancy.


From cave drawings to post-modern installations, art spans the entirety of human history. This is unique to visual art, unlike writing or music. For example, there are artistic artifacts from southern Africa dating back to 77,000-55,000 B.C. [5] Compare this to written language, which was not developed until approximately 3000 B.C.[6] Additionally, both Cuneiform and hieroglyphics, two of the earliest forms of writing, used symbols derived from visual images.[7] Writing first manifested itself as visual art, in part, because symbolism is developed at a young age in all individuals. As Sydney White notes, “Man, beginning his imaginative and creative life as a child, is a creator of symbols.” [8] Because symbol-making is natural to humans, art is prevalent throughout world history.


The depth of art history provides unique insight into civilizations. Art allows us to identify their food sources, their clothing, their religious and cultural traditions, their social structures, etc. Where written records are missing or lacking, we can still rely upon artifacts like pottery, idols, statues, mosaics, murals, or any other number of artistic expressions to learn about that society. As other historical sources increase, history’s reliance on art does not decrease. Rather, a greater depth of understanding can be reached where art is present because it follows the track of philosophy, religious developments, and social changes. Art records facets of reality that would otherwise have been lost. The growth of Christianity, for example, was thoroughly documented through art. From rough drawings made in Roman catacombs shortly after the birth of Christianity to the work of video artist Bill Viola today, you can map the spread and development of the Church through art.


At this point you may be convinced that art is valuable in our understanding of past civilizations, but I would be remiss to leave out the huge role that visual art plays in the history that we are creating today. Visual art is intimately interwoven with modern philosophy and social discourse. Popular street artist, Banksy uses his art as a catalyst for social discourse. In some instances, he depicts culture in a painfully critical manner. His work “Girl and a Soldier,” in which a young girl frisks a soldier who is standing with his hands against a wall, brings attention to a contemporary injustice in a manner that is clear and compelling.


An example of the intersection between art and contemporary philosophy is modern artist Cy Twombly who took inspiration from the writings of various contemporary authors and often quoted them in his works. He saw the arc of art history and was heavily influenced by it saying, “What I’m trying to establish is that modern art isn’t dislocated, but something with roots, tradition, and continuity. For myself, the past is the source.” [9] If art is and has always been a continuous facet of society, then it will undoubtedly play a role in the way in which future civilizations remember us.


Since we have easier access to art than any civilization to come before us, shouldn’t we care? The simple fact is that viewing art is crucial to understanding human history, contemporary society, and our role within it. We benefit our society and other societies to come by viewing and contributing to art history and there is nothing preventing us from doing so. Paintings by Van Gogh and Rembrandt, the “Infinity Room” by Yayoi Kusama, and ancient sculptures from India and Greece are less than an hour from where you are sitting now. The benefits far outweigh any possible inconvenience of taking the time to become familiar with the history of visual art.


However, you should not simply view art. You should make it. To begin with, I want you to take out some paper and a pen or pencil and, while you listen to me, draw whatever you desire in whatever manner you choose. Before I pontificate about the virtues and merits of art making, I want to address a potential question or objection that some of you may have. Many of you have already discovered a creative outlet other than visual art and you may wonder why making visual art is valuable for you. One reason is because visual art does not require training, money, or experience. Also, although making art may not come easily or may be uncomfortable, that does not mean it is not rewarding. In fact, the difficulty may be valuable in and of itself.


Making art increases our capacity to think creatively and originally and this has a number of practical benefits. Brain scans show that there is increased blood flow in our brains during creative thought and enjoyable creative activity leads to a rise in alpha wave patterns, which are commonly associated with restful alertness. Serotonin, a chemical that alleviates depression, is also increased during creative activity.[10] Additionally, art making helps to push our limits. It emboldens us to invent, to reject assumptions, and to adjust the way that we look at things. [11] In fact, psychologist Carl Rogers argues that the creative process allows us to self-actualize.[12] Through what you are doing now, doodling on a piece of paper, you are positively altering your physical state and cultivating your creative capacities.


Another benefit of the art process is that it improves critical thinking and problem solving abilities. A person who makes visual art learns to adapt to their mediums, what they making art with, and their physical limitations while learning to communicate visually. Making art also endorses divergent thinking: “an experience of moving beyond perceived limits; synthesizing and integrating unrelated elements; and reorganizing or altering previously accepted thought, ideas, and perceptions.”[13] Scientific studies have found that creative problem-solving can improve intelligence and can increase unique and useful skills that carry over to any line of work.[14]


While creativity and problem solving are great assets, art making has particularly unique benefits in the form of therapy and self-care. Art as therapy has formalized as the field of psychology has developed. Sigmund Freud found that “dreams, feelings, and thoughts are experienced predominantly in visual form.”[15] He used drawing as a way to help his patients describe their dreams and this lead him to realize the unique link between art making and understanding the subconscious. Over the past century more and more psychologists have begun to use art making in their research and in their clinical practice.


This relates to you in that art can be a natural and healthy way to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. Cathy Malchiodi claims that, “Through art making as therapy you may find relief from overwhelming emotions, crises, or trauma; discover insights about yourself; achieve an increased sense of well-being; enrich your daily life; or experience personal change.”[16] Making visual art is cathartic. In other words it is cleansing, allowing you to express or release strong emotions leading to relief.[17] This can reduce stress, increase capacity to communicate, as well as improve of blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration.[18] No matter what your circumstances, talents, or experiences may be, making art can allow you to better understand yourself and express that to others, which is crucial to your physical, mental, and emotional health.


Thus far we have seen how viewing art allows us to better understand human history and how making art benefits us as individuals. Lastly, I would like to briefly discuss why viewing and making art is, arguably, a moral responsibility. In an article written for the Huffington Post, psychologist Douglas LaBier discusses what he refers to as the Empathy Deficit Disorder.[19] LaBier says that empathy requires you to step outside of your own perspective to experience and view the world from the viewpoint of the other person. A lack of empathy becomes “a source of personal conflicts, of communication breakdown in intimate relationships, and of adversarial attitudes – including hatred – towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions, values, or ways of life from your own.”[20] LaBier asserts that this empathy deficit is particularly prevalent in our society because of technological advances and social developments that allow us to emotionally isolate ourselves, to disconnect from events, and to develop polarized opinions.


Additionally, art is a key medium through which we can practice and cultivate empathy. “Outsider art is an important concept, because it recognizes that artistic creativity is a shared human experience that transcends disability or environment.”[21] Art is a unique and beautiful way in which we can do this. Through making and viewing art, the voices of oppressed and misunderstood people can be heard and social change can come about. Examples of this include the works of artists such as Francisco Goya, Joseph Beuys, and Ai Wei Wei who bring attention to the suffering of others and incite people to action, addressing oppression and misrepresentation. By understanding and participating in art we value and interact with the narratives of others and make an empathetic society possible.


We have observed how viewing art allows you to understand human history, how making art develops creativity and increases your physical and mental health, and how visual art is a source of empathy. However, I would like to allay any remaining doubts you may have with this. A study was done in which nearly 11,000 students were chosen at random to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. After their experience they underwent a survey that found that they, “demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions.” [22]


Think for a moment about your childhood again; now look at the piece of paper that you have drawn on. Whether you may see it now or not, there is a powerful connection between your mind, your spirit, and what you have made. I beseech you. Do not stifle your creative impulses! Do not buy into the lie that art belongs to the elite few. You have the incredible opportunity to see art made around the world, over the entire course of human history. In the small drawing before you there is a precious facet of what it means to be human. Value art, for it represents the essence of humanity.


Bibliography


"Art," Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified December 21, 2016, accessed October 2017, https://www.britannica.com/art/visual-arts.

Bertin, G. "Origin and Development of the Cuneiform Syllabary." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland19, no. 4 (1887): 625-54.

"Cy Twombly: Philosophy in Paint," Studio International, March 16, 2013, accessed October 2017, http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/cy-twombly-philosophy-in-paint.

De Smedt, Johan, and Helen De Cruz. "A Cognitive Approach to the Earliest Art." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69, no. 4 (2011): 379-89.

Ellsworth-Jones, Will, "The Story Behind Banksy," Smithsonian, February 2013, accessed October 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-story-behind-banksy-4310304/.

Kisida, Brian, Jay P. Greene, and Daniel H. Bowden. “Art Makes You Smart.” The New York Times, 23, 2013, accessed October 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/opinion/sunday/art-makes-you-smart.html.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. "Immortal Clay: The Literature of Sumer." The American Scholar 15, no. 3 (1946): 314-26.

LaBier, Douglas, "America’s Continuing Empathy Deficit Disorder," Huffington Post, July 7, 2010, accessed October 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/douglas-labier/americas-continuing-empat_b_637718.html.

Malchiodi, Cathy A. The Art Therapy Sourcebook. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007).

Parnes, Sidney J. "Can Creativity Be Increased?" Studies in Art Education 3, no. 1 (1961): 39-46.

White, Sidney D. "Symbolism in Children's Art." Art Education 10, no. 4 (1957): 7-18.

[1] White, "Symbolism in Children's Art," 8.

[2] Encyclopædia Britannica, “Art.”

[3] White, "Symbolism in Children's Art," 8.

[4] White, "Symbolism in Children's Art," 8.

[5] De Smedt and De Cruz, “A Cognitive Approach to the Earliest Art,” 379.

[6] Kramer, “Immortal Clay: The Literature of Sumer,” 314.

[7] Bertin, "Origin and Development of the Cuneiform Syllabary," 626.

[8] White, "Symbolism in Children's Art," 7.

[9] Studio International, "Cy Twombly: Philosophy in Paint."

[10] Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 174.

[11] Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 65.

[12] Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 65.

[13] Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 70.

[14] Parnes, "Can Creativity Be Increased?", 40.

[15] Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 9.

[16] Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, x.

[17] Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 14.

[18] Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 174.

[19] LaBier, Douglas, "America’s Continuing Empathy Deficit Disorder."

[20] LaBier, Douglas, "America’s Continuing Empathy Deficit Disorder."

[21] Malchiodi, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 32.

[22] Kisida, Greene, and Bowden, “Art Makes You Smart.”

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