Is The Pursuit Of Art Selfish?

It’s a question that has plagued me for some time and at different points I’ve answered it differently. Is art selfish? In many ways it is simply a matter of perspective, so I will share some of mine here.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream. Edvard Munch. 1893

Some years ago while I related to a therapist that I didn’t feel right for feeling depressed about my circumstances when so many people have it worse than I do. And truly in many ways I have been blessed. There has always been a roof over my head, food on my plate, clothes on my back. In the garage is a car to get me to my job, not to mention a motorcycle just for the hell of it. I’d argued with the therapist that it was okay if I felt miserable and in fact, maybe I should make myself suffer more if it meant growing my skills and intellect in a way that would better serve the world even if it wasn’t what I wanted to do. What if people had told Einstein to stop studying so much, relax, and come have a few drinks? On the other had, as brilliant as Einstein was, how much have his discoveries aided our day to day life? It’s something that could be argued both ways, but I’ll leave that for another time.

In this line of thinking, proponents of Effective Altruism would argue that the pursuit of art is selfish. In some respects I’m rather relieved that I hadn’t heard of this movement earlier as it might have been something I would have latched onto during my “what’s the point of it all” moments. And I still might. Effective Altruists would ask that you work hard, donate a good share of your earnings where it is needed, and do good deeds; but if you can earn more money at your job by working overtime, and the amount that you could donate as a result of working overtime would be greater than the effect of your good deeds, then just go work some more, thanks. [I’m taking a lot of liberties with the philosophy here. You can read more in Is It OK To Make Art? by Rhys Southan at Aeon Magazine.]

So let’s set Effective Altruism aside. Explore it more later if you like. Part of what makes their argument is that art isn’t the most valuable use of time or resources. It’s not utilitarian. We could say the same of many pursuits and past times. Golf. Horseback riding. Dining Out. And it also presumes that a career in arts does not contribute to society and is not financially rewarding. We can shoot down the financially rewarding thing right. OK, I can’t, because I’m not making art for a living, but I know people that are. While it might be true that we can’t all be poets and artists, we can’t all be anything. Not everyone can be a doctor. Not everyone can be a teacher. We all have unique talents and interests and although those skills may not be perfectly dispersed amongst the population in the exact proportions in which they are needed, if you have a strong inclination towards a particular career path I feel it is worth pursuing.

There are two other factors that perhaps contribute to art being perceived as selfish pursuits and those are VALUE and TIME.

Let’s look at VALUE first. The truth is that on a subconscious level as whole we don’t personally value art very much. To be clear, when I say “art” I don’t just mean pictures you can hang on the wall, but also music, movies, television, theater, and so on. Part of the reason we value it so little is because there is so much of it and more is being produced every day. When a motion picture is released to DVD or BluRay it isn’t competing for your attention with the films that were released the same week, it is competing with every motion picture that has ever been released to DVD and BluRay. Casablanca may not be as fresh as it was in 1942, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a viable option (an one that I’ve been meaning to see at that). Then there is the technological aspect. Since the television became ubiquitous in the 1950s, families have been able to tune into the tube for free entertainment. In exchange all they had to do was pay the electric bill and “…stay tuned for this word from our sponsor.” It’s only gotten worse since then. Now not only is a myriad of free content available, many people think nothing about pirating their favorite music, movies, and television shows from the internet. It’s so easy to do that people have difficulty acknowledging that it’s wrong.

Then there is TIME. It takes a lot of time to not only create art, but to learn to create art. If you’re really great and fast at it, you might get a fair value for your work. When I was studying art in college all of my studio art classes were scheduled twice as long as any other class and that’s because in a studio class you are actively developing skills, whereas in any other class you are listening to a lecture, taking notes, and continuing the reading on your own time. In trying to bring my art to another level I’m also juggling a full-time job, home repairs, and daily chores that most people have. Oftentimes I wish I had a pet, more friends, or a girlfriend, and then I think about how much time (and even money) any of those would take away from working on projects. Often I flake out on social gatherings and concerts that I’d really like to attend in favor of working on the art, but it’s also important to put the work aside and live a little for my own piece of mine. And sacrificing time isn’t unique to the pursuit of art. It’s a sacrifice that many career oriented people make. In that sense is art any more selfish than the steadfast pursuit of any other career?

Let’s revisit VALUE. Of course there is value in art, though there is more value in some art and often it’s subjective. Art can help us remember.

Washington Crossing The Delaware, 1851

Washington Crossing The Delaware.  Emanuel Luetze. 1851

Although there are a fair number of historical inaccuracies portrayed in this painting, “victims” of artistic license, Emanuel Luetze’s Washington Crossing The Delaware portrays a significant point in US history. It’s one thing to describe the event in words, but it’s another to show it in pictures. Check out that ice in the water. I bet there’s a lot of other things Washington would have liked to have been doing the day after Christmas.

Art can inspire and spark discussion.

Graffiti artwork by Banksy

Graffiti artwork. Banksy.

Banksy is known for his political and social commentary and satire through the use of graffiti in public places. Different pieces may spark different questions, but in general we might ask: Can anything illegal be art? Is it still vandalism if it is protected and sold? Is it a crime if the majority condones it? In the example above a sheet of plexiglass has been screwed to the top of the work so that it will not be covered. Sometimes I wish I felt so strongly about something that I had to spray paint it on a wall.

So what is the verdict? Is the pursuit of art selfish? Sure, it can be. The pursuit of almost anything can be selfish. But art also has value. It can challenge, inspire, and teach us on conscious and subconscious levels.

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