Does art even matter?


Like for many of you, I am supposing, something significant about the world changed last Tuesday. Values for society and our communities were suddenly brought into question. Many seeming certainties showed the fractures of doubt. Not that we believed they were suddenly wrong, but that we were shown a large portion of the voting public would flout what we held as obvious. And maybe some other things simply mattered more to them, but we were ominously confronted with the facts that much of what we hold dear is not even in the sights of many other people. Those things just don’t matter to them the way they seem so obvious for us.

And so lately I have been awash in the misery and confusion of my friends. Many are fearful, and it seems justifiably so. The undercurrents of racism and sexism that society has had to struggle against are seemingly condoned from the soon to be highest levels. Endorsed even, if we accept that leaders lead by example. Certainly a blind and forgiving eye is being turned to misdeeds that would under normal circumstances find condemnation. Hate and fear tactics are being emboldened. Where have those other kinder values disappeared to? The angst among my friends witnesses the uncertain times we are stepping into…..

And the timing puts other, perhaps less urgent values into question for me. I am gearing up for my seasonal pottery shows, but somehow the significance of what I’m doing seems to pale. Just as was evidenced in the election, I am asking myself if some other things simply matter more. It is a question now whether art really counts when so much else needs correcting. Is there a place for art when fear is our close companion? When the hopelessness, joblessness and intolerance that drove many voters is an issue that will either make us or seemingly break us?

I find I am asking myself these questions personally, that what inspired me as an artist actually seems insufficient. There are many realities I never fully appreciated until last week, but they are being impressed on me relentlessly. And I want to know. The long held public perception of ‘art’ has been that it is a luxury. Now more than ever before I understand that claim.

For years I have watched as the response to art’s lack of value in people’s lives has been to haul out the metrics and data points to ‘prove’ that the arts are good for the economy, the arts are important for cognitive development, and the latest darling that the arts are significant for ‘wellbeing’. What I am seeing is precisely the abstract discourse that lost the Dems the election. Appealing to people with the facts simply did not matter. Our own dearly held values did not matter. People were not going to be sold on abstractions and values they neither held nor sometimes even comprehended.

People were moved by an appeal to what matters most in their own lives. Hilary may have been the consummate politician, but that is precisely what cost her. People were actually turned off by politics as usual. The ‘outsider’ was itself an appealing quality. We elected a man with NO previous public office and NO record of service. She was also facing a con man, and rather than resorting to the facts and to actual policy or even actual experience, Trump was able to make his case by appealing psychologically. As all successful con men do, the public who elected him were often sold on what they wanted to hear…..


Moving forward I see two challenges that have been framed by the new situation. One is the continuing struggle to bring the value of the arts to a wider more inclusive audience. But the conditions of that appeal have certainly changed. The role of abstractions and data has been undermined to an extent that must be shocking to some. Rational persuasion may have to accept second status to more fundamental means.

And as my friend Diane Ragsdale suggests, the ambition itself may also need to change. She posits, “we arts workers will need to let go of the notion upon which many nonprofit professional cultural organizations were founded: that we exist, essentially, to save the world with art.” Selling the arts as saving the world through means of the economy, cognitive development or wellbeing, is simply a nonstarter. We have always aimed high, and the temptation might be to aim even higher, but what we need to learn is to aim lower. Aim like Trump aims, perhaps. Aim for what actually matters to people: Their lived world, their actual lives, what they care about, what things matter to them. Its not a con if we believe it too.

Which brings me to the second challenge, one that I face more personally: How do we even make the case for art mattering to the people who already knew its value? The coming month literally earns me around 70% of my yearly income, but even I am having trouble justifying the need for art. My enthusiasm for selling pots is never above life support, but right now it has flat lined. I have unloaded my kiln three times post election, seen around 150 new pots enter this world and I’m just asking myself whether the world needs more mugs…..

I’m just not feeling it, and I can only hope that in the next week and a half I can find reentry into the world where that value lives. I am living in a parallel shadow existence where all the furniture is the same but everything has been stripped of value. I am unmoved by things that in my other existence inspired me. All is muted, and pales in significance.

And so its not just the world that has changed but I have changed. The world has lost its luster, but I have seemingly lost some essential part of my humanity. You either have it or you don’t. Right now I am searching, but the best I can find are mere hints, remembrances. All I’ve really got are shadows.

So that is the second challenge, to find a way to preserve or rediscover a world that is invested with mattering. My hope is that enough people remember what that world looks like. Or if they have suddenly lost touch with it they still know that it was important and continue to act as though it still were. Because, if we let go of that precious dream we really do lose something vital about ourselves. Standing on the outside now I can see it clearly: I am less a human being than I was, less than I deserve.

Perhaps the thing to hold onto is that saving the world through art isn’t about the economy or the mysterious sounding ‘wellbeing’. Rather, the world that gets saved is a world of value where humanity has color and depth, where we ourselves are more than the shadows we cast. And maybe there is more in the world that matters than art, but can we imagine a world without it? Humanity bereft of human expressions of beauty is utterly impoverished. I see that now. If we forget beauty in our lives it only seems we have forgotten something much greater: Ourselves.

As Diane concludes her post,

It’s time to walk out into our communities, with our senses wide open, and absorb “the relations between one thing and another.”

It’s time to find our humanity and help others to find theirs.

Things to think about!

Peace all,

Please, please, please, help make beauty real 🙂


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Does art even matter?

  1. Vanessa says:

    Art matters more than ever. Take a deep breath. Go into your studio and make art. Keep making art. Find a group to do good works for. Champion people who need a voice. And remember, someone will need a good mug.

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