Why is art a luxury?

“I forgot armed robbery was illegal!” A joke told by Steve Martin

What would it mean to forget armed robbery was illegal? What makes that so funny? Would it be like forgetting where you put your keys? Like forgetting someone’s birthday? Like forgetting how to calculate the area of a circle (assuming it was something we did around 10th grade)? Like forgetting the definition of “avuncular”? Like forgetting the rules of chess? Like forgetting that in baseball a ball is thrown for a batter to hit? Or would it be like forgetting your best friend’s name? Would it be like forgetting whether you lean toward being conservative or toward being liberal? Would it be like forgetting which language you are speaking? Would it be like forgetting who your parents are? Would it be like forgetting whether you believed in God?

The joke is that it makes sense to say some things get forgotten but not others. It simply makes a difference what those things are in our lives. Some facts about us are incidental and others are fundamental. Some are loosely associated and others define us. If certain ‘foundational’ things are unknown it is not always a matter of having been forgotten. Sometimes those things do not function in our lives as they do for other people. Its not ‘forgetting’ but something deeper.

And so it becomes an important question where things fit in the structure of our lives. Where do our beliefs fit? Where does knowing fit? If we say that the arts are a luxury is that like saying we don’t know where our keys are, a correctable mistake? Or is it actually saying that we DO know where the keys are, they just don’t drive that particular car?


The arts have had an image problem they continually fail to address. For many people the arts are seen as a luxury, entertainment at best. Trump tweeting about the Hamilton cast just sums up what an entire segment of the population feels: Artists are here to entertain. Its not even a ‘real’ job. You’re fired!

Which is entirely different from how artists themselves usually feel about art. Practically anyone who is engaged passionately with the arts has something more at stake than entertainment. And far from being a luxury the arts are more like a calling. For these people the arts are necessary.

So what are other folks missing? The time honored strategy within the arts has been to promote the arts suggesting they simply lack the facts about art. If they only had the right facts, that the arts are good for the economy, that they are good for cognitive development, that the arts are important for ‘wellbeing’, the arts would be appreciated better.

Unfortunately the facts seem to have little effect. At best they play to existing beliefs about the economy et cetera, and other means may simply even be better. The facts don’t teach us to love the arts as artists do. The economy is not a reason to be passionate about art. The facts don’t close the gap between why the arts truly matter from the arts being a luxury. Consider: Means are always contingent, and luxury and entertainment have that in common. They are defined through not being essential.

So arguing facts is rarely a good solution for the arts. Or, they are only ‘good’ up to a point. Folks have beliefs about the arts that are themselves independent of the facts. The facts don’t matter because this is not simply an empirical matter. You don’t discover that the arts matter, like finding where you put your keys. You either care about the arts or you don’t, but you are not led there through facts. The truth, whatever that is, will not set us free.

Here is my big question for us all: What if some folks simply do not have a foundation for art to be more than a luxury and the limit of their interest will only ever be that of entertainment? What if we are not all equally capable of finding the intrinsic value of the arts? What if there is some sort of obstruction that closes off even the potential for passion? And I’m suggesting this in opposition to everything I have believed for the last 20 odd years of teaching. This is an idea that may be difficult to digest. Art may simply not be available to all people equally.

Take a deep breath.

What I mean is that people are not necessarily wired in the same way, and that how one appreciates things is possibly sometimes a structural issue. What roles do things have in our lives? Are those roles necessarily available to all of us equally or just to some? Not limited by physical access or culture, but simply as the result of who we are? Is it possible that some folks are closed off from seeing art as anything more than a luxury, and no amount of facts or exposure will change that?

And so it is not simply an issue of communicating values that we face, but an issue of how those values are constructed, and how the construction itself limits our ability to find and experience value. Our own values may not have a place outside where they function and live. It is fundamentally an issue of ownership.

So how do we come to our beliefs? We are not born Republicans and Democrats, atheists or having religious beliefs. Somehow we acquire beliefs and the structures of belief that point us in these directions. We accrue values as part of our culture and upbringing. And up to a certain point we can move freely between a variety of possible foundations. Its not all set in stone for us until change itself becomes harder and harder. I am not specifying a mechanism. For some, the search goes on well into adulthood, but eventually we all more or less settle into some form of world view that orients us and allows us to navigate our existence and its questions. Some things we end up taking for granted and some others are left open to exploration. Some things we can forget and others it makes no sense to. Armed robbery IS illegal, and for some, perhaps, art is a luxury…..

Typically the things we simply assume are the hardest to dislodge. Not impossible, but clearly not easy. As far as the foundation goes, the world makes sense to us because it all hangs together in just such a way. You can’t change the foundation without upsetting the rest. And yet we are not the very same kid we grew up from. More has changed about us than where we leave our keys. The attrition itself is worth looking into.

No kid is not an artist, and yet relatively few adults feel affinity for the arts. Other belief structures have replaced what it meant to be an artist, crowded them out. As it is put in The little Prince, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is”, but is that even right? Did we simply forget? Or did we lose ourselves somehow? The battle to remember is not the same as the war against forgetting. And if its not a matter of forgetting, what then?

A confirmed ‘lifelong’ Republican will almost never find a way to see things as differently as Democrats do. They have not simply forgotten the values of the other side, they just believe the opposite. And that becomes something fixed about them. Our habits of thought are too calcified beyond a certain point. People who see the arts as a luxury from structural consequences of their beliefs are perhaps as susceptible to conversion as Democrats are to being Republicans. Its like we are selling Bibles to atheists and bacon to vegetarians.

It seems on a variety of levels that holding certain beliefs, having certain belief structures, precludes us from entertaining other beliefs. That if you hold one thing you cannot at the same time believe this other thing. To make some folks feel art was more than entertainment would mean you’d have to overturn their whole belief system. You’d have to make them different……

In other words, it might not be about art per se but something much deeper, and if we try to solve the problem on the level of art we are not even addressing the real problem. Their feelings about art may only be symptomatic. And so any solution framed around art will be missing the point.

Ask yourself: What change is necessary for a Democrat to become a Republican? A meat eater to become a vegetarian? An atheist to become religious? What would it take for us to no longer believe the arts mattered, that they carried no value in themselves, that they were only good for entertainment, that they were not necessary in any sense to human life as we know it? This, I believe, is the level where we need to address these issues.

The question is one of fit, and all people are constructed in such a way that only particular things matter. Others simply do not belong. To make them fit sometimes requires a deeper shift than simply adding on something new, like where you put the keys today. There is a difference between things on the surface and things at the foundation. Sometimes it requires fundamental change.

And so with how we feel about the arts. Is it something fixed or something changeable? Because when we try to convince outsiders that they should be more involved in the arts, support the arts, value the arts, we are suggesting it is something changeable. They don’t currently feel that way, but we imagine they could. Whereas we ourselves firmly believe in the value of the arts, and for us this is fixed. We don’t imagine we ourselves could change our minds. And yet we like to think that they simply lack some basic information or exposure, and that presented with it they might become more like us. To me that sounds both blind and arrogant.

What if these outsiders are fixed in some different or opposed way? What if the reason they think art is a luxury is that this is a belief firmly rooted in their own world view? As firmly rooted as our own appreciation for the arts. What if their belief is not based on an absence of evidence but instead the result of a firmly placed world view? That everything in their world points to it, as surely as everything in our world points away from it?

And that may simply be the human consequences of having beliefs, of acting in the world, of aspiring to ideals. It may simply be a consequence of having tamed certain parts of the world and made them our own. And the value may simply be unique to us as a result.


In the aftermath of the Trump election Diane Ragsdale invited artists to “walk out into our communities, with our senses wide open,” saying, “It’s time to find our humanity and help others to find theirs.” Something has been lost. There is no denying that. It is no coincidence that within the first weeks of the Trump presidency both the National Endowments of the Arts and of the Humanities are under threat. ‘Humanity’ and ‘art’ are both being swept aside in a tide of something we don’t understand.

We have failed in some way that is as yet inconceivable to us. We don’t get it. When you ask the wrong questions even the best answers are wasted. All our victories are hollow. We’ve been holding the line in fringe battles but somehow losing the war. And we’ve congratulated ourselves that our small triumphs are worth the cost when the real game has been played off stage and without us. We have failed to understand the challenge and who we are playing against. We have failed to understand why our versions of both humanity and art are not the persuasive things we take them to be. We need better questions. We need to know why art is a luxury…..


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, Creativity, metacognition, Teaching, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why is art a luxury?

  1. Ashley says:

    I’m reminded of a time when I was visiting my Grandparents in Vancouver on my way back to University. The Vancouver Art Gallery was showing a Group of Seven exhibit and I expressed a desire to go see it before I went back to school. When we got there, my grandparents told me that they were not going to come with me because “…we don’t really understand art”. They wouldn’t even enter the doors of the gallery as they did not want to spend money on something they thought they wouldn’t “understand”. We wouldn’t pay thousands of dollars to go to university if we already understood the subjects, but apparently in my grandparent’s world, paying a small entry fee to look at paintings on the wall is only ok if you already “understand” art. That is kinda backwards. Anyway, I don’t think art is a luxury, it is more of a necessity and we need constant exposure to it, not less.

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