Every so often discussions and arguments surface about the social value of the arts. "Why should the government fund any at all?" people ask. "Why spend money on non-essentials?"
Now, of course, as an artist myself my impulse is to insist that the arts have value. But even I, with a strong rational bent, can't always come up with a killer justification. Because the importance of art is subjective, and we unfortunately live in an age that says what is objective is what is important. (But, let's be honest, something is only important Objectively when it is someone else's point of interest. We're all very vehement about the things that are Subjectively important to ourselves.)
Now, in past ages, many writers and philosophers have presented well thought out justifications for the arts. The difficulty in coming up with a modern justification of the arts lies in the modern tendence to dismiss other people's subjective experiences in a lot of situations, coupled with the Church's (no matter the denomination) lack of interest in the arts other than music. Yes, certain pockets of Christianity are changing, but in reality, they are still pockets.
The dismissal of other people's subjective experience is more troubling, because it reflects a whole range of dubious assumptions. But, let's begin with one of the grounding points for the dismissal.
People tend to dismiss subjective reaction because it is, seemingly, not reproducable or communicable. "Well, that's just your reaction," people will say. And therefore not bother to pay any attention to the reaction because it doesn't mesh with one's own.
But really, human beings are not that different from one another. Otherwise, no ancient story would be able to engage a modern audience, and that's obviously not the case. So, not only is a subjective response possible to replicate to a certain degree, it is, in fact, communicable. (Storytellers would have been out of business a long time ago, if that weren't true.)
People also dismiss the subjective response because they want to believe you don't really have any objective reasons for your reaction. I once had a friend dismiss my luke-warm response to the works of her favorite science fiction author with the "Well, that's just your opinion." As in, my opinion was irrelevant. Although on the surface, I didn't show it, that statement infuriated me. I have a Bachelor's and Master's degree in English literature. I have studied language and how it is used to create effects. I know the mechanics of how storytelling works. If I'd wanted to take the time, I could have presented a completely objective justification as to why the writer was (as I said at the time) an journeyman writer. He was adequate, but not dazzling. I could have combed through his word choice and pointed to bland vocabulary. I could have analysed his sentence and paragraph structure. I could have reviewed the skeleton of his stories, and shown how the bones were nothing surprising. These are all objective elements in evaluating writing. Not opinion. Not subjective.
Now, let's be clear: my objective evaluation in no way implied that her affection for the writer was wrong, or even "stupid". The author was indeed a competent writer, and obviously, he gave her pleasure. I don't consider that insignificant - the fact that she found pleasure in his work. I just thought he could be a better writer, and I have read the works of better writers. Which I prefer.
Anyway, back to the point.
The reason we get so protective of our subjective reactions - defending them in the face of objective criticism, holding onto them almost desperately - is that we have a real inner and spiritual need for beauty. We have a need for grace and things that touch our inner being. It is part of being human. Part of how God created us (which is why the concept of Heaven is so inextricably tied to the concept of beauty). We need it, because it nourishes us at the core of our being. It is food for our souls, not dessert for our emotions. It is necessary.
Even I forget this from time to time. But God often sends me little moments of beauty to remind me of the need, to remind me that I need to feed my soul with beauty.
I have to street park in my neighborhood. A difficult proposition, especially if I arrive home after 7. Many's the time I've spent over 25 minutes circling and circling the neighborhood, looking for a parking spot. It's frustrating proposition, and it eats away at any good feelings I might be coming home from work with. It's like a spiritual ulcer acting up.
But I live fairly near to the Griffith Observatory here in Los Angeles, which means I'm fairly well up the hillside. I don't actually have a view on my street, but just a few blocks north of me is a real hillside neighborhood that has a glorious view of the LA basin.
So, sometimes, when the parking-hunt frustration is really getting to me, I drive up into that neighborhood and pause at what I call my "Inspiration Point", and enjoy the view of the city. And if it is after dark, there is the special beauty of city lights. But either way, day or night, that moment's pause refreshes my soul. It re-energizes some aspect of me that mere food and rest don't do. It is necessary.
So, I try not to belittle the fact that anyone takes pleasure in something, anything. The "taking of pleasure" is important to being human. It's just that so many of us are willing to settle for getting pleasure from (objectively speaking) mediocre sources: from drugs and alcohol, which only chemically mimic our emotional/spiritual response to beauty; from merely adequate artists; or from things that really are inappropriate - like doing injury to someone else. The tendency to accept the mediocre has become so prevalent that many people actually stop looking for what is truly beautiful.
Indeed, our perceptions have been warped in so many ways that many people also pursue the artificially beautiful: the man or woman who looks great, but is without nourishing substance in their personality or soul; the plastic copy of great art, sloppily reproduced; the hollow facades of cheap substances. If something leaves you cold, no matter how great it looks, pay attention to that reaction.
Moments of beauty are important. Turn to those things that give you a spontaneous smile. Because when you meet something that gives you that sudden, uncalculated flash of joy, you've found something that will nourish you. And don't treat it as an accident of life, however pleasurable. It is necessary.
Learn to love real beauty, beauty of substance. It is God's gift for the nourishment of your soul. It is necessary.
And in my mind, that is the only justification the arts need.