Does art matter? A letter for Grace

"Slown Down Freight Train," by Rose Piper, 1946-7. A painting from the Ackland that stuck with me.


A few weeks ago, I was walking with Grace around the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. We slipped in right before it closed and it was like stepping into a vault of solemn beauty. We spoke in our best library voices and talked about which paintings we liked the best, which Asian sculptures we’d smuggle home, which artists communicated well.

“I love being here,” Grace said. “It’s so peaceful. It makes me think that this,” she said, gesturing to the art all around the room, “is what I want to do with my life. I wish it mattered, though. I wish art did something for people.”

“But it does!” I exclaimed. “It does so much. Without art… well… people wouldn’t…”

I trailed off. I couldn’t find the right words for what I was trying to tell her. I believed wholly that art mattered and that it matters, but I hadn’t the slightest way to convince her of this. I was sad, scared that she believed that her painting, her photography, her fashion were meaningless–and frustrated by my inability to communicate otherwise. We kept walking around the gallery and the conversation faded, but her question has been ringing in my mind ever since.

I’d like to attempt a better explanation for what I was trying persuade Grace of. I’m fully aware that I’m not saying anything new or refreshing, but I can’t shake the sense that I need to say it. For my benefit, as well as for hers.


Dear Gracie,

As you well know, we lived in the realm of imagination when we were children. The boundaries between the creativity of the mind and the reality of everyday life were fuzzy for us. Your old trunk of dress-up clothes was a seemingly bottomless repository of new identities, new stories. We made up for our lack of real pets by inventing invisible ones, “spirit animals,” whose appearances were ripped from the animal encyclopedia. We built miniature communities from Playmobil and Brio train tracks and played for hours in these tiny worlds. I think we lived more in our colorful minds than anywhere else.

As we grew up, we gradually shed these imaginary retreats. Kelsey started playing sports; I withdrew into books, to worlds that had already been created for me; but you didn’t relinquish your creativity so easily. In many ways, you’ve maintained it much more carefully than the rest of us have. This is why you are still an artist today.

You asked me in Ackland if art mattered and you seemed to have already reached the conclusion that it didn’t. I didn’t have a good answer for you then, but I wanted to let you know that I profoundly disagree with your conclusion.

This is why I think art–and your art, especially–matters. You asked if art really did anything for people. You’re right that it doesn’t put a roof over people’s heads or give them clean drinking water. Art doesn’t reform women’s rights in the third world or end famines. But it matters because it reaches the soul, a place that no amount of foreign aid or number of peacekeeping troops can reach. Great paintings, songs, poems, films, and novels accomplish a work in the heart and mind that nothing else can accomplish, which is also why art has existed for as long as people have existed.

Most importantly, I believe art communicates the divine. As a Christian, all forms of great art–even if they are not explicitly Christian–point me back to God. I am reminded of the goodness of the created world, the beauty that we have learned to find and express, and the strange mercy of Jesus. Even those who do not believe in a supernatural force find something uniquely spiritual and enduring about the communion between the self and a great work of art. (Just talk to Edmund Burke a little bit about this and you’ll see what I mean.) The next question, then, is what is a “great” work of art, but that’s another pompous, rambling letter for another time.

I just wanted to tell you to keep doing what you’re doing. It matters.

I love you, chicky.


7 thoughts on “Does art matter? A letter for Grace

  1. you mean the world to me. you are full of life, love, and wisdom. i want you to be in my everyday. thanks for this bob. keep writing. you speak words of truth and affirmation. you write things people need to hear.

    like me. i often wonder what i have done with my life and why i can’t do things like normal folk. you make me feel like its all okay to just be me. and you know what? it is. i can be a {not so talented} artist and love it and embrace it or i can try to fit in.

    : )

    j’adore you.

  2. Not only does art matter. Where I work it really matters. I believe that for some people making art, and for others viewing art, can save lives. This is not hyperbole.

  3. Brilliant, Abby. I wouldn’t stop art short of saving lives either… the poems, protest songs, and paintings of the Civil Rights Movement come to mind as a time when art specifically emboldened action, helped express inexpressible truths, changed ideologies and put grace into practice. Not that all art has to be political or “pointed” to do that… I think there’s something to be said for art as a way to simply make space in our brains and hearts for God’s chaos. When confronted with great art of any kind, we’re asked to relinquish control over the self to the piece of art, that it might have its way with us in a truly transformational way. That relinquishing of control is in itself often a profound moment of transformation for many of us. It feels unnatural to abandon agency, but that’s the whole point – that the layers of self be peeled away, that we could become less and He become more.

    This push-back against beauty is as provable as it is counterintuitive. We have, inexplicably, removed ourselves from nature – the greatest, original object of beauty, and none of us from the iPhone-absorbed grad student to the unconscionable villains of mountaintop removal have failed to at least shelter ourselves from, if not make direct efforts to destroy, that first work of art. As nature continues to disappear more and more from our day to day lives, you could argue that artists have the largest burden in history to present the true, the good, the beautiful. Might God use human artists now more than ever to draw people nearer to his chaotic beauty?

    My friend Edd Kerr pointed me to this D.H. Lawrence article about this particular function of art – to show people the true, beautiful chaos that lies outside the constructs of self. He gets pretty carried away at times, but I think he’s dead on.

    Love you, your life is a transforming art to me.

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