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.

PREFACE

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.

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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.

A.