We need art, and never more so than in times of cultural stress. Art can be the Virgil and Beatrice to our Dante, taking us by the hand and leading us through purgatory to enlightenment. It can help us:
Escape our reality
Art can be an escape from reality when reality becomes too much for us to bear. We can immerse ourselves in another world of someone else’s imagination, adding our own to it, until we forget our everyday anxieties. What a joy it can be to take a momentary romp through a vision other than our own!
Confront our reality
It can evoke positive feelings, or it can provide catharsis.
Catharsis (from Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) is the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration. It is a metaphor originally used by Aristotle in the Poetics, comparing the effects of tragedy on the mind of a spectator to the effect of a cathartic on the body.
While catharsis is essentially the opposite of “good feelings,” it helps us uncover good feelings by purging us of anxiety, fear, etc. We are restored to good emotional health when we cleanse ourselves of pent up extreme emotions. We participate in emotions vicariously by creating or consuming art, without having to act out negative emotions in the real world. Art creates a safe place to express our emotional spectrum without the direct consequences we would otherwise incur by enacting those emotions.
Gauge our reality
Art can be a metric of the state of the world we live in. It can hold up a mirror to our culture and reflect back either beauty or ugliness. It can be a welcome reminder that there still is beauty to be enjoyed in the world. However, when there is a proliferation of ugly art, it’s a good sign that something is going sour within the culture at large. Art acts as a canary in a coal mine, or the symptom that lets us know it’s time to go see a doctor. When nothing beautiful is reflected back in the art created within a culture, it’s time to address the issues that culture is facing.
Reshape our reality
Art is a powerful educator, especially when other systems (such as government, schools, and other cultural institutions) fail. A work of art can often speak volumes more than any textbook. Someone’s creation gives us a look inside another point of view. Our view of the world is expanded every time we participate in someone else’s experience. We do so profoundly with each song we listen to, book we read, film we watch, painting we admire.
When we look back at any past civilization, what tells us most about what it was like to live and breathe within that culture is the art they left behind. Art both shapes and is shaped by the culture in which it is created. We are experiencing a new era, and the art made in this era will undoubtedly leave a strong impression of our culture for following generations. We must, therefore, make the most truthful art we can, and lots of it.