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Art Beat

March 18, 2004


On the value of art


TEACH OIL PAINTING ONE NIGHT A WEEK TO A handful of steadfast students, some who have been attending the class since its inception three years ago. These students all lead busy lives and none of them aspire to paint professionally, yet every week they plunk down their hard-earned money in order to push some pigment around on a canvas. Frankly, I'm always a little surprised to see them. Why in the world do they keep coming back?

I decided to come right out and ask them, posing the following question: What do you value so much about this art experience that you keep returning for more of it, week after week, year after year?

"Well, there's the booze," joked Amy Stewart, referring to the wine supplied each week by fellow student Jan Ostridge. "And the gossip. And sometimes we get snacks -- quesadillas and the like."

Jan, a pragmatic physician's assistant, said she needs the class as an antidote to her highly stressful job at the County Health Department. "Art is about transcending the human soul to a place of peace," she said, delighting us with her lyricism.

Amy, who makes her living as a writer, agreed that painting provides a respite from her work as well. "I like the non-verbal part of it. I spend way too much time at the computer and this is totally different -- low-tech and visual and not the same kind of thinking and reasoning I have to do the rest of the day."

She added that learning a new skill pushes you in a new direction and works another part of your brain. "To me, taking an art class is not about pure expression -- it's about learning how to do something well, over a long period of time."

Debbie Storre, a retired chemist who now does some sort of technical work at the courthouse, said she's learned to evaluate her own paintings, as well as the work she sees in galleries and museums, with a more educated eye. "I can look at art now and make intelligent observations!" she said, practically glowing. "It gives me a real sense of accomplishment."

The students all agreed that studying art has taught them to see the natural world in a new way, an observation echoed by many professional artists. I asked local painter Jim McVicker for his thoughts on the subject. "Painting is about seeing, about learning to look at life and nature, about developing abstract ideas and transferring those ideas to a canvas," he said. He added that art gives him a sense of purpose. "I try to express my wonder and awe of life and hopefully pass that on to others."

Now, Jim's comments really got me to thinking. I hardly know where to begin, but I found the idea of passing along the artist's unique expression of an idea, emotion or observation particularly intriguing. Historically, this is one of the most time-honored values associated with the arts and, in fact, this function as a non-verbal communicative tool between human beings may be one of its most important contributions.

We've all had the experience of a seeing a piece of art, or hearing a stanza of music, or reading a particularly eloquent line of prose that reached out and grabbed us on a level of our being so deep and profound, it brought tears to our eyes. Those experiences stay with us, enriching our lives with an understanding of what it means to be human, as well as inspiring our own creative endeavors.

The communicative power of the arts can often bridge cultural and political differences as well, reminding us of the things we share in common with people. This is where the "value of art" topic gets really interesting, where it reaches beyond the personal satisfaction gained by mastering a new skill and addresses the role of the arts in society. The best art can provide a cycle of communication between the artist and future viewers long beyond the lifespan of the artist. When we study ancient civilizations, it's the arts that inform us. We learn about the past through what a culture creates -- the visual arts, the literature, the architecture, the music.

I also liked Jim's comment about "developing abstract ideas."

By their very nature, the arts foster our ability to solve problems in original ways, and it seems to me that now, more than ever, we need to encourage those creative decision-making processes.

Like religion, science and politics, the arts frequently get mired down in formulaic dogma, reinforced by people too scared or lazy to think for themselves. We live in an era of unprecedented visual bombardment, and probably 90 percent of it isn't worth looking at. Watch television for just one evening if you don't believe me -- I mean, seriously, how much creative inspiration does anyone get by seeing another human being humiliate themselves by getting locked up with a million tarantulas or eating worms for dinner?

Really good art goes beyond mindless entertainment -- it's supposed to awaken the viewer's eye, mind, spirit and sense of wonder. It should inspire us to ponder the deeper, philosophical mysteries of the lives we lead in this particular time and place, and open channels of communication with the people we share the world with.

Obviously, the topic of what the arts are worth to us individually and communally is one I could talk about in greater depth, but I'm out of space, so I'll end with a final thought. The arts mirror the cultures that produce them, and as consumers in this particular culture we have the ultimate power to decide what gets created. If we support art and music and books that inspire us to think and feel and create, maybe more of the same will follow. My students, I've decided, who keep returning week after week to gain some understanding of the creative process, are probably on the right track.

Linda Mitchell can be reached via



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