Why The Arts Are Vital
Posted on 16 April 2015
I helped organise an evening of lectures about the history of Australia and its peace movements around 1915. Given the event was to be nearly three hours, I felt we needed to break the time up with live music between each lecture. Our musicians did an admirable job performing songs relevant to the subject and the era. They brought the events described to life. A few people’s eyes were tearing by the last song. Afterward we shared a meal of homemade sandwiches, cakes, and hot drinks.
The arts are crucial to our well-being and our survival. We are so surrounded by human aesthetic that, like a fish who cannot conceive of water because it takes water for granted, we are unaware of the nature and power of artistry and therefore take it for granted.
Artistic design goes into our clothes, our houses, our offices, the packaging of our food, our cars and trains. Almost nothing is untouched by an aesthetic sensibility. You could say the aesthetics are an optional extra, but we are strongly attracted to aesthetics for good reasons. Sadly, our ignorance makes us vulnerable to the manipulation that is possible when creative expression is misused. Most significantly art has been turned into a commodity and removed from the hands of the populace. People no longer create their culture, but are given it by a power elite.
I would posit that the arts are important for many reasons, but I would like to focus on two in particular: our ability to evolve thought, and our ability to form alliances.
Mammals play when they are young. This is a crucial period in a young creature’s existence. Through play they are learning the skills they need to survive later in life. But this isn’t a mechanical formality. Young animals have a plasticity of thought that is less available to them later in life. Every generation is going to be born into differing circumstances. They will be playing within those circumstances honing their skills precisely for the challenges they will face. Changing behaviour in order to survive is much faster than waiting hundreds of generations to grow an extra thumb. Certainly some behaviour will be instinctual, but this is combined with a moment of innovation in an animal’s life.
Neoteny, the continuation of a childlike state, is found amoung creatures who survive by thinking and then creatively manipulating their environment. Creatures who include tool use in their behaviour will tend toward neoteny. Creatures who need to form complex relationships with others of their kind also tend toward neoteny.
Human beings have selected for intelligence as our favoured tool for survival combined with cooperation. As such neoteny and the mental plasticity it brings has been an important part of our evolution. Just as you exercise to maintain muscle strength, you create art to maintain the plasticity of childhood. This is not art’s sole reason for being, but it’s a biologically significant one. Showing your capacity to think creatively by making a partner laugh, moving them with a poem or song, dancing, etc are good mating activities. You show you are someone who can innovate and solve problems that might threaten the family. Another biologically significant role.
I have been a post-graduate supervisor. You only get a PhD for original research. I have known students who are good at remembering facts. I have known students who are good at solving set problems. However, if they have divorced themselves from play and creativity, they have difficulty conceiving of new research. They get too bound up in having “right” and “accepted” answers validating their sense of self-esteem. They have not allowed enough free intellectual play into their lives to access “ah-ha” moments. They have to go beyond worrying about: is my answer “right or wrong”, and focus on all the possibilities no matter how crazy.
Research done with MRIs is showing that all thoughts start as emotions. We then use emotion to motivate thought and action. Emotion is also a significant factor in remembering thoughts, facts, and events. This is why people are conceiving of ways to use the arts to help inform our descendants where nuclear waste may be buried.
Through art we also practise our emotional skills developing the means to widen our thought and prioritise the life-affirming for ourselves and this planet. Caring is a valuable and mature form of thought.
You will note that oppressive regimes regularly reduce people’s opportunities to play and create, only allowing that which they have sanctioned to go out to the masses. No playing or creating means less thinking, fewer alternative solutions conceived, and less emotional resilience to their dictatorial behaviour.
As hunters go, humans are terrible! And yet we are clearly omnivores. We don’t have claws, long teeth, or thick skins. We don’t run all that fast, we aren’t exceptional at swimming or climbing trees. Our brains make it possible to defend and feed ourselves independently as adults, but our young have an extended period of dependence. For the human race to survive we are built to cooperate.
Animals that cooperate do a lot of playing that serves to train them in conflict resolution, coordinating activities, and tending to each other’s needs. Self-reflection, the very definition of sapience, is extremely useful for effective socialisation when combined with empathy. It makes it possible to predict actions and needs. Beyond simple empathy we need emotional bonds to help motivate conflict resolution, coordination, and caring. We form those bonds through shared emotional experience such as dancing, singing, joking, storytelling, or group meals.
Not only do these activities increase our bonds they help us to emotionally evolve. We have an opportunity to see ourselves in others and think is that really who I am…is that really who I want to be? Do I want to be more like what I see or do I want to change in some manner? More often than not we want to be more like those around us, because we fear ostracism. This is not wrong or bad: it’s instinctual because we aren’t good at surviving alone. However, a healthy human population allows for greater diversity without fear, since that provides a greater array of tools for survival. We don’t always know what is going to be helpful in the future. A certain amount of tolerance creates greater security. Sharing culture and art helps to build that tolerance.
Of course our cooperative nature goes beyond other humans. We are unique in the extent to which we form alliances with other animals. We are clearly Homo socialis, as well as Homo sapiens and Homo ludens.
Some have posited that we are attracted to animals because their large eyes remind us of human baby eyes. If that’s our primary criteria for forming alliances, why aren’t we more attracted to squid? They have large eyes, they also have large fleshy heads like babies.
A horse doesn’t look remotely like a baby and yet some of the earliest human paintings are of our relationship with the horse.
Our ability to empathise and form relationships with animals has been highly evolutionarily viable. We move faster by riding animals, we survive wider climatic circumstances by using animal wool for clothing, we ensure ongoing sources of food by tending to animals for their eggs, milk, and meat. Other animals help us to eliminate pests and assist in managing herds.
Much of our earliest art is about our interactions with animals. Much of our earliest religions involve worshipping certain animals. Not only do we imagine animals as having inner lives like our own and anthropomorphise them, we also like to imagine ourselves as animals, dressing up as various creatures and playing in a way where we are mimicking their behaviours and skills. We are wired to at least see mammals as a continuity of beingness connected to ourselves. Mammals are frequently seen as family at some level. Our arts and our play reflect this—watch nearly any Disney animated feature.
Our connections with art and play are strong. People speak of starving artists without thinking about what that means. We have a whole class of people who are willing to go through hardship because they value the experience of creating that much, even when they aren’t always receiving attention from an audience. You have people who are jealous of artists and insist that they should starve, because artists get a certain sort of freedom and joy unavailable to most people. Certainly some people are attracted to the arts because they crave the status of fame and fortune it can sometimes give a few. If they don’t get lucky in their early years, these sorts usually burn out fast and leave.
Our culture has forced many artists into marketing. Transnational corporate states are taking over some of the best minds of our generation in order to direct them toward the creating of consumer propaganda. Advertising is mostly about fear and status. If you are frightened that you will lose status by not smelling right, not wearing the right clothes, not having the right car, etc, you are more likely to purchase these products for a fleeting sense of security. The problem is this sort of constant stream of fear-mongering breaks down social relations because we are constantly fearful of one another.
We are surrounded by stories that represent normalcy: who you need to be to be accepted, who you need to be to feel secure. When our lives do not match the story, we may do ourselves damage trying to fit in or find ourselves isolated because we don’t dare openly express that difference. The people who control the stories can control how you feel about yourself as a person, and how safe you are. People who control the stories can also obscure the past, ensuring only certain stories go out. We then think their version of reality must be true and we do not have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. This is currently happening with ANZAC events this year in Australia, where stories about the broken soldiers of WWI are being deleted from historical records in Canberra and conveniently forgotten. So much for “Lest We Forget”. Of course by doing this a government can insulate people from thinking about consequences, then with impunity send our children off to war.
We even have stories that cut us off from the reality of our living environment. We see images of happy cows and chickens on wide open farms cared for by happy farmers, insulating us from the poverty farmers often face and the cruelty to which animals are often subjected.
Our culture is being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through stringent copyright regimes that benefit large businesses. They like to make artists think they are being protected by these laws, so they can trot out attractive poster children for their propaganda as to the “necessity” of their regimes, but it’s a smoke-screen. Artists are not particularly benefitting.
Think about what it means to have only one class of people selecting the stories, the music, the images, even the sports you get to see every day. What you think you are experiencing as real life is mostly a few powerful people’s perspective on life, and they have no idea what it is like to be you.
This has to change. We have to put arts and play back into everyone’s hands. We have to re-democratise art.
We have to ensure more people can have access to pure art careers without having to commercialise beyond simple sales of their work. We have to ensure everyone has the time to play and to create. We have to encourage people to particiapte in local arts and to go to live events. We need to use our technology to develop more new sources of stories, storytelling, music, images, etc.
Probably the biggest ask is that we must use the arts to help change people’s attitudes and values. We cannot continue in a world which has a price tag written on each person’s forehead, and that is the determinant of how well or ill they will be treated. Industrialised society has turned us into meat machines. We go to assembly line style schools that train us to be cogs in assembly line style work environments, and are taught that the only things of value are work and basic physical survival. You can’t actually survive for long when only food and clothing needs are addressed. Physical as well as emotional survival demands we form emotional bonds with friends and families, and that we have time to rest, play, and create. These are optional to a screwdriver not a person.
We have to use our creativity to build life-affirming alternatives. The goal is not to be rich and famous: it is to experience security, acceptance, and happiness. As artists we can envision that world and help others to envision and create that world. Only in this way will we have a future worth living in.
Peace and kindness,