Why art is important

As if I’d even need to provide an explanation for that… but, in a world where STEM fields get the majority of attention while us art history majors and our academic cousins in the humanities are scoffed at and written off as extraneous subjects, I think my manifesto needs a chapter on this…. nay, it requires it.

It’s funny; according to my parents I never talk about why I do what I do, why I love what I do. As we sat conversing with a couple from Austria/Switzerland over dinner in Venice, the man Rolf asked me what I study. I was a few glasses of wine deep by that point in the evening, and I guess I get a little more passionate and expressive under its influence. My face flushed as I veritably gushed to Rolf, about how art is this amazingly beautiful amalgamation of creativity and history, of self-expression and expression of the world as one sees it. It goes beyond history; it does things history could never accomplish. Because history is the story of us, that’s true; but it lacks that personal element. That visual element which connects us through time, through generations. I can read about the Haussmannization of Paris all I want; about how its citizens felt nervous, almost fearful, at how their city was changing literally before their eyes, and how that change was one of many that fundamentally altered their conception of society, even reality. Or, I could look at Degas’ Dans Un Café, and with no words spoken feel that sense of isolation, even when one is surrounded by people.

Edgar Degas, Dans Un Cafe
Edgar Degas, Dans Un Cafe

Yes, I’m a modernist. 19th century France, and increasingly 19th/early 20th century American art are my favorite areas to study. But truthfully, I discovered modern art after I began my art historical journey. My freshman year of college I took an intro art appreciation course. And then I saw the two sculptures that made me want to dive in whole-hog: The Winged Nike of Samothrace, and Michelangelo’s Pietà:

Winged Nike of Samothrace, now in the grand staircase of the Louvre.
Winged Nike of Samothrace, now in the grand staircase of the Louvre.

God just look at her!! No, really, LOOK. She is absolutely breathtaking. She was discovered in 1863, and is dated to around 200-190 BC. She was built to commemorate a sea battle, as well as honor the goddess Nike, aka the goddess of victory. She is an excellent example of Hellenistic sculpture; note how her flowing drapery not only appears to cling to her skin, but to billow as if caught in the wind. She is portrayed at the exact moment in which she lands, her foot barely touching the stone outcropping, her upper body still in flight. When you think about how the scupltor, cited to be Pythokritos of Lindos, was able to capture such a brief moment so utterly successfully, so naturalistically… every time I think about it it just blows my mind out the back of my skull.

I finally got to see her in 2009, while I was studying abroad in Paris. I saw her from afar as I approached the grand staircase, and my heart started pounding… and let’s face it, I cried. I cried because art can pull that emotion from almost anyone…. except perhaps sociopaths. It can elicit a powerful, almost violent emotion in all of us, one that we can’t always explain or make tangible. It is that intensity which, I believe, connects us as humans. It separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and I think that connection can bolster empathy, just as I hope in it’s own small way my writing does. I think empathy is a vital human emotion. It is akin to love and yet not quite so volatile.

Michelangelo’s Pieta, located in St. Peter’s basilica, Vatican City

OH GOD WOULDYA JUST LOOK AT IT?! <(Sorry, I had to).

This sculpture was made by Michelangelo Buonarroti during the years 1498-1499. He was only 22 or 23 when he made it, and being a bit of a pompous up-and-comer, this was the only piece he ever signed (On a strap across Mary’s chest is inscribed in latin, “Michelangelo made me”). This sculpture depicts the moment in which Christ is removed from the cross after the crucifixion and placed in Mary’s arms. His face doesn’t depict several injuries received during the Passion, and Mary herself looks quite young to be the mother of a 33-year-old man. It has been cited that Michelangelo did not want his version of The Pietà to represent death, but rather to show the religious vision of abandonment and a serene face of the Son. Mary’s youthful depiction, it is believed, is connected to her everlasting purity as the virgin mother. Michelangelo is also known to have said that he did not create his sculptures. Rather, he was charged with the task of releasing the sculpture, as it already existed within the slab. He simply removed what was not supposed to be there, in order to liberate the beauty set there by God.

I saw her during my trip to Italy with my parents. And despite the crowd of tourists constantly elbowing me to get a picture of her (which I thought ridiculous; she’s behind glass now so frankly any image you take there pales in comparison to a professional shot), I stood and stared, my elbows leaning against the railing. And, again, like a baby, I cried. I cried because she is so beautiful, and the idea that a human hand, a human mind created her is stunning. Though the Renaissance is not my area of preference, words cannot express how much I love Michelangelo. For all his faults, he truly was a genius. When I saw a bronze bust of him in the Accademia, his old brow furrowed in thought, I wanted to kiss him. Instead, I whispered to his spirit in my head and said, “thank you, so much, for all you gave to this world. For the beauty that you released, we are eternally grateful.”

So, THAT, my friends, is why art. is. important. Suck on that engineering! 🙂

Current quote: “Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or how badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” -Kurt Vonnegut

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