What’s the Point, Really?

Why did my parents surround me with art as a kid? Why am I doing the same with my son?

Some of my earliest memories involve art. I remember visits to Westminster Abbey, where I was amazed at the vaults soaring high overhead and was afraid of the effigies carved onto the tombs. I have a vague memory of sitting in St. Peter’s Square listening to Pope John Paul deliver Easter Mass, all the while only contemplating the chocolate in my Easter basket back at the hotel. I remember grimacing at nude statues and my mother telling me “Someday, you’ll think they’re beautiful.”

Michelangelo_Dying Slave
Michelangelo, The Dying Slave, 1513–16

Our home was filled with art of one form or another, too. Music was ever-present, from The Beatles to the sounds of “Clair de Lune” wafting up from my mother’s piano. There were elaborate meals for dinner parties presented on beautiful tablescapes. And there were always lots and lots of books.

Why do people fill their lives with this stuff–with art? Art has a role beyond teaching us about the history of our cultures and entertaining us. Humans, as a species, consistently create and consume art; my parents’ love of nice things was not unique. Indeed, most people seek to fill their lives with art of one sort or another. The only difference really is personal taste. “One man’s meat . . .” and so forth. We all seek to enhance our lives in one way or another. We find things that make us happy or make us feel something more acutely or . . . what?

I will readily admit that I am highly emotional about art and the arts. I think it’s one of the reasons my career has veered away from academia, where a certain level-headedness about one’s subject matter is required. For me, being level-headed about things I love ruins them.

When I got to college and learned that I could study art and literature, basically full-time, it somehow felt like cheating. I remember learning about the Lions Gate in my first art history class. The ornamental stone gateway once stood sentinel on a Mycenean citadel in the thirteenth century BC. That’s a really, really long time ago! It blew my mind to think about the motivations of the people who commissioned this monumental relief sculpture. Why did these ancient people go to so much trouble?

W. J. Neatby, Illustration based on “Ode to a Nightingale,” 1899

I had the same feeling when I read Keats and Wordsworth in my British Romantic Poetry class. To this day still, my “heart aches” when I read “Ode to a Nightingale.” Why? Why do I give a shit?

Truly, though, what is the point of these swooning reveries? Why do we feel compelled to adorn our lives? Why do we sing in the shower? Why do we buy pretty things? Why should we care about art?

This question recently came up in the book I’m reading, All the Light We Cannot See, which is a tremendous work of art in itself. Towards the end of the book, one of the characters, a soldier, has a small breather from the horrors of World War II carnage amid the beauty of Vienna. As he looks around, he thinks to himself how “wondrously futile [it is] to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs . . . in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them?”

Indeed, what is the point of art in an impermanent world? Why do human beings insist on creating art? It is pleasant and educational and fun. But more than that, it is what makes human beings unique. It is a sign of our humanity. When we quote a favorite movie line while having a beer with friends, we’re doing more than just engaging in chit-chat or proving our hipster bona fides. We are sharing our humanity with each other. We are assuring one another that we are not alone.

Going about our daily lives, we are ultimately all alone in the world, but art allows us to say to one another “I’m here with you too! I feel angst and beauty and fear and wonder too. You are not alone.” I think that’s at least a part of the story.


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