I’ve been making a living, (depending upon how one defines “a living”,) for over eleven years as a fine art painter. Earlier in my career as a painter, from time to time I would complain to my artist wife, “People don’t need art. People need doctors and auto mechanics and farmers.” This complaint was usually prompted by the ever-present reality that for the duration of these eleven-plus years it has been very difficult to sell enough work for enough money to support our five children. People really don’t need art, and so relatively few spend much money on it.
But now I’m coming to love the idea that people don’t need art. It’s part of what makes art so cool. The fact that art serves no utilitarian purpose is part of what makes art a uniquely human endeavor. A skilled painter, musician, or dancer can take a blank canvas, a silent instrument, or a human body and create an object or experience that may touch the heart and emotions of another person. The fact that this is all unnecessary means a great deal to me.
I love the fact that people don’t need art. It proves that art is a manifestation of human free will. Materialists often claim that we have no free will; that our thoughts and actions are merely a result of genes and chemicals reacting with our environment. That may be true of animals – a garden spider produces only a certain type of web. A barn swallow builds only a certain type of nest. They’re only doing what they were programmed to do. But every concert or painting that moves you is an unnecessary expression of human thought, creativity, and free will.
I love the fact that people don’t need to make art, (though they often say they do,) yet they create it even in the unlikeliest of times and places. Heartbroken American slaves expressed their humanity in the music they created. Early Roman Christians made art on catacomb walls while hiding from their oppressors. Art is the language of freedom, life, and inspiration. In fact, when oppressors attempt to dictate what art should be, art ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. Try to recall a great piece of Communist art. Or a great piece of Nazi art. Name your favorite theocratic Muslim painter. Drawing a blank? But I can show you great art that was created underground in those political settings.
The field of Art History exists because art is universal to the human experience, and always has been. There is no history of orangutan art. Universal human creativity is one aspect of what it means to be created in the image our Creator. The fact that art is universal, yet completely unnecessary to our existence and survival is part of what makes it art.
Having said all of this, I hope it goes without saying that the fact that something may be unnecessary does not mean it is worthless. An abundant life consists of more than the physical essentials. So we hike to a “pointless” destination, such as a mountaintop, or a waterfall. Or we make a new friend when we already have plenty of friends. Or we eat dessert. Or own a pet. Or we make art. Sometimes the unnecessary things are the things we value most.