At a dinner party recently, someone asked me a surprising question. We had been discussing the global economic turmoil, when suddenly she turned to me, with genuine curiosity, and said "The world is in crisis. Jobs are being lost, wars are being fought. In this kind of environment, why does art matter?
I didn't hesitate in my response. What I told her was this: art matters because looking at a beautiful painting or sculpture gives us an experience that nothing else can. It's not just that art can make us feel good, which it can, by being made of pleasing colors, or harmonious shapes, or beautiful materials. A good piece of art work - whether it's a painting hanging on a wall, or an enormous sculpture that transforms a public plaza - can excite, provoke, soothe, and inspire.
In fact, in a time of crisis, I believe that art matters more than ever. The economy is in a tailspin. We live in a 24-hour news cycle where people are inundated with doom-and-gloom economic headlines and stock market data around the clock. People - regular people, not just hedge fund managers and financial professionals - now spend hours on end glued to their computer screens, watching their 401K's evaporate, or their pensions disappear. Imagine all the stress this massive tsunami of information causes them on a daily basis, with no respite in sight.
But there is a respite, if they only knew where to look. It's hanging on the walls of the nearest museum. It's the sculpture in the public plaza on the corner. It's in the dozens of galleries showing the works of both emerging and established artists. If they could just unplug for a few minutes, and explore, people could discover that art provides a necessary escape - even if only a temporary one - from the troubles of the world.
And, if truth be told, I don't really believe that art is escapist. I believe that art provides a sensory experience that, on the contrary, can be restorative. Art gives our eyes and mind a chance to rest, to muse, to think. Looking at art, we reconnect with our inner spirit, a spirit that is rich in thoughts, feelings, and dreams, a spirit that can't be bankrupted, no matter what is happening in the financial markets.
I want to be clear that I don't believe that one needs to own art or buy art to appreciate or benefit from it. What one needs is the curiosity and the desire to truly see and feel. To perhaps be a bit uncomfortable as you learn to decipher how different art works make you feel, but to learn that on the other side of that discomfort lies pleasure - the pleasure of discovering a work that "speaks" to you, or the pleasure that comes from simply gazing at something beautiful.
Beauty, in whatever form it takes, soothes the soul. Barely a month before he died in Dallas, John F. Kennedy said: "We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth."
That, I believe, is why art matters.