Art History Politics

Why Art Matters

I just read a short article by Jim DeRogatis on why art matters, especially in such trying times as these. As I was making my kids’ lunches this morning, I reflected on Mr. DeRogatis’ piece, and would like to add a few more reasons why, in fact, art does matter.

Art is now more important than ever. I recall what one of my favorite professors at the University of Chicago, Herman Sinaiko, said in his class Criticism: Art, Artist, Audience, the gist of which was that art is a conversation through time. We all know that an artist’s works transcend time— this all too ever-present facet of our reality. But why is this important?

It is important because, as we all learned (or should have learned) in high school history, those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it. Art is people from long ago telling us what happened to them, both the good and the bad, much of the time in easily digestible chunks.

But art does not only communicate to us about the past. It also communicates to us what is possible for the future. It gives us hope. Not only that, but it assures for us, the down-trodden, the under-represented, the depressed, the bullied, and everyone else that’s not “normal,” that we all have a place in this world.

As a political science student, I read about the psychological theories about why Hitler made himself the most hateful man in history. These theories revolve around the simple fact that Hitler was a failed artist; he was rejected from art school. Perhaps there is something to this. I’d like to see the art that the Alt-Right (read White Supremacist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-everything that they are not) could come up with. On second thought, I would not like to see it. Because I would not consider it art. (Roger Ebert raised the question of whether or not “great art can be in service of evil” in his review—referenced by DeRogatis—of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” To that question, I say, no great art has come out of that service.)

So I implore you, at this moment in time, please, art your heart out. Keep inspiring hope and introspection. Invite more people into your conversation. It is the only way we can keep humanity on its upward—though currently backsliding—trajectory toward what we as a species can accomplish. It truly is a moral imperative.

Janette DeFelice, MD, MA is a writer currently focusing on how the changing environment affects our health. Her essay collection Resistance Essays from the Heartland and her new novel Delia Rising: A Ballet in Three Acts are both available now. She has also published at Be The Change Mom, ChicagoNow, and She holds a Doctor of Medicine degree from Chicago Medical School and a Master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago, where her major essay was Hegel and Ibsen: The Evolution of Consciousness in Ibsen’s Prose Play Cycle. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Indiana University. A former professional dancer, former adjunct Humanities professor, and former lecturer in Medical Clinical Skills, as well as a mom of 9-year-old twins, she currently finds herself at a career/life crossroads at which she is trying to figure out how to use all aspects of herself (her art, her medical and scientific knowledge, her philosophical explorations, her interest in popular culture as a teaching tool, and her unique perspective) for the good of humanity.

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