The Necessity of Art
(published in The Ottawa Citizen, Monday, December 29, 2008)
I can't get the image out of my mind. A piece of ivory, function unknown, covered with finely detailed carving, which was part of an exhibit at the Museum of Civilization showing the daily life of the Copper Eskimos who populated the Bering Strait around 250 A.D.
Why would someone living such a precarious existence spend time creating art? Is it possible that art is one of the necessities of life?
It makes one question the basic things we all need to sustain us as human beings.
Nourishing food, clean water and adequate shelter have always been considered essential, from the beginning of time.
But beyond these, what do human beings need to survive and thrive?
Politics, business, crime, and scandals of various sorts dominate both the print and electronic media. Sex, surely one of life's basic necessities, is prominent in the news, but usually only when it includes some element of crime, scandal, or deviation from the norm.
Stories that combine politics with business and sex are guaranteed to make the front page or the top of broadcast news.
Extreme cases of famine, poverty, and homelessness receive some attention, but quickly give way to the latest grab for power and notoriety, whether in politics, business, or entertainment.
Where is art? Relegated to the back pages, often spiced with sex to make it more appealing. Sports gets more coverage, usually with its own section in the daily papers and an entire segment on TV newscasts.
The Copper Eskimos of two millennial ago must have been just as interested in power, crime, sex and their business - the daily search for food and water - as we are. Their very lives depended on procreating, sustaining life, and avoiding danger.
But maybe they understood something that we have forgotten.
All cultures, from earliest recorded time, had some form of music, dance, storytelling and decoration of objects. Like food, water, and shelter, art provides nourishment for the soul, a vital element linking us to other human beings, the roof under which a nation huddles in good times and bad.
Music imitates the rhythm of breath and heartbeat, calms the fretful child, organizes youth into cooperative teams, helps workers perform more efficiently. Studies have shown that the brain uses music to assist in organizing and assimilating complex information.
Dance teaches balance, control of the body, how to move silently and swiftly. The natural grace of the hunter, the precise casting of the fisherman, the concentration of muscular energy required to lift a large load - all are enhanced by dance. Dancers are tuned in to their bodies, know how to flex and contract, how to maintain extension and alignment.
Unlike many team and individual sports, which often punish the body with awkward and violent movements, dance enhances the physical being, rendering it supple and able to fulfill any purpose.
Children who learn to dance in school respond more quickly to direction and tend to be more cooperative in other activities. Schools in the U.S. who have introduced ballroom dancing to middle-school students have seen test scores rise and behavioral problems decline.
Dances in primitive societies filled similar goals, allowing a few to "show off" their talents, but without actual competition or hard feelings.
Creating narrative has also been, throughout history, a primary means of bringing a community together. Individuals who have heard the same stories from their parents have a natural affinity that encourages cooperation and joint achievement. Even nomadic people have vibrant histories, because they provide a sense of belonging.
Telling our own stories, whether as history, biography, fiction or poetry, preserves our heritage and allows individuals all across Canada to identify with each other, understand what it means to live on an isolated native reserve, the urban core of Montreal, a vast Alberta ranch, the coast of Newfoundland, or a quiet small town in southern Ontario.
Shared stories, often in the form of myth or religious text, began the earliest informal education of youth. All religions have used some combination of the written word, visual arts, music, dance and theatre to teach moral and ethical principles.
Stained glass windows and other visual depictions of the lives of the saints helped illiterate churchgoers recall stories from the Bible, and in the Catholic Church, the "Stations of the Cross" were visual reminders of which prayers to say in which order.
Visual expression may appear to have less direct effect on human survival. But the urge to enhance one's existence by adding color or design may be a means by which we order our lives. The need to visualize one's experience appears to be a basic and essential instinct.
Even after most of the population could read scriptures without visual aids, churches continued to be embellished with beautiful reminders of faith, suffering and glory.
The arts also have a long tradition in healing. Aboriginal medicine men in all parts of the world combined music, dance, chants, and special objects to heal mind and body. Health care practitioners and policy makers have enlisted artists in a variety of disciplines to explore such topics as guided imagery for cancer patients and music therapy for stroke rehabilitation.
Our aging population is beginning to discover that the arts can be a key to longer life and the prevention of debilitating physical and mental ailments. Dance and music, for example, provide opportunities to link left and right brain to delay the onset of memory loss and help stroke rehabilitation.
At the other end of the continuum, an elementary school in the South Bronx found itself with declining enrollment and increasing problems with discipline. A musician, Tom Pilecki, tried a daring experiment. He founded the St. Augustine School of the Arts, adding compulsory music, dance and drama to the curriculum. Within two years enrollment tripled, reading and math scores improved markedly, and discipline problems vanished.
Watching television and playing computer games seems to inhibit not only learning but social interaction and what has been called "emotional intelligence," the ability to empathize with others, work cooperatively toward a common goal, and communicate effectively.
In many Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. workshops in humour, drama, non-competitive games and creativity exercises attempt to help managers, engineers, and workers think "outside the box," brainstorming problems instead of relying on computer models or other "hard-wired" techniques.
Canada still lags behind. Some corporations hold creativity workshops, but few use actual artistic disciplines to enhance workers' productivity.
As we move further into the age of technology, both Canada and the U.S. are replacing the export of goods with the export of intellect. Economists agree that innovation is the only way for western countries to stay ahead of India and China.
Yet we are witnessing the "dumbing down" of education, as young people complete high school with only marginal literacy, and education in the arts is sacrificed to cut budgets.
The arts can prepare us to meet the challenges of the future. Artists impart creative problem-solving skills. Writers teach essential communication: how to announce, explain, persuade, sell. Music and dance offer stress reduction to all levels of the work force, while theatre teaches public speaking and presentation skills. Visual artists enhance the work environment, adding to productivity and stimulating the right brain to boost thinking power.
Food, water, shelter: we all agree that these are the necessities of life. But we need more than to eat, to quench our thirst, and to take refuge from the weather. We also need to feed our souls, to nourish our unique identity, to preserve what we all have in common, regardless of race, religion, heritage or language.
We need to be reminded of something primitive societies knew instinctively: we need the arts.
© Barbara Florio Graham 2008
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