Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why art in hard times?

That approximately 12.5 million Americans are currently unemployed is staggering. What are all those people doing without having a place to go to for work? Although looking for work is a full-time job, it can be discouraging when there is no work to be found. How are people going to adapt to the changing economy?

What can a museum or art offer to jobless people who are terrified that in a few months to a year, they might not have enough money to support a family or be able to stay in their homes?

"Historically people use museums more in tough times (economic/wartime)," says Chicago's Museumist, a forum for all things museum- related, through Twitter. "Perhaps it is a form of escapism or quiet place to think. So, I think now more than ever museums (particularly art) need to step up and realize that in tough times people look to them for comfort."

The Dallas-based Womens Museum, points out via Twitter that many museums are accessible, inexpensive ways to experience culture: "Museums are cultural centers and are open to the public - they can educate and engage for little or no cost."

I guess, I would have to say, that for me, museums and the "culture" within them represents humanity's instinct for creation and continuation--even in dark times--rather than destruction. While art has been used for propaganda and self-aggrandizement, even a painting of a historical battle promoting the victorious or a vicious ruler's portrait provides a lens to the past from which we have emerged. Life has been awful before, without question, and somehow we human beings have muddled on, even creating monuments to ourselves in the form of art.

Survival, however, may not be inspirational to some. For others, religious art, regardless of the religion represented, provides quiet contemplation, because it was made to express spirituality. Similarly, modern abstract art can offer a meditation, a relaxation or even a release of irritation, "My kid can do better than that." And many kids, inspired by the history of art, actually do indeed go on to become artists, continually adapting to the changes in technology offering representations via the web or video.

But catharsis through annoyance or tears may alone just help relieve tension. The beauty of certain paintings can make me cry. There also have times in my life when sadness would dissipate in the presence of art. I would go to a museum feeling down and a painting would engage me. I would try to figure out what this artist, most likely working alone in his or her studio or in plein air, was trying to say to me, some unknown viewer. Such non-verbal communication via color, texture, subject matter and composition across decades and centuries really is a remarkably primal, sensual, intellectual and reinforcingly human experience.

"We need art for escape," says Lori McNee, an Idaho artist via Twitter. "Art is universal language, [and] remember art is at the forefront of any great era."

(Image courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, Reproduction number, LC-USW33-035391-C DLC, from 1930-1935, a bread line by the Brooklyn Bridge approach.)

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