This evening I happened to read a journal questioning the usefulness and utility of art. After all, what are paintings and sculpture and poetry compared to the material necessities of life?
I would suggest that in the trenches of survival, nothing becomes a sustained force for long if there is not some usefulness, some value in it beyond the relief of boredom. Art is no different.
Societies are at their heart engines for organizing people towards the ends that people always tend towards. Cultures, I would propose, are the bonds and raw materials that society uses to convince us hard-bitten individuals and skeptics that unified purpose has, well, a purpose to us as an individual.
So where does that leave art?
Art is a building block of culture. It is the shared expressions, the shared histories and common contexts that shape our way of thinking, our priorities, our values. What decides whether aggression or diplomacy is valued? What determines whether war or education is prioritized? What shapes whether marriage is defined in terms of love or in terms of economics?
Of course, each of us has our own opinions and beliefs, but these opinions and beliefs do not arise in a vacuum. Our opinions and beliefs arise out of the common context of our lives. The subtle messages that live in the romance novels or fantasy novels or action movies we share as a common culture subtly poke us a culture towards certain assumptions and a certain shared context.
This is the utility of art. This is the great task that the writers, the sculptors, the singers and the musicians serve. They create this common context for us, they create our culture, giving our society the ability to mobilize the people, the ideas, the resources to accomplish the ancient goal of survival.
Art is not a distraction from the business of survival and the goal of material success. It is vital to it, whether we admit to it or not.