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Why does art matter? Why should we support the arts?

Economic rationalists would point out that most artists are economically unviable. That is true, unfortunately. Creative artists generally have miserable incomes from their art, and survive by teaching or waiting on tables. Performing artists do not have it much better; depending on their speciality, they may have just as difficult a time as creative artists.

Economic rationalists would argue that pouring money into the arts makes no sense unless the consumer considers the transaction to deliver a nett benefit to them.

The economic rationalist will buy the painting which delivers them the greatest pleasure for the lowest price, even allowing that a part of the pleasure might derive from the conspicuously famous name of the artist.

The economic rationalist will not be tempted to provide philanthropic support for the arts, because that produces no saleable return.

So: does art actually matter?

Van Gogh sold very few paintings, and those for very little money. Cezanne was once booted out of his lodgings and the angry landlord hurled some of his paintings out of the attic window into the courtyard below. Similar examples can be multiplied endlessly.

Every work of art carries part of our shared culture and that fact gives the work its true value.

Would the world be poorer if van Gogh had never painted Starry Night, or if Cezanne had not painted  Les Grandes Bagneuses; or if van Gogh and Cezanne had never painted at all?

Would the world be poorer if Michelangelo had never painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or designed the Duomo in Florence;  if da Vinci had never painted; if Beethoven or Shostakovitch had never written a note of music?

Would the world be poorer if Shakespeare and Balzac had never written?

If we suspect that the world would be poorer without Beethoven and Mozart, without van Gogh and Cezanne; without Shakespeare and Balzac, we acknowledge the value of art for its own sake.

None of those people created material wealth. None of them derived great material wealth in their lifetimes. The price of unique paintings is a quirk of the market for commodities: the value of the works is spiritual.

Imagine this: a wealthy investor buys Mona Lisa, and announces that he intends to destroy it, privately. Most people would feel a sense of … loss.

Because a work of art is more than just a physical thing capable of being bought and sold. In important ways, every work of art carries part of our shared culture and that fact gives the work its true value: a value which bears very little relation to the operation of a market for unique commodities.

The destruction of the library at Byzantium in 1204 and the looting of the national museum of Baghdad in 2004 represent losses which not even the crassest economist has tried to measure in economic terms, because the calculation would be seen by everyone to miss the point completely.

Art connects us to the world, to each other, to others we can never meet or know. It affirms our relationship to the rest of humanity.

In a remarkable short story by Frederic Raphael, the author speaks of a man who, early in his university days, abandoned a hopeful career as a poet for the much more prosaic career of a lawyer. He prospers in his choice and is eventually appointed to the Bench. Upon his appointment, he has to vacate his chambers and this leads him to the bitter-sweet task of going through the accumulated papers of decades to decide what may be disposed of and what should be retained.

“He had quite forgotten about his adolescent poetry and was astonished to come across a batch of it at the bottom of a     cupboard.  He smiled – golly! – at the sight of it and took it out and started to read, for a laugh. He expected clinching evidence of the folly of youthful pretensions. His whole happy life had been founded on the assumption that he had been right to abdicate before his wife’s gentle, unmistakable judgment. He sat on the floor of his chambers, boyishly grey, and prepared to be embarrassed by those unburnt embers. Instead, the poems passed sentence on his life. At last, he closed his eyes to escape their indictment, but the unblinking eye in the centre of his forehead gazed and blazed with unique and undeniable vision. He cowered on the floor of the dusty cave and saw that the years of his life had escaped, like Odysseus’s men under the panicky sheep of the blind, deluded Polyphemus. ‘Who are you, who are you?’ he cried. And the voice of the man who had blinded himself replied ‘No-one. No-one.’”

In that short, compelling paragraph we see the result of trading the valuable for the priceless.

Art connects us to the world, to each other, to others we can never meet or know. It affirms our relationship to the rest of humanity.

The wider our encounter with art, the richer that connection becomes. This might be what Stoppard had in mind when a character in one of his plays says that “in any society of a thousand people there will be 900 doing the work, 90 doing well, nine doing good and one lucky person will be an artist.”

Art is valuable, in and of itself.

This is the first in a series of occasional columns by Julian Burnside for Daily Review

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