Is Art Its Own Excuse for Being?

A frequent reader of this blog wrote to me in response to my post titled, “Does Art Need a Purpose?”

“Just as beauty is its own excuse for being,” she said, “so is art.”

I found the full quote about beauty online. It’s from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “The Rhodora.” It reads:

Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,

Then Beauty is its own excuse for Being

I loved how my reader took the concept and applied it also to art. There are so many things in life for which we can be grateful that justify their own existence: a beautiful sunset, the sweet taste of a summer peach, the song of a whale, the kiss of a loved one. Things like beauty, love, freedom, and creativity exist simply to make our experience on this Earth better. You can’t place a value on happiness or sorrow, yet each gives our lives meaning. Connection and devotion exist only to bring us together.

Artists have been making art since long before it was a profession. Mothers have been humming to babies since long before we wrote music down. Inventors have drawn inspiration from nature since long before money changed hands. Creativity breathes in each of us not just to make our lives better but to keep us alive. Literally.

But as societies formed, and economies were designed, values were assigned. Elders have taught children since time immemorial, but at some point, we decided teaching was a profession. People have taken care of the sick since long before we concluded doctors and nurses should be paid. Over time, we assigned value to those who serve and protect the gifts that have no value on their own, like health, knowledge, innovation, nature, and, yes, beauty.

And from this thinking, the professional artists were born. People who would capture beauty, preserve it, share it, and create community from it, not just some of the time, and not just to adorn useful tools, but all of the time. We assigned value to effort and talent spent painting images of our families, writing songs to immortalize our battlefield wins, recording stories we had passed down and the ones we were now living.

If Beauty is its own excuse for Being (note the capitalization Emerson used), and art celebrates Beauty, then it’s true that art is its own excuse for Being. That’s why I encourage every single reader to embrace the artist in themselves with full permission to create simply because it’s our birthright and privilege to do so. Simply because it brings us and those who receive our art joy.

If I could expand on my reader’s lovely observation, though, I would also argue (and I think she would agree) that every day, we humans teach children new skills, we decorate cakes for parties, we build shelves for our friends, and we receive no pay for that. Art exchanges hands simply because it’s needed and appreciated. But every day, professional teachers, cooks, and carpenters show up for work, and we pay them for their efforts. We can’t do all the jobs ourselves, so we support the experts so they can nurture us.

Professional artists devote time and attention not just to creating our art and following our passions, but to teaching, mentoring, preserving, celebrating, and advocating for art and artists, and that has real value. We didn’t decide this and we shouldn’t have to justify it. It was decided long ago when societies concluded that those who grow our food, or make our goods, or lead our governments should get paid for their role in protecting and advancing the things we value just for Being. And yes, that goes for artists too.

And that’s just another way art saves us.

By Teresa R. Funke

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