Anyone who thinks that the arts, in any form, are purely decorative is consuming the wrong art. No matter the type, whether performing, visual, or print, art is necessary. Shortly before the turn of the 20th century, African American writers, who had long endured slavery and spending virtually every waking moment attempting to meet basic needs, began contemplating the role of the artist in relation to African American identity and the future of the United States. They gave voice to not only these concepts but also to social injustices so as to begin to change the perception of mainstream Americans about race and equality. In addition, they released anger and pain caused by a long history of racism and perhaps helped to heal themselves and their readers via release in the process. In his essay, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin posits that the role of the writer is to “illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (Hodgins & Silverman 766).
African Americans are not the only ones whose art have and continue to serve as an agent for social change. Across artistic genres, we see, hear and read the soldier’s story, the immigrant story, the LGBT fight, the woman’s story, the environmentalist’s plight, and a multitude of other voices of equal significance. And the worse the economy and the more violent and chaotic our global community becomes, the more audiences need art to not feel alone, to provide or help maintain perspective, and for catharsis. An argument could even be made that all art is persuasive. Even art that is created with the intention of being purely aesthetic in nature could be construed to represent the status quo or complacency. An argument could also be made that art is vital to our thinking.
We live in a world in which art is undervalued, though. Evidence of this can be seen all around us, from cuts over the past decade ranging from the National Endowment of the Arts budget to programs in the arts in elementary and high schools as well as university liberal arts and social sciences curriculums. While it is essential that the United States become more competitive among developed nations in STEM disciplines, it is not enough for us to be able to think critically; we also need to be able to think creatively. Invention, after all, is born of the ability to “think outside of the box.”
In 1997, Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts. In a letter to Jane Alexander, NEA Chair, and cc’d to President Clinton, she explained her reasons: “In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair….There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art…means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage” (Rich 99).
Art is more than decorative. We need it. We need art in our homes, in our schools and universities, and in our communities.
Hodgins, Francis, and Kenneth Silverman, eds. Adventures in American Literature. New York: HBJ, 1980. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the brochure “Butterbird Christmas,” December 7, 2014, edited by Dr. Meg G. DeMakas, Family Folklore Foundation, Inc., Blue Moon Publications, Gary, Indiana.