Contemplating the nature of art is like pulling on a loose thread hanging down from heaven. You might just be lucky enough to bring down the very fabric of life like a giant magic carpet, but chances are you will unravel something eternally indescribable and end up in a great, big tangle of coloured string. Beautiful, certainly. Valuable, perhaps. But a great, big tangle of string nonetheless.
As is the case with love, part of the mystery of art lies in the fact that we seem to be unable to pin it down. It is mercurial, a nameless creature that will not be labelled. At the most, art is definable only by example – this is art and that is not – and even this is open to subjective interpretation.
If an object, be it a painting, a melody or a poem, has then after careful deliberation, discussion and argumentation, or by plain gut feeling, as is often the case, been deemed worthwhile to be called “art”, what does that imply? What is the value of art?
Leaving aside the category of functional aesthetics or aesthetic functionality – because chairs and buildings and research papers can be works of art as well – art does not have any practical or concrete value in our everyday lives. We cannot eat it; it neither shelters nor clothes us; we cannot use art to dig a trench or build a house or drive to work. Its only value seems to lie in aesthetics. Like the diamond in a ring, its worth is measured in degrees of beauty. Yet not all art works are beautiful either.
Perhaps art should be seen as articulation, expressing what cannot be communicated in the natural order of things, not even through words. Therein lies the trick – the order of things, the patterns that are formed by the words of a novel, the colours in a painting, the play of light and shadow on a sculpture. That is what resonates with something in us. That is the value of art.
Remove all art from your life and you leach it of all its flavour. Man cannot live by bread alone. Even the beauty of nature somehow needs to be translated, to be grasped by dabbing paint on the wall of a cave or repeating nature’s song with the rhythmic clapping of hands. Art does indeed feed us. It nourishes the mind and waters the soul. Art does shelter us, softening the blows of thunder and hail. Art can transport us, to places unknown to the eye of man.
Art is not just a meaningless, unintelligible dance with words, forms or tunes. It is as essential to our well-being as food, houses and clothes. Being touched by art is being touched by the very essence of life, even if it does sometimes seem like a great, big tangle of coloured string.