I can think of a zillion places where I’ve heard some variation on this theme, but here are some off the top of my head.
- That book about Dostoevsky where they said a shoemaker was more useful than Pushkin
- That two-part TV movie where Houdini tells the doctor that he used to think of being a doctor, and the doctor goes, ‘Why?’ ‘Because you do something useful (or something like that).’ And the doctor goes ‘But I take my family to see you, and I see the smiles you bring to people’s faces…’
- That movie where the ‘boy with the horse and a stick’ told the ‘girl with the flower’ that ‘you can’t eat a flower, a flower doesn’t keep you warm, a flower is good for nothing’. (Okay that wasn’t about art, really, but, substitute ‘flower’ for ‘art’ ^^)
- That other movie about the consumptive pianist and the aggressive authoress where the Duke told his wife that artists were ‘a gang of parasites’
- That other book where there was a war, and the blacksmith made weapons, the weaver made warm cloaks for the soldiers, and the potter made pretty jars
I also remember seeing a link to a blog post or an article over at my art class classroom where, I’m not sure if it was also by an artist? But the article was questioning like, what good are artists to society, anyway?
Well anyway, full disclosure time: This post comes on the heels of that survey that seemed to cause quite a stir in the country it came out in, which isn’t mine but isn’t that far away. Or well it is pretty far away if you think in terms of how much richer that country is, eheheh.
But maybe not so very far away from the way a lot of us back here also regard art as pretty much useless unless you make a whole lot of money with it. It’s that whole, how your parents freak out when they find out you want to be a painter instead of a doctor or a lawyer or the CEO of some mega corporation-thing. You know the one ^_^
Or well, it isn’t just back here in my neck of the worldwide woods, either—I read once about how this other artist in the US, I think? Said that when people ask her what she does for a living and she says ‘I’m an artist’, people go, ‘Oh…’ (As in ‘Oh dear’.) But when she went to Paris, she would be like ‘I’m an artist’ and they’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful!’
Narrowing the field
In my last blog post, I did mention how art would naturally be one of the first things to go at a time like this when what people are really worried about is staying alive. Which is only meet and just—after all, if I was on my last legs and my children had nothing to eat, I’m not gonna spend my last farthing on a Persian miniature or something like that.
But that’s art in general. People aren’t going to dispute how we need music and movies and graphics and such to keep their spirits up, or even to get vital messages across during tough times.
I’m primarily a painter, so I’m going to narrow my discussion down to paintings, sculptures—you know, studio art, or gallery art. As these kinds of artists, we, along with what we produce, are often said to be not useful (I believe the word they used in the survey was ‘essential’), even at the best of times.
Okay, so ‘useful’ ≠ ‘essential’, if you want to get all ‘semantic’ about this, but either way, I concede—artists aren’t useful. ^_^ At least, not in the way a doctor or a farmer or a sanitation engineer is, and certainly not during times when the priority is to survive.
An oil-on-canvas rendition of a field of flowers or a prancing unicorn is not going to save you from the virus or keep you from starvation. So when global warming causes the waters to rise and we run out of space to live, you can toss us painters, et al over the edge to drown first, because you don’t really need us to live. It’s okay; I, for one, will understand.
It’s sort of like that whole ‘save the Mona Lisa or that little old lady’ type thing. Human life will always take precedence over human creations—or at least in my world view, it should.
Body and soul
But speaking of ‘world views’, in the one I have, people aren’t just bodies. They have a soul, too. At the very least, people aren’t mere bellies; they have minds that also need to be fed.
Don’t laugh, but I read a comic book once where one super heroine (with storm powers) says to the super hero (with adamantium claws //wink), ‘One feeds the body with nutritious food. One feeds the soul with beauty.’
Depending on how you define beauty and what you think art is for (which I’m going to leave to the philosophers, master’s degree holders and generally better minds than mine)—the point is that art isn’t for the ‘body’ part of people. It’s for the ‘soul’, the ‘mind’ part.
I’m talking about painting, sculpture and such here, but this applies pretty much to music and all the other forms of art (I did mention Houdini earlier ^_^).
I remember in another ‘non-essential’ book (by CS Lewis), they said it was a major thing to have to feed a centaur. That was because you didn’t just have to feed the man part, you had to feed the horse part, too, and both parts ate A LOT. That meant having to cook up a storm AND gather all these oats and hay and you get the idea.
Which basically means that if you feed the ‘body’ part of people, you also have to feed…again, you get the idea.
Show me the money
But say you don’t subscribe to the whole ‘man has a soul’ thing and that we’re basically just walking worm food or whatever, let’s talk about something that might be a little more relatable and undeniably useful. Let’s talk about money.
Art (as in painting, sculpture, etc) is a multi-billion dollar industry. I’m sure there’s no need to go into how much money there is in music, movies, graphic design, publishing and so on, but I’m pretty sure people also know that there’s some serious moolers to be made from studio art.
A quick-slash-superficial look at some numbers from UBS shows that
- Global art sales hit USD67.4 billion in 2018
- The US is the world’s biggest art market at USD29.9 billion
- The UK is the world’s second largest at a little less than USD14 billion
- China is the world’s third largest at USD12.9 billion
Interestingly, UBS also mentions how collectors in the US were generally aged 50 and up, 46% of collectors in Singapore were millennials, as were 39% of collectors in Hong Kong—making millennials 45% of all these big spenders.
Funny, though, isn’t it? How all this money is being magically generated by linseed oil and linen, but Vox, here points out how most artists are never going to be rich and famous. (Or at least famous, depending on your priorities in life, hee hee.)
Anyway, Vox also mentions how an art master’s can cost USD38,000 a year, which means you would have to spend something like USD100,000 to complete your degree. Again, I’m not conducting a whole lot of research, here, but it looks to me like art schools must be making some money out of everyone who wants to learn how to make like Michelangelo.
(Meow, I spent something like USD80 a semester to get my four-year bachelor’s in painting (then again, since it was my round 2 of uni, there were a lot of classes I didn’t have to take). I was told that if I ever went in for a Master’s, to not take it in my own country, but looking at these numbers, now I wonder if I’ll ever be able to afford it 0_o;)
I’m not sure whether it’s common knowledge that it costs an arm and leg to study art, not (just) because of the fees but because of the materials, which is another megabuck industry.
I caught a glimpse of how the art supplies industry, like many others around the world, had taken a hit from the virus, but Ibisworld says art supplies in the US alone has a market size of USD857 million. (I guess it makes sense for there to be a lot of money in selling these ‘essentials for non-essentials’ XD)
And what about all the people who give art lessons or workshops outside of the academic setting—enterprising artists who teach others how to paint or draw or sculpt. They’re making a good living, so they can’t be all that useless in this sense, surely? Not to mention the lucrative paint-and-sip industry, which was still going strong when the virus hit.
A different sort of useful
Which brings us back to the virus. Maybe it’s true that artists, particularly studio artists, are no use at all whether there’s a pandemic on or not.
I mean, let’s be honest—people around the world thought so before the virus hit, all the money being generated notwithstanding. And that circumstances (which brought about that survey) really only just confirmed or brought out into the open what people have been thinking (but just aren’t saying out loud) all along. And people are entitled to their own opinions.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that as one of these useless people, I’d like to apologise to eeeveryone out there who feels that we painters and other studio artists are just taking up valuable space.
Whenever we create something, however beautiful or meaningful it might be, all we’re really doing is consuming valuable resources and not actively contributing to the survival of the human race.
I guess I just want to say I’m sorry you feel that way, and that I’m also sorry for just taking up space. (Although I guess I have supported, in my own small way, all those paint and art materials manufacturers and the people who work at them and everywhere I ever took lessons at.)
I don’t know about my own work, but I do know that there are many paintings and sculptures and installations and so on out there that are able to, you know. Sort of calm people down and give them a little peace at a time when so many people are freaking out, not just over the virus, but over so many other things. These works of art give people hope.
And isn’t hope as essential to survival during tough times as anything else? Although, that’s a soul thing. Whether you believe in people having souls or not, surely it can’t be a bad or at least, a useless or impractical thing to help people think that someday things could be better than they are now.
In any case, if there’s anything I can do in my humble capacity as a useless, non-essential person to help you out in these uncertain times, I’d be happy and grateful to do what I can.