Perhaps more than any other profession at this time, the Artist (writer, dancer, painter, sculptor, etc.) helps a culture evolve by defining the cultural paradigm. That is to say, the Artist’s role, among other things, is to direct how a society views itself and its own possibilities for change and evolution.
Historically, the job of pioneer of culture has been given to politicians, to technological (Industrial Revolution) and scientific advances (space exploration), and wars, as well as to religion (the rule of Catholicism in Medieval times, etc.). But perhaps because of advances in the human condition – less work and more available leisure time – within the last couple of hundred years or so, Art has come to play a part in the lives of the middle class, expanding into a much larger role than ever before in recent history.
The Functional Shift in Art
Perhaps in the last 200 years or so, the function of Art has shifted to truth-teller status, serving humanity by cutting through religious dogma and uncovering the secrets hidden in political propaganda. Art’s new role is to tell the truth about whatever subject it addresses, to take us out of our circumstantial misery, and deeper into our humanity, illuminating the colors and depths of the human heart and mind.
The hallmark of a ‘great’ work of art is often defined by how well it can unveil the essence hidden inside any cultural phenomenon. If a work of art is successful, that oftentimes signifies its ability to cut us to the bone, to render a powerful jolt to the individual or social paradigm.
As such, the function of Art is crucial to all of us. If we start to drift away from our humanness – if we get sucked too far into our ideological themes, or stuck with our heads in the sand, dissociating to avoid the pain of our existence – great art will pull us out by the heels and lovingly set us upright again. It will give us back our self awareness, our humor, and our ability to feel once again.
Art’s Inherent Importance
The inherent importance of art as the pioneer of culture is one of the reasons why I love to make art, and also why I love to coach creative people. Artists are always born into a society because they have an important role to play in it. And if we as Artists try to ignore our gifts, we not only do a disservice to ourselves, but also to the culture we inhabit and serve. When I see a person who has forgotten their creative sensitivity or their inborn abilities for creative expression, or who has set aside their creative mission to try to live a ‘normal’ life and just go with the herd, it reminds me of my own struggle. I can see how many Artists, like myself, have not been encouraged to follow their passions. And I see how, with just a little bit of support and guidance, they can learn how to use their priceless gifts to begin, or to continue, to make their unique contribution to the whole.
Of course, there are those in positions of power who are unable to comprehend the importance of this type of contribution, and also there are times when such rapid shifts in human evolution (in technology, science, etc.) don’t allow for the significance of Art. I would argue that this was evident in the general decline of U.S. government Arts funding that started to occur in the 1990s.
However, in whatever form Art takes on, and with whatever support Artists are given or not given, they will always be essential to human development and transformation. Because we monkey-minded homo sapiens are in constant need of guidance to integrate new ways of being and doing; we are always looking for ways to better understand ourselves. For the very reason that we will always try to make sense of our place in the world, we will always turn our heads toward the beacon of light that Artistic expression sends out to us in the storm.