Is Art Good for Us?

My reading lately has set me to thinking about art. Gaddis treats of it extensively in his books (The Recognitions is specifically about art and the others all hover around the topic), and that’s what really got me going. From there I went to rereading a bunch of Browning’s poems about artists and picking up an edited book about art and aesthetics. One of the most thought-provoking things I’ve read recently comes from the April edition of POETRY, which half celebrates poetry month and half decries the fact that there’s any need to stand up and wave arms and say “hey, look, poetry!”

Part of the April spread was a pair of reviews of Garrison Keillor’s newish anthology, entitled Good Poems and filled I believe with many of the poems he reads daily on his writer’s almanac segment on NPR. Neither reviewer was especially fond of Keillor or his baritone rendering of the poems he selects (which rendering I’ve always found to be rather pleasant), but August Kleinzahler in particular was utterly vitriolic, executing an ad hominem review that, as a subsequent leter-to-the-editor writer noted (one of many such letters crying foul in the subsequent two editions), was so focused on assassinating Keillor’s demeanor that it gave hardly an indication as to the quality or composition of the anthology. I found Kleinzahler’s review to be jaw-dropping and brutal and a little inappropriate by and large, but it contained one very interesting assertion:

“Most people have neither the sensitivity, inclination, or training to look or listen meaningfully, nor has the culture encouraged them to, except with the abstract suggestion that such things are good for you. Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.”

I think he’s correct that we’re culturally conditioned to accept that art is good for us, and I don’t think most of us question the fact very frequently or broadly, a testament to the depth of the conditioning. Is art really good for us? Really?

I suppose we can use art as a barometer for a given society’s capacity for flourishing. If you’re busy trying to scrounge up food, you don’t have time for art; so societies with a rich and ongoing tradition of art, one might argue, are in better shape from a survival vantage point than those with a paucity of art. Thus, in a sense, the urge to make art (and to have the leisure to enjoy art) is good for us because it drives us to do things that help our society to flourish.

I don’t really believe that, though, or not the part about our being driven to flourish by our desire to have the leisure to enjoy art. And I’m not convinced, either, that the production of art correlates with the flourishing of a society, if only because I don’t have the data to support such a proposition, and I do know that even the poorest societies paint their household implements and make carvings and perform dances.

So, though, is art good for us or do we just want to think it is because we’ve always been led to believe it is? If the latter, have we always been led to believe art’s good for us because it actually is (or was when that belief took off) or because artists and art dealers nurtured such a belief for various self-interested reasons?

I don’t have any answers. It occurred to me while tapping this out just now that maybe Mencken (with his derision of the Bozart) has some answers. Off to the bookshelves I go.

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