What Is Art Good For

06/02/2015
Provocation Papers

Astrid Alben, Wellcome Trust Fellow 2013-14 makes a passionate case for the intrinsic value of art.

"Ah, but was I a good friend?” 
No. 
“A good companion?” 
No. 
“A good lover?” 
No. 
“A good husband?” 
No. 
“But was I a good liar?” 
No.
“A good enemy?” 
No. 
A glint of triumph flashed across my ex-lover’s exasperated face: 
“Ah, yes Astrid, but was I good material?”

He may have been good material or not. But he was certainly material. Material for what? For the transformation of one thing into something else: from raw experience into poetry. Once a poem has been formed it is in and of itself. The finished article, as Don Patterson eloquently put it, is “just a little machine for remembering itself.” It requires no further justification. Similarly, I would argue, the question, 'what purpose does poetry serve?', or indeed, 'what is the utility of art?', will not explain what art is and why some of us make art.

In contrast, the current debate around art would have us believe that art is most things to all people. That it has some intrinsic function other than itself. The basic tenor goes something like (I quote from an online government pamphlet on the arts and culture): “Innovative, challenging and exciting arts and culture improve people’s lives, benefit our economy and attract tourists from around the world. Arts and culture strengthen communities, bring people together and remove social barriers.”

The message is clear: art is good for us. Art is educational. Art greases the wheels of innovation. Art improves cultural awareness. Art has the power to regenerate deprived urban areas. It even has the power to improve our health. Art is lucrative (the Centre for Economics and Business Research calculated in 2011 that the art budget is 0.1% of public spending, yet makes up 0.4% of GDP and 1% of direct employment). In short, there isn’t anything art can’t fix.

If art is good for something, so the current neo-liberal climate dictates, then it must be good for some funding. As a result the artist is fast becoming a cultural entrepreneur, flogging their wares like snake oil, bromide and vegetable hair renewers, competing for his or her income in the sectors of health, education, tourism and science. These days you don’t have to look far to find operas that are staged in rehabilitation centres, plays that are wheeled into schools in deprived inner city areas and sculptures that decipher cancer research. It’s a great good that art has the power to connect people and can be perceived to challenge policy and ethics but it does beg the question: does art still have the power to be, well, art?

Art might engage the public with politics (I doubt it), it might have an impact on social and political realities (I doubt it) and it might even foster change (again, I very much doubt it). Art might provoke a dialogue but this has very little to do with the making of art. From the moment a sculpture leaves the studio or the moment the opening titles of a film roll off the screen, the artist has little to no control over the impact of his or her work. And that’s just as it should be. I don’t think artists make art because it can cure the sick, eradicate social and economic inequality, or encourage an industrialist to think more creatively about product design.

Yet here we are, at the backend of a financial crisis and I catch myself talking about poetry in terms of “the economics of experience” and poetry readings as “a transactional relationship with the audience” that can be “benchmarked” by “outcomes and outputs”. The relationship between artist, the public and politics has of late been poisoned by the expectation that the artist needs to create and validate the work in terms of public benefit.

Art doesn’t solve anything. Please don’t ask it to. Because this is entirely missing the point of what art is good for: nothing.

Art is an expression of how we experience desire, loss, fear, anger, regret, wonder, loneliness. Art allows us to explore the maddening inconsistency of life lived in the face of our mortality. Art is what can console us. It can even bring us joy. And let’s be honest, it is not likely a spreadsheet will ever offer you that fleeting moment of reconciliation with what Grayson Perry referred to in his Reith lecture earlier this year as “a finite life with incomplete meanings.” In the words of the poet Czeslaw Milosz the purpose of art is to remind us “how difficult it is to remain just one person.”

Isn’t that enough? Why this preoccupation with what it is artists do or why they do what they do? The question of what the utility of art is might not be one that artists necessarily need to answer. Let me instead ask, why do we read out a poem at the wedding of a loved one? Why take a nephew to the Tate, or visit the theatre?

Art doesn’t make promises. It simply is. Artists need resources to make their art. We want to get back to work. It is time to give artists back the funding that was taken from them. Art has been around since at least the Ice Age. Isn’t it time we accept the deep-seated need to make art and the deep-seated need to have it in our lives?