+ By William Fletcher Rowel + Photos by Joe Heimbach

Life, noun:

the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death

an artist’s subject

Art, noun:

the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance

Art is alive.

photo-by-Joe-HeimbachIt is often said that art is, in fact, life. Italian film director Federico Fellini once said, “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” And what is a life but a collection of accumulated experiences—a dynamic series of individual and collective histories that give body to thin threads of existence that, when woven together, make us uniquely who we are. Which then become the verifiable fabric of the lives we lead, thereby reaffirming our power to create. Much like life, art does not need to always be beautiful; it needs only to provoke thought in the mind of the beholder. Art can be defined as the embodied power to assign meaning based on our own experiences. For example, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are distinguished from actual Brillo boxes and invites this very conversation. This aspect of aesthetic indulgence can be called “metaphysical,” since it arises from the fundamental relation between humans and the world. According to existential theory, there are no real differences between metaphysical inquiry and artistic practice; both are ways of revealing to humans their own freedoms and responsibilities.

But how do we grab hold of, acknowledge, and feel the rich tapestry of these accumulated experiences? How do we intentionally experience the experience of living, as both the beholder and the beholden?

Through love, relationships, history, science fiction, religion, culture, family, food, stories, books, music, yoga, meditation, prayer, friendship, and much more.

The awareness of our experiences gives rise to the integration of mind, body, and spirit. We can intentionally relive the observation and impact of events through art, deliberately experiencing them. Through experiencing, we begin to mindfully negotiate our separateness and our desire to connect with others.

Art can foster cognitive development.

Research indicates that children who experience sustained involvement in the arts are more likely as adults to initiate successful companies, publish important articles, and patent new inventions. They exercise and develop higher order thinking skills, including analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and “problem finding.” Research suggests that arts programs can serve as vehicles for deeper learning and build on the possibilities presented by arts-integrated instruction. For preschool children, art helps them practice and gain fine muscle control and strengthen eye-hand motor coordination. By holding paintbrushes and learning how to control paints, crayons, scissors, and other art tools, they gain the skills necessary for later writing activities, as well as a feeling of control over themselves and their world.

Art can heal.

Art can be beneficial for mental health. There are two dimensions to this. Art can be a healing force for people with mental disorders, including dementia, and can contribute to the psychological well-being of people, regardless of their mental states. Studies show that people who attend arts activities are significantly healthier, have lower anxiety, and are less subject to depression. Learning to slow down and look closely and mindfully at an object of art (whether static or animated) can help to open up the mind and imagination—therapeutic in an informal way. It doesn’t matter whether a person looks at the work just for its subject matter, or observes it for its formal properties (composition, form, tone, color). What matters is that the observer is receptive to the possibility of an unexpected and exciting response that could take him or her in a different direction or farther in the same direction aesthetically, intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually.

Art can be a protest against the threat of oral tradition’s extinction.

DSC_6030eThe spoken relationship and preservation, from one generation to the next, of a people’s cultural history and ancestry, often by means of artistic expression, is relevant and important. Artists translate and tell these stories. Art is a language that all people speak. It cuts across racial, cultural, social, educational, and economic barriers, and enhances cultural appreciation and awareness. It can weave a story and spark imagination to the point of spiritual transcendence. In Buddhism, it can bring to life the story of Maitreya. In Christianity, we can see the teachings of Jesus Christ. Art can be unearthed in the beauty and strength of the oral history of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, the Messiah of the Rastafari movement, commonly referred to as “The Conquering Lion of Judah.” Through the Hindu narrative of Krishna we can imagine an epic fight with an apocalyptic snake to achieve the final victory over evil on earth. In Kurt Cobain’s murmurings, we can nearly experience the sublime emotions of teenage angst. Michael Jackson croons a deceitful account of Billie Jean, and we can be moved, physically and emotionally. A Jackson Pollack canvas can simply blow our minds against the wall or calm the senses just enough so we appreciate what’s beneath the violent splashes of pigment. A poem can transport us to hear, see, and feel the melodious ping of sailboats bobbing in the bay, a seagull riding the wind, the setting of the sun.

Art can help us establish a profound sense of place.

Lebanese poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran wrote, “The eye of a human being is a microscope, which makes the world seem bigger than it really is.” In this vast world, with so much space in between things, art empowers us to focus on what it means to be precisely where we are. It has the influence to provoke thought and permit recollection, correlation, and imagination when viewed through the lens of what we experience here on Earth and what we can concoct within the infinite universe of our ever-expanding minds. What distinguishes the artist from others is the consistency and coherence of a specific outlook onto the world from a unique vantage point. Such coherent perspective introduces an element of regularity and structure in the chaos of a big world. It introduces directions: a high and a low, a right and a left. That is, it introduces an awareness of place.

Art provides proof and an account of our existence.

An alien craft arrives on earth and proposes to eliminate humanity unless we can offer a justification for our existence. Art is that justification. We could offer these beings artifacts, such as a Picasso, a Scott Joplin rag, a Mamet play, an Aztec chacmool, an ancient Egyptian papyrus, or a photograph of our grandmother sitting on the couch. This is why art is important; it negotiates values between the world and individuals universally.

Art is both antiquity and destination. It serves as an indicator of where we’ve gone and of where we’re going. A demarcation of the events and emotions we’ve navigated to arrive here, and a proverbial compass, pointing in directions we’ve yet to explore. Art can facilitate an understanding of where we are, independently in relation to others, and conversely so. By opening up a veritable toolbox we can tinker with a complex and hectic world, endlessly reshaping our human experience. Art is the here and the now, but it is also the prologue, epilogue, and sequel, providing an undeniable account of life by uniquely focusing our attention on the ultimate concerns of human existence.

Art matters because we are alive. And sometimes we need proof of that.