The Importance Of Art
What is a work of art?
It is merely a man-made thing – a shaped mass of stone or metal, a building, or a surface covered with paint. But how different it is from other man-made things, from those necessary but perishable objects of daily use, from the tools of work and war, and all the rest of the busywork of mankind! For thousands of years, men have made clothing, built houses and constructed machinery. What has become of this enormous production? It has served its purpose and perished.
Consider, for example, the case of Egypt which existed as a powerful and productive state for Z, 500 years, far longer than any of the nations now in existence. Today, only ruins and scattered remnants of this great culture remain. Some of these are interesting documents of life in ancient times. But Egyptian taxation, sanitation or carpentry are of deep interest only to specialists, while the art of Egypt still has the power to move and to instruct us. There are, to be sure, profound lessons to be learned from the Egyptian experience as recorded in the religious creeds, the philosophies, the laws and political institutions of ancient Egypt. But nowhere is this experience expressed more vividly, more completely and more beautifully than in art. In its art, something of Egypt’s long-dead civilization has survived and still speaks to us.
For art has a power which other works of man do not have. It preserves life, so to speak, and transmits vital thoughts and feelings from one era to the next. The great permanence of art is not a matter of physical durability: many works of art are very fragile indeed. Its permanence is, rather, the result of care. Deliberately or instinctively, men have sought to preserve art from destruction, compelled by their admiration (and sometimes fear) of its powerful life. An astonishingly large amount of art has survived the endless wars, revolutions and migrations of nations which have swept away nearly all other works of man. The Greeks respected something in the art of Egypt, though they had little respect for the Egyptians; the Romans admired the art of the Greeks whom they had conquered; the early Christians borrowed much from pagan art, while they ruthlessly destroyed pagan religion. Today, we are linked through art with the cultures of remote periods. Some of the feelings which inspired the Greek sculptor of 2000 years ago reawaken in us as we look at his work. Through art we can share the emotions and the wisdom of other times and other cultures. Art, in short, is the most durable and the most profound record of man, a grand diary in which age after age has summed up its experience of life.