Why the arts matter.
July 15, 2013 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I would like to read all of the best things about why the arts -- and in particular literature -- Matter(s).

Online resources are great, but I'm also willing to go dead tree if there's longer, more in-depth stuff out there that's worth the investment.

Best results will argue why the arts Matter intrinsically, anthropologically, humanistically, or, to put a fine point on it, secularly. Anything with a religious or spiritual bent really won't fit the bill.

Also I think it might be worth mentioning that I am not looking to read the counterargument (that art doesn't Matter) unless said counterargument is swiftly and thoroughly destroyed in a crushing rhetorical storm.


(capital M sic, yo)
posted by davidjmcgee to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities is a good place to start.
posted by BrandonW at 12:53 PM on July 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great question. I'd like to hear what people come up with for more recent stuff but here are some of my hoary go-tos on this topic:

Nietzsche - Music and Words
Robert Pinsky -- Democracy, Culture and the Life of Poetry
Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (expanding on Jung's more abstract thoughts)
Montaigne - That to Study Philosophy is To Learn To Die

Also, I'd say, no argument could be better than this.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:56 PM on July 15, 2013

I've always loved How to Read a Poem, which is as much why as how.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:59 PM on July 15, 2013

Bear with me for the ensuing pedantry.

Anything with a religious or spiritual bent really won't fit the bill.

Spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, breath. Literature is an embodiment that emanates from the corporeal form of our expression of words, namely, speech. Literature is merely embodied differently, through an implement or implements that we have decided, societally, is/are "literature". Literature in oral societies also exists, although they do not necessarily call it "literature", though to make things more complex, those societies that gain what we in the Western world call "literature" (written), also call their oral literature, "literature", but in any case, they do indeed have important stories that are carried through the ages. To put the fine, pedantic point on it: the spoken word is spiritus embodied, that is to say, your breath passing through your vocal chords and becoming a finite, unique expression that is intimately (necessarily) linked with your very being. Any sound operates on the same principle: matter is acted upon in order to accelerate the air around it in patterns: sound waves. Writing, painting, and music (except song) are all one step further removed from "breath" than speech or song, and yet require our breath, our very existence, spiritus, as a fundamental preexisting condition for them to come into being.

As such, there is no such thing as a literature that has no spiritual bent. I know what you're getting at, from our Western societal perspective, when you say "spiritual", but the fact of the matter is, art is spirit embodied. In French, the correlation is even clearer: esprit, also from the Latin spiritus, refers to the mind. Spirituality has not always been a synonym for "woo", just as "mythology" has not always been a synonym for "fake stories of gods and goddesses that are only somewhat more serious than fairy tales".

And that is precisely why the arts matter. Anything you interpret will be why literature matters. Any art that you study will be why art matters. Any music you listen to and get to know better will be why music matters.

To be even more straightforward: art and literature matter because you are writing this. Our current society degrades the humanities, for sundry reasons, many of which have come and gone throughout humanity's existence. Yet all it takes is to sit with yourself, look around you, and recognize that art is everywhere. It is in the architecture of your home. It is in the design of your automobile, or your city bus, or your metro/subway, or the font you are now reading defined by the CSS and HTML and other code written by designers. It is everywhere. Looking to others to describe why it matters, is missing a great deal of the point (though not all of it!); it is continuing to ascribe privilege of definition to outside authorities. A balance needs to be had, because art cannot be created or fully understood without the individual first recognizing that they, too, are capable of art, by their very existence. And that as such, all art "matters". It can matter destructively, it can matter constructively, it can matter boringly, it can matter interestingly, it can matter with great depth and meaning thanks to years of study, it can matter as a fleeting sensation; et cetera ad infinitum.
posted by fraula at 1:03 PM on July 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you're at all interested in info on the economic impact of the arts, the Cultural Data Project does a lot of research and advocacy on this.
posted by duffell at 1:10 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

To add to Fraula's point, a quote about Steve Jobs vision: "the design of a product, the art of it, is just as important as the engineering"
posted by Sophont at 1:12 PM on July 15, 2013

A Defence of Poetry by Shelley, in which is found his claim that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" (from which Christopher Hitchens derived the title of his collection of essays about "writers in the public sphere".)
posted by seemoreglass at 1:20 PM on July 15, 2013

Here are a few of the many articles I've seen in the past few years discussing studies showing that reading fiction increases empathy, improves interpersonal skills and generally makes life's difficulties easier to cope with.
posted by Corvid at 1:24 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

So many works of art are about this question. This poem by Heather McHugh is one of the most understated and truest.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:27 PM on July 15, 2013

Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley are two psychologists who have done research into the links between reading fiction and developing empathy. The Mar Lab at York University has many articles available in PDF. I recommend "The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience" as a starting point.

On preview: this is some of the research cited in Corvid's articles.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:28 PM on July 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think Jeanette Winterson's recent autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, makes an excellent argument for the importance of literature, by vividly evoking how it served as a life-raft for a young woman in dire straits (who would then go on to make great literature of her own). Worth the dead-tree investment for many other reasons, too.
posted by Paris Elk at 1:35 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed this recent essay by Simon Gikandi, the editor of PMLA.

"This Thing Called Literature, What Work Does It Do?"

posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:01 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check out Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia in the novel.

Also, check out Marxist writers like Brecht, who didn't necessarily believe "the Arts" as a category "mattered" (which is a sort of anodyne bourgeois sentiment), but certainly believed that specific kinds of theatre could have a transformative effect on audiences. The same goes for many modernist writers with a strong belief their own particular manifesto for making art could change the world, highlight social injustice, waken the proletariat from their slumbers, etc.

In a similar vein, Adorno's defence of avant-garde art as a bulwark against trashy pop culture.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:54 PM on July 15, 2013

Just about anything written by existentialist philosopher Maxine Greene would help. She links the importance of the arts, particularly literature, to democracy.
posted by quixotictic at 4:01 PM on July 15, 2013

Nthing Nussbaum's work, and in particular the essay mentioned in the first reply.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 3:34 AM on July 16, 2013

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