How Does Art Help?

Bridge over a pond of water lilies
Claude Monet

Discussions of art in The Philosophers Mail take a self-help approach, in the best sense of that term, toward the aesthetic. Art does matter, and people daily pay a high price for the dearth of quality art in their environment. Its well to have this loss pointed out, and a richer way of living suggested.

Six works of art that could help you live

How does art change us? Id say that life experience changes us, and that art provides life experience.

Thanks to Sophocles, for example, we dont need to wait for dramatic things to happen to us in life in order to gain the benefit of them. We can watch a tragic play and, through sympathy with the characters and situations, be changed in that way. We get some of the same benefit as if we had lived through the protagonists ourselves. When real life tests us later it finds us a bit readier, a bit better rehearsed. In this way art can help us grow up a little faster. We possess a greater maturity than we otherwise might have at a given moment, thanks to our richer experience.

Im wary, though, of putting too neat a label on the boon. Fine art, like most things we experience in life, is not utilitarian. Monet and Debussy didnt set to work with the goal of lifting my mood or teaching me tidy moral lessons the way a physician might prescribe a medicine. Fine art is no more utilitarian in its purpose than a natural disaster or a good friend is. These things just are. Still, when we experience art (and disasters, and friends) we do learn.

When we open ourselves to experience, when we allow the new to go into us, we may never be able to say in words all that this new content encompasses. But thats OK, says art. Some of our most profound realisations in life defy being put into words at all.

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