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Can we Rationally Justify the Arts?

January 28, 2011

Can we Rationally Justify the Arts?


In a word: no.


I could mince words and pour our great quotes from scholars but in the end they will all rely upon the same three words: ‘In my opinion’.


We live in a serious world where life constantly hangs in the balance. You turn on the television to see murders and war. All kinds of human misery invade the tranquility of our existence. There is the threat of the worst drought on record and the planet is apparently dying. So how can any human waste time producing items of folly like art, music and dance. Does the starving child in Sudan need to hear a new sonnet from a rising intellectual? Do victims of a bomb blast care about the latest ballet as they stare at the amputated limbs? Do the people who have lost all their possessions want to see a tour of Picasso sketches? In a choice between food, shelter, clothing and the fine arts wouldn’t everyone choose their immediate needs?


This condemnation can be made from a rationalist viewpoint but it can also be made of any other human folly and emotional enjoyment. Love is not rational but it is essential. Pleasure is not rational but it can be equally essential.


If we try to imagine a world where there is no art, no human pleasure or no emotional joys we are presented with a world in which we do not want to exist. The achievements of humanity could put down to conquests against enemies or against nature. We can defeat an invading army to protect our people; we can push back nature to build cities for populations to live in. We can function efficiently and logically for a better chance at surviving against a hostile world. We can do all these things but for what purpose?


Eventually the obvious question begs to be asked. What is the purpose of something that merely functions efficiently? A machine can do as much. Are we just machines in biological clothing? Are throbbing hearts just well designed bilge pumps? Are our brains programmed to calculate and compute our chances of survival from moment to moment? Do we exist merely to exist? A clock measures how long it takes for its spring is run down, so is our heartbeat measuring how long before our life runs out? To say that we exist to improve the chances of the survival of our species is to say that we exist only to ensure our existence. It is a circular argument that justifies nothing. Just as logical is to say that we don’t exist to ensure that our species does not survive. The argument is logical because the justification for human existence was not logically defended.


Justification of the existence of humanity requires an understanding of what has been done since we have been on this planet. History records two major issues: cataclysms and achievements. Wars and natural disaster fall on the cataclysmic side; whereas inventions and the arts fall on the achievement side. If you stand upon the ruins of any ancient civilization you will see how the two forces of cataclysm and achievement have come into play. What is left is the remnants of a once great city now destroyed by: wars, famine, economic problems etc. What survived were the decorations, painted pottery fragments, religious icons of that society. It is the inspiration that made the people of that time more than just a functioning machine. Once the basics of survival are covered then there is desire to find comfort and pleasures as reward for effort. There is even a strong desire to find beauty.


The oldest paintings found in caves show hands stenciled on the walls. It is a time capsule of people that once were, telling the future that they did not just exist like a functioning machine; they lived to find something worth surviving for. Even the modern world that has given so much attention to economics and work focuses upon the rewards for this effort. Why work harder if the only reward is to work even harder? Why work at all if the only reward is pointless self survival? Why be a machine that functions but does not know why? The fight for survival for is based upon one thing and that thing is hope. A great work of art even, if it depicts a horrid moment as Picasso’s Guernica, does inspire hope that this disaster can be avoided in the future. A reflective piece of music like ‘The Moonlight Sonata’ by Beethoven offers hope in the form beauty. A message may not be clear in the art but the enjoyment of its consumption is a truly human pleasure. Even sad songs can make people feel good as they offer the hope that someone else can understand their pain and torment.


Color and sound surround us in nature and through the arts they can be transformed into a record of why we want to survive. We have the arts as ‘the witness for the defense’ of the human race. Against all the terrible things that human’s have done the creation of beauty and hope is our restitution and restoration. If our civilization one day falls and crumbles to ruins what will future explorers find? What will be left of any value? The wars we fought are long gone and so too have the reasons for the war. Our cities are all reduced to rubble. All that is left and all that is worthy are the remnants of the arts we produced. Will the historians say here are the ruins of Western Culture and Civilization a machine that has no more value? Or will they see the arts, music and hopes of a people that we are poorer to be without? Did we offer hope and inspiration to the future?


There is no logic in anything that I have written to defend the arts, just as there is no logic in defending our own survival. Few people would choose to have their life reduced down to being a machine. Many people want to be much more. Many people see the value in something that has no rational value. They see the value of the arts as part of the essence of living. The arts are not limited to objective needs they are subjective desires. The art are what makes us who we are. The arts tell the future that we were more than just empty soulless machines counting our heartbeats until our lives run out.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2011 3:21 am

    I think since you like Picasso, you might like reading my blog, on Leonardo and Picasso: Artists of Their Times:

    Thanks for sharing!


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