Friday, April 20, 2012

The Need for Art

One afternoon, a young woman sat in my office asking about art classes at the seminary. Trained as a lawyer, she told me that she had been working for a program that provides essential services—health care, legal aid, food, and shelter—to homeless people.  She said that she believed passionately in the work that she was doing, but that she came to realize that the most important part of the program was not filling these practical, immediate needs, but rather the art experiences that were also made available to the clients. Given paint, clay, or other materials, and the time and space to explore what they could do, the people became more than the sum of what they lacked. They remembered who they were at the deepest, most spiritual and honest level, and opened to the truth of their shared humanity. Now, my visitor told me, she wanted to learn to make art herself, to find out how to tell her own truth in visual art.

The need for art is not secondary, to be filled after people are adequately fed and housed, but rather a primary part of what it means to be human. Art is not only, or even primarily, about making one’s surroundings more attractive, or adding ornaments to an already satisfactory life. Art is an important pathway towards knowing oneself, of communicating that knowledge to others, and becoming an integral part of the human community.


  1. Thanks, Deborah, for reminding us of an important insight. Although far from new, it is one that is so easily forgotten. Somehow we want to limit the "essential" human needs to those that are purely physical. Art, along with other means of healing and growing the spirit, is often simply omitted.Saying "no' to that limited perspective needs doing often and loudly.

  2. It is unfortunate that in many school systems the art program is the first program to be cut when money is scarce. They are more reluctant to cut music and physical Ed departments, all though they are seen not as essential as academics. because they are important to school "spirit" (football games etc.)

  3. Yes, you are probably right. Also, it is harder to measure the kinds of learning that art really teaches -- things like persistence, attentiveness, and problem-solving -- all of which are important life skills that are not taught elsewhere in most school curricula.