Can Art Save the World?

Today I stumbled across the Quora thread Will Art Save the World? and spent some time reading over what I can only describe as a very telling comment thread. After reading it I was left pondering something I’ve often thought about– the very nature of art’s value to humanity. Why do some people value art so highly, while others can so easily dismiss it as ineffectual, pointless, and a waste of time/money?

What is it about art that can get people so heated up?  Is it the commercial art world boasting inflated sale prices (such as the $120 million The Scream, which generated more than a few screams of shock and horror at such a ridiculous price tag)? Is it the insider-y nature that can make people feel stupid or uneducated? Is it the concept of the artist idling away his time drinking wine and thinking deep thoughts while real citizens earn their living in a more decent way? I don’t know– all I know is that after spending countless hours slaving away on creative work that paid nearly nothing (and being honest with myself that nobody buys video/installation art, which is what I was making), making money as an artist seemed too hard for me, which is why I ended up mostly abandoning my studio practice and inserting myself into the museum world. Now that I have something of a mouthpiece to speak up about this, I feel like I need to defend the value of art/artists to society. As the divide between those who love art and those who don’t love art grows, we risk slipping into a scary bipartisan politicized territory, where you’re either with us or you’re against us. Can you imagine a future in which a majority of people could be “against” art? What would happen then?

Chris Johanson’s “World War Something”

One thing I’ve noticed thanks to working in museums is that it is very difficult to articulately speak about the value of art to the “uninitiated”– a word I use to describe those who don’t really care too much about art, i.e. someone who can visit a major city and not feel compelled to visit an art museum there (why bother?). I often find myself in situations wherein I’m verbally running around in circles, panting in frustration as conversants argue that a certain artist’s work is uninteresting or a waste of time/money to go look at. I see the motivations behind going to look at pretty much any type of art as so obvious that explaining why looking at/funding art feels like explaining why reading is important. Culture! Ideas! Inspiration! Doesn’t everybody want to collect all three?! How else will you learn to see the world through your own lens?

Me in front of LACMA’s “Levitated Mass,” one of the artworks I’ve had the most trouble defending the value of.

As the person whose job it is to monitor comments on The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Facebook, Twitter, and even Yelp (seriously, have you ever looked at some of the comments on modern/contemporary art museums there? Unbelievable!), I am constantly reminded that there will always be people to whom art is this ridiculous useless thing that “wastes money and contributes nothing.” In the art world, snap judgments are not uncommon– despite what artists say about their work over and over again, people will look at the art (it is a visual medium, isn’t it?) and usually decide what they think about it in a matter of seconds. Is there any other vein of culture in which uneducated snap judgments are so acceptable? It’d be like looking at presidential candidates in a line-up and deciding based on appearance who was fit to lead. Maybe this isn’t the best example (since unfortunately, some people do use this plan when deciding which political candidate to vote for), but the idea is there– how do we get people to spend some time learning about/thinking about art before they decide that it’s useless?

Since I’m really hopeful that at some point I’ll be able to speak articulately about the intrinsic value of art to humanity, I’ve taken the time to aggregate some of the best responses from the Quora thread I mentioned above, plus a few bonus thoughts. Now, as our aggravated political situation and dire financial situation have left most states’ art budgets slashed and bleeding, it’s important that all of us who really care about art start spending some time figuring out how to defend its merit, because goddamnit, I don’t know what else can save the world if art can’t. Feel free to add your own statements in defense of the value of art in the comments section below! Maybe we can all write up notecards and go make soap box speeches or something.

“Use what is dominant in a culture to change it quickly.” – Jenny Holzer

Statements in support of art as potential savior to humanity:


  • Humans make and consume art because doing so is part of what it means to be human. So, will it save the world? No. It is the world. It’s a permanent part of our world. – Marcus Geduld
  • Of course art can save the world.  What else could save the world?  A gun? An oil well?  A politician?  A soup kitchen?   None of these things can save the world if art is collectively set too far to the negative.  Art in society is the wine that’s created from the grapes we grow in our collective head. It influences and inspires our species and the direction it travels. – Don Ouchy
  • The most successful art in history tends to be the work that breaks the most molds and successfully challenges the norms. Great art makes us think and even greater art makes us act. It teaches us things that we weren’t able to see on our own and gives us unique perspective… Art is culture. Culture encompasses our values. If we even have the ability to save ourselves from our own fate, art can at least show us the ledge. – Asa Sherrill
  • …If you ever want to “change the world” go get some creatives. They are more productive than politicians and businessmen and they will be making a more important contribution. Guy Taylor
  • “The arts are an even better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market or the debates in congress.” – Hendrik Willem Van Loon – Jed Charles
  • The arts can be seen as a reflection of society, rather than driven by society.  This is a major reason why we study the history of the arts.  It’s an excellent way to understand the time period, by seeing what the artists were expressing. 
  • Art provides a structure for contemplation.
  • Looking at art can bring clarity to the future: contemplating a sculpture might make you think about how artist’s life affected her creative decisions. Reading a book from another region of the world might help you think about the meaning of democracy. Listening to a history course might help you to have a better understanding of the past, while at the same time giving you a clearer picture of what the future holds.

So, can art save the world?

Yes? No? How do you defend its value to humanity? Do you think this is all BS? Any answers provided in the comments section here will undoubtedly help in my crusade to speak articulately about why I freakin’ love art and look at it/think about it every damn day.


4 thoughts on “Can Art Save the World?”

  1. Maggie Negrete
     ·  Reply

    I remember reading an article in Wired probably back in 2005, but the sentiment it conveyed was simple and has shaped my thinking about art in our world ever since:

    When the robots take over, the only advantage humans will have is creativity. Program what you will into a robot: emotional response, basic problem solving, artificial intelligence whatever- how can anyone program divergent thinking? seriously?

    So, when the robots take over because they are more efficient and immortal- the only thing we’ll be able to leverage against them will be our creativity. Therefore:

    Salvation = Creativity

    What is the prime way to cultivate creativity? Art-making. Therefore:

    Art = Creativity

    By the power invested by the transitive property:

    Art = Salvation

    • Willa
       ·  Reply

      Maggie- great point. Creativity IS what sets us apart from robots, as well as other animals. The other thing that sets us apart is war– which could be what tears the human race down.

  2. James Keith
     ·  Reply

    Really interesting stuff here Willa.

    Another thing that separates us from robots and other animals is the unrelenting awareness of our own mortality. In a way, art is a reminder of just how alone we are in the world. This isn’t good or bad, but instead neutral, just in the same way that death is. The human brain is also distinctive from animals because of how highly we can value an idea. For instance, sharks will never go on hunger strikes, no matter how pissed off they get about inequality in the ocean. To humans, ideas can be more powerful than life itself.

    I think the eternal grappling with this difficult truth of our own mortality can manifest itself by allowing us to connect with ideas and beauty and pain in a very profound way. The making of any art is often an intensely isolating experience, where you have to shut yourself away and allow yourself to turn your deepest and most nebulous emotions into something tangible, but only after a very long struggle (and often with a lot of fear of being so exposed).

    So when you see or hear something that “speaks” to you, I think it is because you are connecting to the artist’s inner most thoughts and perceptions at the time they produced the work. Connecting with other humans on that level is such a rare and powerful event, it is obviously hard to put into the proper words (see me failing right now). But when it happens, it can remind you of how great life (and other humans) can be.

    That sort of connection can save the world, or at least make it seem less alone and scary, which seems worthwhile enough to me. However, I could just be getting all sappy.

  3. Hendrix Vargas
     ·  Reply

    Hi, i’m a freshman at a university here in the Philippines. I happen to cross upon your website when i felt this urge of trying to retrieve back what silly enthusiasm i had lost when i saw somewhere on the internet the same photo as the first one on top. Yes, i did felt demotivated and i couldn’t help myself how to deal with it. Being a student halfway the school year, i had experienced hard times whether i should still take on my engineering course or not. To be honest i was a bit of a stupid having no clear preparations of my life in college. After failing my chemistry subject, i thought about shifting to another course including my reason of how lame it is that i feel like not even getting a snap of some thrills about true engineering since mostly all of freshman subjects aren’t major ones. As how troubled about taking fine arts instead, i saw that thing i was mentioning which was kept in my mind of how nature is seemingly against me or whatnot. I always wanted myself instituted to art, i draw a lot during my vacant hours. I accept the fact that a few people might intend to response to art like that. I think it’s because it was the presence of some things in places like museums where it’s hard to believe whether this or that thing is a work of art worthing thousands. Yes, it requires thinking and seeing deeply through the work to be able to understand what lies in it and to tolerate appreciation, but sometimes i believe it’s almost impossible. I think of it oftentimes like how it had been with the restoration of the botched ecce it’s like remembering the story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”. And pretty much the first existence of humans we’ve seen how they represented something through drawings in cave walls, so how do we expect art to improve instead and be appreciatative to almost all by means of a child’s perspective to an artwork. However, like how you said things towards this, i’m grateful just how widely more enough should it take to cut the bonds i hold on to of how my devotion towards art and my love to it can be.

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