In defense of learning art

In the Republic Socrates argued for teaching gymnastics, mathematics, and music (in their more expansive sense) to young people in order to build up certain powers of soul in them. He sees three fundamental powers of soul in the human person — the noetic (reasoning), the spirited (honorable, courageous), and the desiring.  The just soul is ordered something like an aristocracy with a philosopher-king; the reasoning part rules and informs the spirited, while both inform and control the desiring part of the soul and fix as its proper object justice, wisdom, and honor. The church fathers saw a similar triadic (trinitarian?) order to the soul, with the noetic, desiring, and the incensive powers. So Socrates reasons that it would be good for young people to learn mathematics (geometry and astronomy), to train their noetic powers toward abstract reasoning and intellectual perception of necessary order; they should engage in gymnastics in order to train their spirited power toward courage and obedience; they should study music to temper their hotheadedness, but carefully, only certain kinds in certain modes, an none of the myths that show the gods as monstrous or the tragic poets.

I like Socrates’ reasoning because it’s not strictly pragmatic. A student doesn’t so much learn mathematics because he might become an engineer, as because it turns the soul toward immaterial order. Of course, it supposes a lot that’s still in question, such as the hierarchy of immaterial order and forms over material pleasures. If one were to disagree, then the reasons for taking mathematics might be quite different or nonexistent. There would be a fundamental philosophical disagreement there, and even if both trains of thought led to the same station (mathematics), they would go by very different routs and likely emphasize widely different aspects of the discipline.

I run up against that contradiction whenever I want to write on educational philosophy, or explain why something is worth teaching. There’s one answer that is hidden, mystical, and which I cannot articulate very properly, and another non-controversial answer. Or, if it is a bit controversial, the ground rules at least are known and mostly accepted. It could be argued on two or three different grounds, each of which a large portion of the population will find acceptable. There’s a pragmatic argument: one should learn art because many forms of work call for some art or design at some point, like architectural or biological sketches, web designs, posters, flyers, etc. It would reflect poorly on you and your company for these to be ugly or tacky. There’s the academic argument: studies have shown that art boosts skills like observation in other classes as well, so you’ll make a better showing on that science fair project if it’s attractive and includes your own illustrations. There’s the “critical thinking skills” argument, or, alternately, that art boosts creativity. I find those last two the weakest of the lot, because I hardly know what critical thinking skills or creativity are, and have no way of convincing anyone to use either in their art.

Jacques Barzun points out, rightly I think, that educational experts are given to “verbal inflation,” wherein we take something ordinary and good, like drawing, and divide it into all sorts of hyperbolic and exotic “skills.” Even from Plato I can only gain with any certainty what he says, and can only infer how and why he reasons it; what secret skills and processes produce it.

That is, of course, terribly inconvenient for educational philosophy. It’s possible to train a student in geometry: it’s not possible to anticipate with any certainty whether the geometry will turn his soul to immaterial forms. It’s not possible to tell in which cases he’s going to go contrary to your intent. It’s not possible to know how it will change not only what, but how he thinks. Psychology and neurology can give statistics — odds — of what it may do. But nobody really likes teaching by the odds. Odds are flawed because a person is not random, but rather complex. Using odds on people is seeing them always from the outside, as objects, like cards or dice.

But I had meant to defend teaching art in school. Socrates had warned me away from defending it as a utilitarian, and Barzun warned against hyperbolic claims of its transcendent purpose. My own reason recommends against hauling in statistics to save my argument. It’s in danger of failing before it has even begun. I don’t know that I can make an argument at all from the outside. That is, I don’t know that I can write in favor of using the power of the state to force art upon unwilling subjects.

I might, however, suggest why you ought to learn some art, even if you are “no good at art;” even if you “won’t need it.” You ought to learn visual art and draw a bit for the same reason you ought to learn about music and poetry and dance. You ought to learn art because you don’t need it. And it shows something true about the nature of reality that the world is so very full of things that are beautiful and unnecessary. You should learn to make art as a stand against necessity: to insist that this flower is not only a way for a certain sequence of genetic material to reproduce itself. This sunset is not only a certain combination of particles and waves traveling through polluted atmospheric moisture. Love is most certainly not only a certain state of brain activity for the purpose of continuing the species. Churches should have beautiful vestments and icons and candles because salvation is not simply a transaction of guilt and payment. Art was never necessary, but that is especially obvious in the modern world, saturated with digital images. If painting were to simply represent things that another had not yet seen (which itself is not entirely necessary), it is outdated and obsolete. But it wasn’t and isn’t primarily about showing the world as it is, but as we are, and no camera can show that.

You should learn art, and should not necessarily try to sell it. You should not worry too much how this will make you a better worker to show that there is so much more to being human than the small tight circle of work and obligation and utility. Because, as Aristotle suggests in his Ethics, it is not so much that happiness is for some practical purpose, as that without a certain sense of physical stability and well being it is very difficult to be happiness. Utilitarian concerns are, then, for happiness. Art is also for happiness, and needn’t go through utility to get there. And happiness? What is that for? Gratitude and love of God… which is for communion with God, which is its own good; the telos of the human person.

So learn art. Because it’s not necessary; it may not even be useful or helpful. Because it may be entirely useless. But because, in its uselessness, it is joyful and opens a way of exploring what it is to be human and to love things that are beautiful and useless. Dance, and don’t worry about whether you will ever perform for an audience. Sing, and don’t try to be a singer who charges people to hear. Learn art, and marvel at how we are always adorning our objects with grace and beauty beyond what is needed for their function, as God does us, and the plants and animals and earth.


One thought on “In defense of learning art

  1. when you say “you should learn to make art as a stand against necessity” that resonates with my feelings about learning art. Art still must have value even if it does not have necessity but I think that is the point you are trying to make. To me art is a connection to that fundamentally human part of you that is there even when you are a child and you play with animal crackers.

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