Justifying Art for Art’s Sake


For many years, I have struggled to find ways of conveying the meaning of art and its importance. I had come to believe that when critics and teachers talk about art they primarily only talk about what we see on the surface, the formal issues of design, composition, materials, technique, and craftsmanship. In my quest to develop significant ways to justify art, I wanted to go further to the invisible and emotional aspects of creative work. This society badly needs art, and I feel we must find ways of understanding why art is so important to our entire culture if we ever expect it to become a healing and nurturing force in our lives.

6 Minute Read

This article was originally posted on Userblogs on 6/21/2016.
By J. Fred WoellMore from this author

For many years, I have struggled to find ways of conveying the meaning of art and its importance. I had come to believe that when critics and teachers talk about art they primarily only talk about what we see on the surface, the formal issues of design, composition, materials, technique, and craftsmanship.

In my quest to develop significant ways to justify art, I wanted to go further to the invisible and emotional aspects of creative work. This society badly needs art, and I feel we must find ways of understanding why art is so important to our entire culture if we ever expect it to become a healing and nurturing force in our lives.

This nation is in its early adolescence in terms of cultural development. Our government is more focused on force than peace, justice, and the arts. A powerful example is our invasion of Iraq . Was there any real concern for the culture and arts of that country when we invaded it? When was the last time you heard a President of the United States mention the arts in his State of the Union address? How much does art really exist in our communities on a daily basis? Where in the U.S. Constitution do you find words that endow upon every man, woman and child the ""right to arts"" to insure their health and welfare in a just and free society? We who have been educated in colleges and universities over the past 50 years have no idea how to promote this aspect of the arts, because our education didn't include any study of the significance of art to the health of society and culture. We have not learned ways of expressing how important the arts are to nurturing and sensitizing us to humanity.

Democracy Speaks Brooch
J. Fred woell, Democracy Speaks (brooch) 2003
Mixed media: wood, copper, brass, steel, nickel. paper, plastic
2 1/4 x 3 x 3/8″"

Art always seems to play second or third or fourth fiddle to everything else. Art is the last thing considered in the list of basic essentials that include food, clothing, and shelter; reading, writing and arithmetic. Accordingly, artists in this country are second-class citizens. We are losing the struggle to integrate ail into the fabric of our society because we have yet to find the way of presenting a convincing case. If Pepsi and Coke can sell millions of bottles of their worthless products, then there certainly must be away to sell people on the necessity of art. Art improves people's ability to be educated to live healthier emotional lives, to feel self-esteem, and as a result to be physically healthier and happier human beings.

So how can art improve our lives? Let me begin with risk taking We have come to define risks as financial gambles, or physical daring. According to David Viscott in his book Risking, however, we face others that are even more challenging. One of these is introspection: the time you take to be alone, really alone with yourself. It is at these moments, he explains, that we come to our greatest growth and our deepest realizations It is at these moments, apart from the influences of others, that we can truly be who we are, truly find freedom and experience democracy.

We are a society dependent on group activity. We think group learning is the most efficient and economical way to educate. The end result is that we become dependent on everything external to keep us stable and running. The thought of not having someone else filling up our day with activities is troubling. It is in some ways emotionally traumatic and even deeply depressing. However, without stepping out alone and risking introspection, being alone, we cannot create.

Another great problem of this culture is that failure is unacceptable. Success is everything. We artists, Viscott explains, are able to take risks, because we know failure. We fail constantly in our efforts to create our art. We understand that failure is important in order to ultimately succeed. More important, we accept that it is a major and necessary part of the process. This is part of our strength and our great contribution to society.

It is time to wake up to the fact that what we create contributes to our emotional health through our senses of sight, sound, and touch. All art (music, dance, fine arts, crafts, photography poetry, and literature) is food for these senses. The arts make the world we live in visually stimulating and exciting. The arts connect us to ourselves and to nature It is a critical lifeline between each of us that reaches across cultural boundaries and the advancing time clock we know as history. How little we would know about home sapiens without art.

I remember a story about an incident in the life of the famous Japanese potter Hamada. Apparently, visitors to his home noticed it was full of pottery. Not just his own, but a huge collection of pottery of other potters. The guests were amazed to see so much pottery and asked him why he had so much of it. His reply was: 'This is my food"" Think about that Art as food' Food for the human spirit. Food that lifts the mind to levels of introspection. Food that nourishes our emotional needs and basic senses: things that are invisibly Visible.

We all know that without the senses of sound, sight, and touch life would be much less rich and meaningful. What enriches these human senses more than any other thing are the arts. Yet, look at how low on the totem pole the arts rank in the lives of the general public in this society. How many people start their day with a cup of coffee out of a paper or Styrofoam cup compared to a handmade original ceramic cup? Yes, the Styrofoam cup may keep the coffee warm longer, but the handmade ceramic cup has a warmth of texture, form, intimacy, character, and spirit that is lacking in the disposable cups. The mere holding of a handmade object communicates an important message to ones' senses, a message that is missed by a majority of the public every day. The lack of original art in the lives of every man and woman is a significant problem. The arts nourish us and give us the necessities that nothing else can. It is important that we acknowledge this and find ways to communicate this to others.

Supporting the arts based upon the invisible nourishment they provide is certainly a challenge. It's hard for people to understand that the real significance of art is invisible. This is also our problem. We artists fail to convey the significance of the arts to others in a way they can understand. We need to take another approach. To get art into the mainstream of our society, we need to prove how necessary art is to our daily lives, our schools, and in our communities. We must get a vast majority of our society involved. Art should be seen and felt in everyone's homes, in the town squares, on buildings, in offices, in schools, in restaurants, in banks-not just In a few public buildings. I am tired of seeing ""art"" memorials that commemorate war and military actions with statues of men holding guns or riding horses. I want to see women holding children, people showing passion for others, as well as abstract art and sculpture giving color, form, texture, and life to our public environments!

The composer John Cage learned from one of his students (a woman from India ) that the purpose of music was ""to sober and quiet the mind, rendering it susceptible to divine influences."" He believed what we do opens us to life itself. It is our mission as artists to understand the importance of this feeding of our emotional side, the inside of art. The steps we take in this direction will certainly enrich our lives and will make art and life the same… or as John Cage has said: ""wake up the very life we are living.""

By J. Fred Woell [Metalsmith Magazine – Fall 2004]
J. Fred Woell is a metalsmith, sculptor, PMC Guild Instructor, and author who lives on Deer Isle, Maine.
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

You assume all responsibility and risk for the use of the safety resources available on or through this web page. The International Gem Society LLC does not assume any liability for the materials, information and opinions provided on, or available through, this web page. No advice or information provided by this website shall create any warranty. Reliance on such advice, information or the content of this web page is solely at your own risk, including without limitation any safety guidelines, resources or precautions, or any other information related to safety that may be available on or through this web page. The International Gem Society LLC disclaims any liability for injury, death or damages resulting from the use thereof.


J. Fred Woell

The All-In-One Jewelry Making Solution At Your Fingertips

When you join the Ganoksin community, you get the tools you need to take your work to the next level.

Become a Member

Trusted Jewelry Making Information & Techniques

Sign up to receive the latest articles, techniques, and inspirations with our free newsletter.