Yesterday I argued that you should care about the arts because art is unavoidable—we can’t escape it, and the way we interact with art matters. In this post, I want to give another important reason for caring about the arts: The arts serve as a cultural barometer.
If you want to find out what’s going on in the world, you check a newspaper or turn on the tv news. If you want to find out what has happened in the past, you read a history book.
It’s true that newspapers and history books tell us about what has taken place. But the arts add an important dimension: They tell us how people feel about the events that occur. The news relays events, but the arts interpret those events.
Leland Ryken says:
“The media claim to tell us what is happening in our culture, but they are terribly superficial. They bombard us with facts but ignore the meaning of those facts. By contrast, the arts lay bare the inner movements of our own time” (The Liberated Imagination, 251).
The arts function as a cultural barometer. They tell us at a deep level what is going on in the thoughts, emotions, and lives of the people around us. Mankind has always used art as a means of dealing with existence. This is where people grapple with reality. So if you want to know what people care about, turn to the movies, songs, paintings, poems, and stories that they create:
“The arts are humankind’s most accurate record of their affirmations and denials, their longings and fears. The arts are a picture of the kind of world people aspire to create and of the fallen realities that keep thwarting those aspirations.” (Ryken, 265)
We can see human depravity in the images of warfare, murder, and scandal that flash across the tv news. But we get a sense of the frustration and fragmentation that this depravity causes when Radiohead sings, “How come I end up where I started? How come I end up where I went wrong? …You used to be all right, what happened? …One by one it comes to us all.”
Some would argue that you can understand humanity better by talking to biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists. There is much to be learned in each of these spheres, but we may have more to learn about human nature by watching Spielberg than by reading Freud:
“The arts deal with the same subjects (God, people, and nature) as the natural and social sciences do. But the arts differ from the sciences by focusing on the human response to those subjects. The arts express how the human race has felt about the facts of existence. Art is the record of people’s involvement with life. It deals not simply with the facts of life but with things as they matter to people.” (Ryken, 266)
So if you care about people—if your mission is focused on understanding and speaking into the lives of the people around you—then you should care about the arts.
In the next post, I’ll argue that the arts give us the opportunity to test God’s truth in the real world.