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Why We Need Art

"The modern world tends towards unanimous agreement that art is extremely important, something close to the meaning of life. The trappings of this elevated regard include considerable state and private resources devoted to its funding, countless individual sacrifices made in its name and a vast amount of attention accorded it in public and private life.

Despite this esteem, the reasons behinds art's special status tend to be assumed rather than explicitly explained. Its value is taken to be a matter of common sense. To ask why we should bother to read books, listen to music or admire paintings is to risk sounding either impudent or pedantically stuck on one of those questions to which all clever people seem to have secured satisfying answers long ago.

Yet it should be possible to describe the latest film as a 'must-see' or a new book as a 'masterpiece' in the absence of a well-reasoned thesis--and one, moreover, somewhere clearly articulated--about the purpose of art.

One possible theory runs like this: art (which here is taken to include literature, music, film, theatre and the visual arts) is a therapeutic medium that helps to guide, exhort and console its audiences, assisting them in evolving into better versions of themselves.

Art is a tool to help us with a number of psychological frailties which we would otherwise have trouble handling: our inability to understand ourselves, to laugh sagely at our faults, to empathize with and forgive others, to accept the inevitability of suffering without falling prey to a sense of persecution, to remain tolerably hopeful, to appreciate the beauty of the everyday and to prepare adequately for death.

In relation to such flaws and many others, art delivers its healing powers, offering us, for example, a poetry book that delineates an emotion we had long felt but never understood, a comedy that shakes us from self-righteous indignation, an album that gives us a soundtrack of hope, a play that turns horror into tragedy, a film that charts a saner path through the difficulties of love or a painting that invites us to a more gracious acceptance of age and disease."

Excerpted from The News: A User's Manual, Vintage, 2014

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