First, What IS Art?
I’m thrilled you’re diving into the inquiry of why art is important! Before we answer that question, however, it is essential to define a key term: what does “art” even mean?
“Art” can be defined as anything made by human creativity and skill for the purpose of expressing or eliciting emotional response through beauty or imagination. Though art CAN be functional, its primary purpose is impact. See more definitions of “art” here, here, and (very complexly, with the help of Plato and Stanford) here.
Visual art can be a mural on a city building, a famed sculpture in a museum, a photo snapped with a smartphone, or a scribbled crayon drawing by a child. It can also be eccentric fashion, makeup design, flower arranging, architecture, interior design, and crochet.
When we expand beyond visual art, we see art pop up as music, dramatic plays, dance, TV or movies, and offbeat street performances. Art is written poetry and prose, casually uttered similes and metaphors, and flavor combinations or plating of food. It is calligraphy, landscape design, and woodwork. Art is everywhere — and sometimes it’s even accidental!
So where do we draw the line about what is and isn’t art? In short: Your heart will know what is art... and what YOU see as art may not be match with what others see — but you both can be right. The key to what makes something art are two elements: creativity, and emotional impact.
The Importance of Public Art
Now that we’ve defined art, let’s examine: why is art important? A clear example to start with is public art in cities. If you’ve ever walked through a drab city with boring architecture and gray walls — then suddenly turned a corner to see a rainbow-colored mural, you already know why public art is so important: that mural makes you catch a joyful breath and remember the beauty in life!
Public art wakes us up from the boredom of everyday functionality. Bright colors on external walls of buildings (like these in Willemstad, Curaçao) remind us of how vibrant the world is and make us smile. For gorgeous examples of public murals in my hometown of Boston, check out the murals of ProBlak and Marka27.
As a reminder that street art is just as impactful and important as framed “masterpiece” paintings, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is partnering with ProBlak to create a stunning mural on the outer wall of Madison Park High School. Being around art has a distinct impact on one’s mood, and every student who walks through the doors of that school will now get the mural’s magic.
Art Helps Us Understand Where We Are
At the intersection of public art and marketing sit artistic installations that help people comprehend the history and spirit of a place. A beautiful example of this was the “Year of the Dog” interactive sculpture in Boston’s Chinatown created by my college classmate, the phenomenal Risa Puno.
With this sculpture, visitors could turn blocks to create poetic stories using English and Chinese words. This installation helped people better understand the history and context of that neighborhood of Boston, and to feel connected as they reached out and touched the words.
In addition to helping locate us in space, public art can locate us in time, charting out new paths for movements, and encouraging progress, foreshadowing a better future. Artist Kehinde Wiley is brilliant at this, juxtaposing old Eurocentric images with dynamic new ones featuring African-American men. His statue, “Rumors of War,” is a perfect example of this, reimagining a Confederate soldier atop his horse as a powerful young Black man with dreadlocks.
Why Is Looking At Art Important?
Why is it beneficial to feast your eyes (or ears) on art? Why do people pay high ticket prices for museums, concerts, and performances? Why do humans drive or fly for hours to see the visual beauty of a famous building? Emotional impact and an expansion of what’s possible.
The Emotional Impact of Art
When many of us look at or listen to art, we do it because we want to FEEL something. We want to experience awe while gazing at the Taj Mahal, sob as we sing along to Hamilton, or have our breath taken away by “The Thinker.”
We want to feel the calm happiness of standing in the middle of a pastel rainbow row of buildings like the famous ones in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, or experience the longing of watching a ballerina’s muscular leap into the air. Art is important to society because it elicits emotions in a way that’s both safe and cleansing. It feels a lot better to read about a painful apology in a cartoon than do it in real life!
Art Expands What is Possible
When gazing at a painting by Frida Kahlo, for example, or reading the young adult fiction of Jason Reynolds, we can step outside of our normal lives to frolic with animals, see inside the brain of someone of a totally different background, or even fly into the air. An essential purpose of art is to make us reexamine our world from fresh perspectives.
A great example of this is the Boston performance artist, Tory Bullock. He uses humor, film, and interactive installations to highlight important truths about our city and country to spur change. For example, he created the life-sized “Gentrification Game” for people to play in order to feel some of the effects of skyrocketing housing prices.
Creating Art Helps Us Feel Better
It’s not just looking at art that improves our lives — art is also important because CREATING it helps our mood, soul, and sense of efficacy. Feeling bored? Doing art is a never-ending journey you can always go back to. Feeling lonely? Art communities allow you to connect with others through sharing works in progress.
Feeling down on yourself? Effort pays off in art, and you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment as you practice skills, follow tutorials, experiment, and get better and better. Feeling trapped? Creating something new through imagination unleashes the spirit and creates feelings of freedom. There’s lots more about all this in the article, “8 Benefits of Drawing!”
The Importance of Art in Education
Given that art creates happiness, hope, flair, and a deeper understanding of the world, it’s clear that it deserves a central place in education. For many years, schools were cutting art, music, and physical education programs — until they started realizing the science and evidence that art helps students learn ALL subjects. Art even helps teach how to live a good life! (For more on creativity in education, see “Why is School Important?“)
Art is Worth Funding
If we are now convinced that art is important, this brings us to a discussion of funding. Murals don’t magically appear on walls — they need to be paid for! Theatre doesn’t pop up from nothingness — it costs money to make! Art teachers aren’t robots — they need paychecks to survive! So why has it seemed for so many years that art is expendable, and that its funding can be cut at the smallest sign of budget tightness?
Luckily, cities and organizations are starting to see that art is essential to our collective wellness, and are creating fellowships, campaigns, and plans to keep creativity going.
For example, Boston now grants a set of artist fellowships each year to expand their work, such as the hilarious and insightful Pineapple Diaries web series by Paloma Valenzuela. Meanwhile, Artists for Humanity PAYS teens to create art and mentor others, and the Central Square Mural Project in Cambridge, MA raised money to cover the town in beautiful paintings, including some by the phenomenal Silvia Lopez-Chavez. Let us continue to support and fund art in all parts of our world — from schools, to streets, to stages!
The Answer to Why Art Matters
To definitively answer why art is important, imagine a world with NO art. This is nearly impossible do to since art permeates every aspect of our lives — even popping up when people are trying to squash it. But one thing is clear: A world without art would hardly be a human world. In fact it would be pretty awful.
Art is important because it helps us feel free, refreshed, and exhilarated! It allows us see new perspectives on our world, our emotions and our possible futures. Art guides us on powerful journeys in ways that are often safer than real life, but which can impact our real lives positively nonetheless. Art brings us through richly imagined scenes and emotions that expand us. Long live color, imagination, and creativity!
VIDEO: Why is Art Important?
Why Do YOU Think Art is Important?
So what has YOUR experience been with the importance of art to society and to individuals? Has there been a work of art — in a museum, mural, or mall — which has impacted you? Has making art, either in school or on your own, made a difference for you? Have you seen good examples of how to support artistic creation? Do share!
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The author and artist, Lillie Marshall, is a National Board Certified Teacher of English and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. All art on this site is original and hand-drawn by Lillie. She launched DrawingsOf.com Educational Cartoons in 2020, building upon the success of her other two sites, AroundTheWorldL.com (established 2009) and TeachingTraveling.com (founded 2010). Subscribe to Lillie’s monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media to stay connected!