Why do we need art?

Over the last few weeks, SciArt Residency partner Darcy and I spoke a lot about the reasons for needing art in our life.  This question probably has different answers from the perspective of the artist and the viewer, but I in this post I will try to scratch the surface of the artist’s side.  

A couple years ago, I received a comment on my website stating that “Work and chores get done, because the world needs them to be done.  Art gets done because there is an internal need for it to happen.” I grew up doing a lot of arts and crafts, which did not necessarily stem from the outside, such as someone actively teaching me.  I liked the process of creating something and seeing how it comes out in the end. It was a cathartic experience for me. But why is it so rewarding?

The biological reward system has evolved to increase our chances of survival in tough times.  For example, the satisfaction we get from a good meal is due to the fuel it provides for our body.  Animals will learn to press a lever on cue, as long as they are rewarded with a food pellet.  But what about art?  Why does it bring us such satisfaction?  Why do some people (but not others) crave it so much?  And why do some people enjoy viewing art, whereas others primarily enjoy creating it?  

Expressing yourself through art provides an additional channel for interaction and communication.  Literature indicates a strong correlation between mental disorders and artistic expression, such as in the case of Vincent van Gogh, who suffered from epilepsy, depression, anxiety and, according to some accounts, bipolar disorder.  He used art as a method for processing his emotions.

In addition, in the case of physical brain dysfunction, “The turning to communication through art in lieu of language deficits reflects a biological survival strategy. … It is adversely affected when these systems are dysfunctional, for congenital reasons (savant autism) or because of acquired brain damage (stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s), whereas inherent artistic talent and skill appear less affected.”

But in the healthy population, “Art is a symbolic communicative system practiced only by humans, and argued to have become a fully practiced behavior at a time when early human social groups grew in size and complexity, and communication through language and art promoted cohesion and survival.”  There is a lot of evidence suggesting that a high percentage of artists are introverts and art may serve as an additional channel for their interaction with society. And this is where I can relate.

In our daily lives, we are constantly bombarded with face-to-face social interactions, of which not all may necessarily be pleasurable.  Art provides a way to unwind from this feeling of chaos. Creating art is a meditative process and results in a feeling of “flow”, as described by Michaly Csikszentimihalyi.   

Last year, I met a person who said:  “You have a lot on your plate, you are an individual, a wife, a mother and a professional”.  As an adult with children and multiple responsibilities, I feel like art is one of the very few things I have left to feel like myself.  Making art makes me feel more like an individual – it is something only for myself, where I do not depend on other people and no one depends on me.  


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