Recently, I was talking to a client for an upcoming speaking gig, and he told me, “We need you to tell a group of local business leaders why art matters.” Unsure of what to say, I thought about it and realized creativity can do certain things in the world that nothing else can. We need art now more than ever.
The way I see it, there are three messages creativity can communicate, and these messages are what connect us as human beings. Which is to say, without the arts—without the ability to creatively express who we are and what we care about—we lose a bit of our humanity.
Most of my life, I’ve made things. Before I even knew why or how, creativity was the tool that helped me understand myself and the world around me. It was the way I processed difficult experiences and how I learned to express who I was and what I believed. Through this process, I began to see the gifts we receive from art. There are three of them, each distinct ways art helps us understand who we are and why we are here.
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“I see you.”
When I was in seventh grade, Mrs. Frankl put me on the news. Every homeroom class, she would ask one of the students to present last night’s news to the class. It was a way of getting our hormone-charged, thirteen-year-old brains aware of what was going in the world.
When it came time for my turn, I asked my teacher if, instead of presenting the news to my class, if I could go home, record it, and bring the video into class to share it. No one had ever asked to do this; surprised, she acquiesced and let me have fun with the project.
So I went home, borrowed one of my dad’s suits, slicked back my hair, and set up my parent’s camcorder in the basement to record the evening news. I created a whole cast of characters: Bill the anchorman, Jane his female co-anchor (I had long hair back then and could easily double as a female newscaster), and Craig the weatherman. Using a series of avant-garde pieces my three-year-old sister had recently drawn, I created my own makeshift weather map and presented the news.
It was marvelous. Four and a half minutes of pure genius recorded on VHS tape. Satisfied, I packed up my video studio, took the cassette to school the next day, and eagerly awaited my television debut.
Mrs. Frankl wheeled the audiovisual cart into the room. We all stared at the square TV sitting on top of that tower of technology, fastened tightly to the rig with bungee cord. She inserted the tap into the VCR, and I sat into my seat with bated breath, equally excited and afraid.
After my presentation was done, no one said anything. Then, one by one, the class started to crack up. First, one person laughed. Then another. And another. And so on until the whole class had erupted into a loud, cacophony of my mocking laughter.
It wasn’t the kind of “oh that’s hilarious” laughing, but rather the teasing, jeering laughs you get when you fall down in front of a group of cruel pre-teens. That kind of laughter. And any prepubescent boy knows the difference between being laughed with and laughed at. These kids, my classmates, were laughing at me. I sank deep into my desk, trying to hide from the imaginary arrows of criticism and shame being sent my way.
It’s a devastating feeling, to pour your heart into a work and have it completely rejected and ridiculed. In that moment, I cursed the thought of ever wanting to do anything outside the box. Who was I to try something different, something creative? This was yet another lesson in being careful to not stand out so much. That was how you got hurt; it was how you were vulnerable to attack. Better to blend in, I thought, and not be exceptional. There was only pain to follow that kind of stepping out.
Mrs. Frankl quieted the classroom, removed my tape from the VCR, and walked over to return it. As the laughs died down, she leaned over and whispered into my ear, “That was the best thing I have ever seen.” And then she walked away. Immediately, my spirits lifted. A small smile spread across my face, and I realized something:
There will always be people who don’t understand your work, who simply cannot get it. In a way, art is both about being understood and misunderstood. Creativity is a language that says what cannot be communicated any other way. But what we create can’t be everyone. The true work of an artist is to make something that is not for everyone but for someone.
We all want to be seen and when we make things that connect with other people, we help them feel known in ways that they might otherwise never have felt. And when we create from a place of depth and meaning, we, too, can feel seen.
“I’m still here.”
One day last year after going to bed at an embarrassingly early hour (I’m talking 8:00 at night), I awoke in the middle of the night to hear the annoying sounds of birds singing. It was around 3:30 a.m. After thirty minutes of this, I realized I was now up for the day.
Dragging myself out of bed, equal parts annoyed and curious, I Googled why birds sing in the morning. As my thumb skimmed various science articles, I watched the sunrise from a deck chair on my back porch while sipping coffee, and I came across the answer: Most scientists believe that birds sing in the morning as a sign to their mates to indicate that they made it through the night and are still alive, able and willing to procreate. Another theory says that this “morning chorus” is a way of each bird claiming ownership over their nest, a warning call to anyone who might try to impinge on their territory,
What a beautiful thought, I mused. Birds sing in the morning as a way of saying, “I’m still here.” And maybe that’s why we all create art. This so inspired me that I immediately wrote a careful but quick tweet about it and posted it on Twitter, a piece that would go viral and be syndicated by many popular channels on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It was just a simple tweet, a very unscientific observation of a morning. But there was something powerful even in the observance of that phenomenon.
Maybe the reason we create is a way of saying “I made it another day. I’m still here. And if you’re seeing or hearing this, so are you.” We all can do this. Whether what you make is a meal or a song or an algorithm, this capacity to create is something quite unique to the human experience and one to be celebrated.
Art is about perseverance. It’s a sign to ourselves and to posterity that we made it. Recently when I was in Paris, I drove past Notre Dame, which was recently devastated by a fire, and saw that it was nearly in ruins—but not quite. As I circumnavigated the cathedral, I was awestruck by how much of it had been destroyed; but I was also inspired by the hope I saw in the scaffolding and millions of dollars in worldwide support to restore this remarkable piece of architecture and art.
It made me think of beautiful European cities like London and Florence and even Paris that were bombed during WWII and the post-war efforts to restore those sites. If you walk through them today, you don’t see any damage from hundreds of days of nightly bombings. It’s quite remarkable what we humans are capable of—both the devastation we can create and the healing we can offer.
A beautiful byproduct of creating works that say to the world, “I’m still here” is that you will start to get other people nodding along and saying the same. As I mentioned, after I wrote that tweet about birds (of all things!), hundreds of thousands of people shared and chimed in, saying, “I’m still here, too!” It was amazing.
As you are your voice, you start to hear other voices the same thing you’re saying—but in their own unique way. This is how you build an audience as an artist. You go first. You risk rejection. You try to see before asking to be seen. And you start to find others who say, “Me too.”
“I can’t believe it.”
During my junior year in college, I studied abroad in Spain, and during that Fall Break, a group of friends and I traveled to Italy. Stopping for a few days in Florence, we visited the famous Uffizi Gallery where came in contact with Michelangelo’s famous statue, David.
I had, of course, seen pictures of the statue on postcards and in greeting cards where the giant-slayer’s genitals were often ironically concealed by a fig leaf or the butt of some corny joke. But when I experienced the actual thing in person for the very first time, I was in awe. I could not believe it. None of us could.
In fact, we found ourselves, without verbally communicating anything, sitting down on the floor at the far end of the room, almost in worshipful veneration of the statue, gazing up at the seventeen-foot-tall statue before us, perfectly hand-chiseled out of marble by the master sculptor himself.
Everything about it was perfect. I had never seen anything so beautiful or majestic before. We sat there for what must have been hours, watching the crowds come and go, sometimes snapping a quick picture or two. We did none of that. We simply sat and stared and tried to take it all in, a feat that was impossible.
I had been in beautiful places before and beheld incredible sights, but nothing had quite prepared me for this. I’m not sure what it was, but the notion that someone, an actual human being with blood and bones and air in his lungs, someone just like me, crafted that wondrous work with his hands—well, it was just too much for me.
This, I think, is the third gift art can give us that nothing else can. It allows us to say, “I can’t believe this.” When you walk through the streets of Rome or atop the Great Wall of China, when you see the footprints on the moon or ponder the theory of relativity, all you can do is marvel. What an amazing tool this human mind is and how often we squander it.
There is something magnificent, to be sure, about standing in a place of natural beauty like the Grand Canyon or the Cliffs of Moher. But there is a different kind of awe reserved in the human spirit for marveling at the works humanity has created, like the Great Pyramids or temple of Jerusalem.
Art has a way of capturing the beauty all around us and bottling it into human potential in a way that inspires us to create our own great works. We all have that same potential, that same mind that designed the Vatican or thought up the light bulb or built the Golden Gate Bridge.
And else can be said than, “I can’t believe it!” You might be able to believe a river or a glacier or the ocean. But it is something else entirely to imagine that someone made this thing before you. It calls us to move beyond our temporary and petty concerns and live bigger lives.
And that is what art is all about.
Art helps us transcend our reality
Art is about transcendence. It’s a reminder that there are bigger and deeper things going on here than the eye can see. When we witness the creative works of others and even endeavor to create them ourselves, we are transported to a different reality. The Greeks called it the “ether.” Sometimes, we think of it as the heavens; others call it the “quantum field.”
The point is that creativity and imagination are the tools that allow us to move to a place beyond ourselves, a place, in the words of Willy Wonky, of pure imagination where anything is possible. We all could do better to live from such a place, remembering that it is not the thing we create that is necessarily perfectly beautiful as much as what it represents.
I like the way C.S. Lewis puts it:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…
For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
A good piece of art stirs up in you a sense of longing, a desire for something more than what is seen or heard or even felt. The word for that is transcendence. And only art can do that. Art is a gift, one that we both receive from others and hopefully pass on to someone else. That’s the nature of it. It has to keep moving for it to realize its potential.
So, whether you have an affinity for the arts, whether or not you think of yourself as a creative, I believe we all need to exercise our creative birthright and make the work we must make.
Why? Because if you don’t share your art, no one will. And we will all miss out on the gifts that come with such a sharing.
Why we need art: a poem
I thought it appropriate to end this essay with a brief poem I wrote on why we need art:
Have you ever sat for hours
Beneath the statue of the David
You exist at all
When something so beautiful
Can come from stone?
Have you ever wandered the streets
Of an ancient city
And felt one with a people
who lived thousands of years ago?
Did you feel that familiar ache
For a place you had never seen
But still somehow knew?
Were you reminded of someone
You’d never been
But hoped you might be?
A person with a mission?
As your feet skipped across cobblestones
And your eyes glanced broad brushstrokes
That told of a world we only encounter in dreams,
As you were given a glimpse of glory,
A kind of transcendence you only ever hear about in stories,
Maybe then you understood
Like you never had before
Why we need