Three hands of art: why it matters

None of us owns art. Not even the artists who create it. And yet, we all own it, and it shifts as we shift.

Why art? On Saturday, ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks spoke on this basic question to the national sales meeting of Pomegranate Communications, the Portland-based publisher of fine art books and gifts, at the invitation of vice president and publisher Zoe Katherine (Katie) Burke. Also speaking were Scott A. Shields, associate director and chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, and Randall Stuart, founder and director of Portland’s Cerimon House. Hicks’s speech is reprinted below.


When Katie asked me a couple of months ago if I’d be willing to talk with all of you today, I said, Sure, what would you like me to talk about?, and she said she was thinking of a general theme for the day of Why the Arts Are Important.

For a writer, that’s a dream assignment. You can go just about anywhere you want with it. And I will.

Let me start by observing that our culture is schizophrenic on the subject of art.

On one hand, our opera and ballet companies and symphonic orchestras are spiraling toward perpetual poverty and even bankruptcy, victims of high production costs and a shifting culture that just isn’t all that interested in such art forms anymore. The National Endowment for the Arts is a battered political Ping-Pong ball, surviving on what amounts to table scraps from the smorgasbords of Wall Street bonus babies. Theater companies scrape by on the backs of their performers, who are all too often the last and least to be paid, but, hey, the show must go on. And while few visual artists starve or live in actual garrets, a lot are spending more on supplies to stock their garage studios than they make in sales, relying instead on outside jobs or gainfully employed domestic partners.

On the other hand, it’s possible that no culture in history has been as saturated in art as ours is. Culturally and anthropologically, if not always aesthetically, art is everywhere. Movies and television and Facebook and YouTube streams and on-demand delivery systems and probably someday soon little cranial implants that will allow us to simply “think” the feeds we want to see and feel are 24-hour-a-day preoccupations. We use art to keep our hypercapitalistic economic engine humming: ever noticed how often the commercials on TV are more entertaining than the programs they break up? Every time I hear some pop singer mangle The Star-Spangled Banner before a ballgame, I’m reminded of how completely the arts and sports megaliths have merged into one giant entertainmentplex. It’s the fusion of the Homeric tradition and the Roman gladiator ring.

"Echo and Narcissus," John Price Waterhouse, 1903, oil on canvas, 43 x 74.5 inches, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons

“Echo and Narcissus,” John Price Waterhouse, 1903, oil on canvas, 43 x 74.5 inches, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons

You might be thinking, But that’s pop culture, that’s not art. And I agree – partly. Pop culture and art are both built on story. They might fulfill a basic human urge in different ways, but they’re responding to the same desire. And they bleed into each other.

It’s good to remember that the ancient tales of Homer and the other Greeks were popular entertainment as well as a kind of philosophy and religion and science, an attempt to explain the universe and humans’ place within it. The gods were frightful and petty and powerful and they were also great entertainers: people hung on the stories about them the way we hang on reports of the misdeeds of celebrities. We’re suckers for the wayward cavortings of our media stars. How is Miley Cyrus shaking her booty or Kim Kardashian baring hers different from Zeus chasing down Leda for a little roll in the feathers, or Narcissus drowning in a pool of self-idolatry? The Greek heroes and deities were undeniably great and they were also raffish and lowbrow, like Shakespeare after them, and for centuries the Greeks and Shakespeare, along with the stories of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, have been pretty much the base of our high culture, at least in the Western world.

On the third hand, if you’ll grant me the extension of an extra appendage, we also live in an American culture that believes art is equivalent to decorative wallpaper, and therefore irrelevant to what is really important, and thus to be shunted to the peripheries of our lives. In the politicized and obsessive world of education reform, the battle cry is STEM, an acronym that stands for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” No, no, the advocates of arts education retort, we must have STEAM, adding an “A” for “arts,” and I confess I do get a little steamed when I hear the demands for STEM, because I can’t see the point of learning “how” if you’re not also examining “why.” And then I think about Charles Dickens, and his novel Hard Times, and its earnest but misguided headmaster Mr. Gradgrind, who believed that floor carpets should not have images of flowers woven into them because the flowers are not real and so add nothing to the purpose of the rug.

And then I realize that I’ve just made an artistic response to counter a utilitarian argument. And isn’t that, in itself, utilitarian in the way the educational reformers seem to believe the arts and humanities are not? That makes me wonder, as things follow: Are such extreme cultural catastrophes as Ferguson and Sandy Hook and the Staten Island chokehold, at their heart,  failures of the imagination? And is it not the imagination that is the wellspring of art?

I believe that if we pay attention, art is everywhere. I believe it happens early and often, and that it doesn’t really happen, though of course it’s made; it simply is. We live it, we breathe it, all the time, and the more we live and breathe it, the more it defines us, the more it becomes a part of us. It is astonishing for its diversity, and for its ability to unite – or if not unite, at least connect. “Only connect!” E.M. Forster famously wrote in his novel Howards End, anticipating both our electronic microchip lifestyles and our need to see ourselves as individuals within a vast human context. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” That, I believe, to put a utilitarian twist on it, is one crucial purpose of art: to help us be whole, as individuals and as a species.


Little occurrences of art inhabit my memories, and I imagine yours, too. As an early grade-schooler in the 1950s I remember going to a neighbor’s house and seeing a portrait of a person I didn’t recognize, hanging in a prominent spot on the wall. “Who’s that?” I asked the woman of the house, the mother of a friend of mine. “That,” she replied solemnly, “is the greatest man in the world.” I was thunderstruck. To think the world’s greatest man was right here, enshrined, in my neighbors’ living room! Later I learned it was a portrait of Dwight Eisenhower, and maybe not art as most people think of it, except that in that household, it served both an artistic and an almost religious function. A few years later I visited another house, as the guest of a very young couple who had recently been married. They proudly, sweetly showed me an embroidered cloth framed on the wall of their tiny living room. In it, the young woman had stitched the words “Home Sweet Home.” And I realized that in that house, that was art, a living relic that echoed the commitment they had made to making a life together. In their household, that embroidery was more valuable, and certainly more personal, than a Jeff Koons sculpture. It connected. It dawned on me that people make art – not just in the ordinary sense of artists crafting objects that we call art, but more elementally and democratically: individual people, no matter what their stations in life, invest objects and ideas with artistic purpose.

I remember, from as far back as I can remember, books. The stories, of course, but also the heft and feel of them, the crinkle of pages, the gentle creasing of the spine, the texture on my fingers as I turned the page.

Arthur Rackham, illustration from "Cinderella," by C.S. Evans; London, W. Heinemann / Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1919.

Arthur Rackham, illustration from “Cinderella,” by C.S. Evans; London, W. Heinemann / Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1919. Wikimedia Commons

And the pictures. So often, the pictures. As a child, when the world was fresh and my perceptions were more vivid than they’ll ever be again, books truly were magical, and much of the magic was transmitted through the pictures, in which an illustrator gave recognizable form to the abstract and wondrous stories that authors transmitted to my mind. Alice followed the rabbit down the hole, and that was novel, but Tenniel gave the image life. I devoured fairy tales, like the wolf I suppose: Perrault, Andersen, the Grimms, the Russians; and great illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen. I recall particularly a set of books that included the old tale of Snow-White and Rose-Red, and which was illustrated with silhouette drawings that created a beautiful, dreadful double world; and many years later, when I first encountered the work of Kara Walker, I responded to her racial and cultural satire but also felt a little shiver at the memory of those childhood images still lurking patiently and indelibly in some small corner of my mind.

There’s a children’s tale I haven’t read, but I’ve seen the movie version which is quite good, called The NeverEnding Story. And the gist as I understand it is that story itself creates the fabric of reality, and that if we allow it to be nibbled away, by the earnest Gradgrinds or more brutal forces such as Stalin or Hitler, who banned certain types of art as “degenerate” and elevated sentimental and propagandistic images in their place, we put ourselves in danger of being swallowed by the void. And not just Stalin and Hitler. The Chinese government has just announced a plan to send wayward artists to the hinterlands to learn from the people and gain a “correct view on art.” The Chinese government also, by the way, recently banned punning in television broadcasts and advertisements: so far, you’re still free to engage in wordplay in the privacy of your own homes. Apparently, the freedom to think playfully leads to disasters like Ai Weiwei. Our own government, learning a lesson from the power that images held to sway opinion during the Vietnam war, does not allow photographers to shoot pictures of body bags or coffins coming home from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. If that’s not official recognition of the power of art, I’m not sure what is. So, we tell and retell and reinvent stories, because through stories we exist. Quite a role for wallpaper.


Art is important because it provokes and challenges and upends attitudes. As I grew older and moved beyond the illustrations to folk and fairy tales, which had their own savagery, I discovered the prints of Kathë Kollwitz, which held a mirror to the brutality of her relatively recent time, and Goya’s grotesque and angry images of war, and the strangely fevered visual creations of Bosch and Blake, and the satires of Daumier and Hogarth, and through them gained a sense of the psychological reality of what we so often confine to the tidy little corner of academia that we call history: such things really happened to actual people. Art preserves and transmits such knowledge. When I look at a painting of village life by Breugel I understand something about those people that I couldn’t understand in any other way. I was going to say that art is a shield against the onslaught of popular culture, which urges us to forget about history and context so we become more pliable to the forces of political and market culture, but that’s not right. Art is more like a flexible, nimble hovercraft that allows us to navigate among the new, making connections and opening fresh vistas and helping us understand pop culture as well as “serious” culture and place them both in perspective.

We live in a time when privacy is dying a very public death, and that’s a matter of serious concern, particularly when we consider that the erosion of individual privacy is occurring at the same time that large organizations are increasing their holds on secrecy. Facebook knows all and sees all about us – or at least it thinks it does; when I look at the ad feeds it sends me on the basis of the personal information it mines, I realize its capabilities are rudimentary and sometimes laughable in the extreme. But whatever Facebook and the National Security Agency know, there is a different kind of privacy, and that is the privacy of the mind; and the mind, in its full sense that includes that emotional state of being we call heart, is the domain of art. The time you spend contemplating a painting, reading a novel, immersing yourself in a piece of music: it’s irreducible to numbers. It can’t be measured. It’s yours. Even if you try to give away its secrets, in the end you can’t, because at the core of the transaction between human being and art is something ultimately unexplainable. That is the precious thing.


Beth Van Hoesen (American, 1926-2010), "Albert's Poppies," 1991, color aquatint, etching, and drypoint, hand colored with watercolor and gouache on moderately thick, moderately textured white wove paper, Gift of the E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust, © Beth Van Hoesen, 2007.60.379. Portland Art Museum

Beth Van Hoesen (American, 1926-2010), “Albert’s Poppies,” 1991, color aquatint, etching, and drypoint, hand colored with watercolor and gouache on moderately thick, moderately textured white wove paper, Gift of the E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust, © Beth Van Hoesen, 2007.60.379. Portland Art Museum

An artist of any kind is a witness to the universe, and because the universe is both micro and macro, what she sees can be wide or deep, large or small. The wonder of museums and of books is that they can accommodate both, and the spaces in between as well. I’m working right now on a catalog project on the artist James B. Thompson, whose work is very contemporary but also encompasses ancient archaeological markings from the Iron Age in northern Scotland. In the world of art, the past, present, and future can coexist, and that’s the sort of thing that theoretical physicists also grapple with.

Working on the essays for Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna & Flora, which Pomegranate published in August, I was struck again by how broad a vision Van Hoesen had from such a narrow focus. With her precise images of animals and vegetables and flowers she connects most easily with artists like Dürer and Monet and Audubon, but I also think of her as having a little bit of Emily Dickinson in her soul. She was intensely private, though like Dickinson far from a recluse, and conservative in technique, and like a microbiologist she saw wide by looking closer and closer. Her prints are easy to appreciate, and for people who want to simply glance at them they provide small moments of pleasure; quick reminders of small things in life that are good. Like all good art they deepen the more you look at them, and for me they transcend time. Given their original time and place, in the midst of the ferment of the latter half of the 20th century, they’re conservative images, but over time that doesn’t mean a lot: meanings come and go. Van Hoesen wasn’t consciously an environmentalist, at least so far as I know, but in the American West, where climate change and agricultural habits and human growth are threatening many species, her art and Audubon’s and that of contemporary Western artists like Michael Brophy and Matthew Dennison take on new meanings. Van Hoesen’s insistence on the individuality and vivid personality of animals also takes on fresh meaning in light of one of the 21st century’s emerging social movements, the quest for animal rights to parallel human rights. I doubt that Van Hoesen considered herself part of that movement. But there it is, and there she is.

In the end, none of us owns art, not even the artists who create it, and yet we all own it, and it shifts as we shift, and meanings shift according to who we are at any specific moment in time. And that’s a marvelous thing. I’ve come to appreciate the idea of the mosaic, which is at least partly an Islamic concept, in opposition to the arrow, which I take to mean the Western myth of constant progress toward something new and different. The view of the mosaic is rather one of interlocking pieces, interconnections, a pattern that can’t be seen in its totality from any single spot but which does exist.


I get a little taste of that every day, when I post an image of a historical painting on Facebook with a very short story to go with it, always beginning with the words “Today I Am” and often following with something outrageously made up, and then sit back and watch while people comment on the art and talk with one another, taking something public and making it privately their own, in a public forum.

Jewlensky_ Astonishment

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It’s a small thing, a little daily ritual, and undoubtedly to the eyes of the world’s Thomas Gradgrinds a counterproductive waste of time. But in its small way it enriches lives. Occasionally it might even subtly change them, and even if that’s small, it’s big. The thing is, I never know exactly what’s going to happen when I push that “post” button. It’s beyond my control. That’s the way art works, too. Plan carefully, execute as well as you can, embrace uncertainty, then set your baby free into the world and see how it flies. The results are usually not what you expect. And that unanticipated aspect – the surprise that happens when you simply let go – is really the heart of the thing.

To artists, I urge: keep on making art. To publishers, keep on making books. To marketers, keep on marketing and selling. To the censors, hands off: it’s not yours to decide. To all of us, keep on looking and reading and thinking and listening and learning. This is how we know ourselves. This is who we are.





7 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Bravo Bob, this is terrific, just terrific. Thank you so much.

  2. Margaret Coe says:

    Thanks, Bob for the brilliant essay!

  3. Thank you, Bob. This is an essay worth reading more than once.

  4. Russell Chevrette says:

    Today is my birthday. Your essay is among the best gifts ever received.

  5. Tim Gillespie says:

    This is a graceful, thought-provoking essay, Bob. Making and receiving art are indeed forms of hope in a time of “failures of the imagination.” Thank you.

  6. Stan Shaw says:

    It never ceases to amaze me that I learn something new or learn a different way of looking at things EVERY SINGLE TIME I listen to Bob or read his essays.

Comments are closed.

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