Is Art Important?

At a recent presentation I gave on the Amarna Period in ancient Egypt, an audience member asked a surprising question: Was art important to the ancient Egyptians?

Because my own orientation is that art is of extreme importance throughout time and in all cultures, and to me personally, I felt completely flummoxed as to how to answer this question.

The Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti and daughters under the protective rays of the Aten.

Art as Communication

My answer was simply, “art is a form of communication, and all ancient societies used it for power and influence. There was no mass communication like we have today, so yes, art was very important.” This response did not even begin to approach the issue. Yes, of course art was and IS important to society. It has been so since the earliest recorded cave paintings.

Afterward, I began to ponder the question. Was art important to the average ancient Egyptian, or only to the elite who could afford to commission art, for example, their very own Book of the Dead or extensive tomb decoration to magically ensure their happiness in the afterlife?

Certainly, average Egyptians experienced awe when confronted by Egypt's amazing architecture built on a super-human scale, and through religious and propagandistic works, were inspired by the greatness and power of the system in which they lived. But unless they were members of the artisan community creating works of art, intellectual discussion of the importance of art probably never crossed his mind. Art had a function. Art was utilitarian. Art was magic.

Art in the Time of Democracy

Today, art is available to everyone at museums and online. Still, there is a disconnect between the importance of art and the average citizen in our contemporary democratic society, just as in ancient Egypt. Art is still used to denote power and create a sense of awe and wonder, as in the magnificent Burj Kalifa, the world's current tallest structure, or the urban planning, architecture and sculpture of Chicago's Millennium Park.

In the modern world, art fulfills so many different functions: art as social protest, art for daily life, as in industrial design and architecture, art for visual delight, art as personal expression.

Is Art Important in the 21st Century?

Absolutely. It's just that not everyone is aware of its importance, or its impact on our day-to-day existence. Or perhaps, the average person today can't relate to the cutting-edge art forms that appeal to elite collectors and museums. And that's ok. But there is so much art out there to bring us joy and wonder, or that reflects what it is to be human, that anyone would believe that art is not important confounds me.

At the end of my presentation, another audience member confided to me as if giving her confession, "I'm not interested in it at all. I can do without art." Can you? Really? In the lobby of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the archway reads, “All passes. Only Art Endures.” Therein lies the importance of art.

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