It’s not like I’m curing cancer… How could my paintings make the world a better place?
Isn’t it selfish to spend my life making music?
My art isn’t exactly in a “popular” genre… So how could it make a difference?
My art IS in a “popular” genre… So how could it make a difference when others are better at making it than me?
Artists of all types (painting, theatre, music, dance, film, creative writing, architecture, design, etc.) can feel like their art isn’t valuable when compared to “more important” people like scientists and doctors. But do the arts actually have a place in our complex world? And even if they do, can YOUR art make a difference?
In December 1914, the horrors of World War I were in full swing in Europe. Trenches stretched for more than six hundred miles where soldiers fought day and night with machine guns, mortars, artillery shells, rifles, and poison gas. These hand-dug protective battlements were on either side of a true hell on earth—the “no man’s land” between the opposing armies.
In order to boost troop morale, the German command had delivered hundreds of small Christmas trees, complete with candles, to their soldiers. Space was limited, so the infantrymen set the trees up along the tops of the trenches. Thus the trees were visible to the enemy – the French and Scottish soldiers dug in on the opposite side of the battlefield.
Then on Christmas Eve, something amazing happened. As depicted in the Academy Award-nominated film Joyeux Noel (2006), one of the German soldiers, a tenor soloist who had performed at some of the best German opera houses but who had been conscripted into the army like hundreds of thousands of others, began singing “Stille Nacht (Silent Night)” and “Adeste Fidelis (O Come All Ye Faithful).” Without asking for permission, and inspired by the many Christmas trees, he sang, and his voice carried easily in the stillness of the night. All of the soldiers on both sides, who just before that had been intent on killing their hated enemies, were stunned by the beauty of the music. Soon everyone began singing in their native tongues along with the Germans.
In this type of warfare, no one dared leave the trench because enemy sharpshooters were always at the ready. And yet, the German tenor, still singing, walked out into the open. He was amazed to see that the Scots were already sitting at the top of their battlements, smiling. Bagpipers got out their instruments and accompanied the music making.
What happened next was even more amazing, as men from both sides began to emerge from their hiding places. At first they moved tentatively, and then with a real sense of joy. Men with no common language—trained killers all—began to share bits of chocolate and then pictures of their wives and children. On Christmas Eve, standing in the midst of the horror of death and destruction, men who previously hated and tried to kill one another began to care about people who were suddenly friends. The next days after Christmas Eve were more meaningful yet…I hope you will find and watch this film.
The question I asked before telling this true story was: are the arts important today? Can it be that the arts (presented as tiny Christmas trees and an opera-trained tenor) began a process that changed men’s hearts? For several days, hate and revenge and a desire to kill were replaced—amazingly—with love. I firmly believe that the answer is yes!
If done properly, the arts can create a picture of truth and beauty that can alter the course of history. More than a century ago on a bloody battlefield in France the simple, beautiful expression of music changed people’s lives, even if only for three days. Today, we once again have (very high-quality) art that continues to have an impact, allowing us to experience a confident singer bringing peace to a blood-soaked battlefield with a simple song.
I also believe that the arts are important because they communicate to us about feelings and emotions, which help us process our sense of well-being. Are we happy or sad at a deep, heart level? We, as human beings, need to process feelings in our hearts, not just in our heads, and the arts help us do that.
I believe that the world’s typical observation that art is not very important is totally wrong. The arts are crucial for showing us our personal sense of well-being. At the end of the day, a person feels either good or bad about themselves and about their life, and this evaluation, at a very basic level, tells us if we’re living well or living poorly. Art addresses our sense of well-being and can be a critical way for each of us to understand the value of our lives.
How do the arts change people?
Art can change people through experiential learning, when people participate personally in the “hunt for truth.” This kind of learning not only helps us in the short-term, but also cements the lessons in our long-term memories. The feelings that go with experiences are often communicated most powerfully through art: the suspense of “the hunt for truth,” the frustration of ideas that don’t work, and the joy of discovering a solution, all form a living narrative that is radically different from just memorizing a list of facts.
The role of art in culture is two-fold. Clearly, it records culture. But it has another function as well: art influences the creation of cultural change. When I was an undergraduate student, first lady Jackie Kennedy (the beautiful wife of President John F. Kennedy) influenced how thousands of other women dressed. Suddenly, all over the country, women were wearing small “pill box” hats and very large circular sunglasses. Michelangelo also deeply influenced his culture as he painted and sculpted realistic human forms in new ways. His emotional realism conveyed feelings that inspired many of his contemporaries to follow his lead and still influence our own feelings today.
So what does this mean? Good art takes pictures (freeze-frames) and tells stories about what people care deeply about at that moment of their lives. Art at its best shows the truth of what people are experiencing—not just the facts, but also the feelings embedded in that moment. These feelings are often what touch us deeply as viewers today.
Let me tell you about an experiential learning situation regarding a different war that I personally experienced through the arts—one that shows truth this time, and not beauty.
When Steven Spielberg released his Hollywood blockbuster movie Saving Private Ryan (1998), I saw it at a neighborhood cinema with some theatre friends. For those of you who have not seen it, the opening twenty minutes of the film shows American military forces in World War II storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. You see the nervous faces of countless soldiers as they ride the landing craft toward the beaches of France. At one of the landing locations—Omaha Beach—the Germans are ready and waiting.
As I sat in the movie theater, the sounds of guns and explosions increased, the gates of the landing craft suddenly swung open and the soldiers jumped into the water and start toward shore. It was a horrifying scene. Mr. Spielberg showed me what those brave soldiers really experienced. The signs and sounds of machine guns cutting men down before they even reached the beach, mortar explosions tossing bodies in the air, frantic medics trying to stop terrible bleeding—the twenty minutes depicted on-screen seemed like an eternity.
I felt as though I had been transported to that beach in France. I felt real fear and horror as I watched young men’s lives end as they bravely moved toward an enemy they could not even see. I was frantic for the scene to end—I felt like I was “living” in that moment of World War II, even though I knew I was sitting in a movie theater in Chicago.
I had personally experienced one of the most powerful anti-war statements I had ever seen. I left the theater dazed by the horror of what war really means. I kept replaying the images and story for weeks in my head, accompanied by intense feelings of revulsion and anger. I was grateful that Mr. Spielberg had created a truthful and honest depiction of the effects of war on real lives, even if it was horrific instead of “beautiful” like other art.
This is very different from communication that is simply information. In today’s world, we are overwhelmed with a constant stream of information. We have learned to glance quickly and then discard 99 percent of what is presented. But art, when it is good, presents a different kind of communication. Good art impacts us at the emotional level, not just the intellectual level.
It helps us understand what is good and what is bad in our lives and in the world around us. The arts open emotional doors for us to experience the laughter and the weeping that allows our souls to be honest and open and healthy. It is a tragedy that in the midst of the economic collapse from the pandemic, the communication of art that is crucially needed in today’s society has been, in large part, eliminated.
What this means is that good art is not just important—it is crucial to all of us. Art helps us record and influence culture, and most importantly, serves as a gift for sharing beauty and truth with others, alongside emotions that help us process our well-being.
But can MY art change people?
Even though he was an accomplished singer, the tenor who changed peoples’ lives on Christmas Eve 1914 was still probably not the best tenor in the entire world. (There is always someone better than us at our gifts!) But this soldier was there, then, with those particular people and in that particular situation. Whether or not the soldiers who surrounded him were familiar or unfamiliar with operatic singing, he was able to share his art in a way that invited them to see beauty and hope in the midst of a terrifying world. Even with your gifts, you may not ever be the best painter, artist, or writer in the entire world. But you have the opportunity to use these gifts to share beauty and truth with people who desperately need it, and who may never hear it from anywhere or anyone else.
Can YOUR art make a difference?
Yes! Your art can make a difference when you use it to communicate truth or beauty. Its ability to speak to emotions through experiential learning helps change how people understand the world. You are also uniquely situated to share your art with the people you come in contact with. Your art matters!
Your art matters, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be perfect. It never is! As artists we tend to be hard on ourselves and leave no room for error. But is there an alternative to insecurity and fear? Keep reading to find out.
As a Jesus-follower, I am also convinced the arts are important because of what they mean to God. You can read about it here: Are the Arts Important to God?
Photo credits: Alice Dietrich on Unsplash; Pixabay; Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash; Soundtrap on Unsplash