Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 28, 2023

The importance of appreciating art’s enduring power and purpose

By NIKITA SHTARKMAN | October 18, 2018

In detail, write out exactly what happened to you today. I can almost guarantee your summary will be dull. Passionate, powerful experiences in life happen rarely. Luckily for us, humans have created an efficient way to experience excitement and passion: art.

Art is a distilled, focused version of life. The artist’s job is to present to you some work that they feel embodies something intrinsically important.

A few days ago I was walking to class listening to “Ein Deutsches Requiem” by Brahms. The second movement, titled “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist Wie Gras” (Behold, All Flesh Is As the Grass) is a slow, beautiful piece. 

Using subtle melodic motifs, Brahms steadily builds palpable tension. Suddenly the volume rises, the drums ring out, the orchestra swells and the choir starts to belt out booming chants in German that could easily shatter a window. 

It is an overwhelming moment, one can almost hear God talking through the music. Walking through a hallway on my way to class, for a moment, I was lifted out of my body. My hair stood on end. It was the first time in a long while that art had moved me in that way. 

What would a person existing in the late 1800s or early 1900s have felt, seeing such a powerful work performed live? The experience would be more than just music — it would be magic. 

One hundred years ago, art was more than a category on Pinterest. It was a momentous and rare thing. A painting existed in one place. A play was performed at a certain time. Art was temporary and ephemeral, it demanded attention. 

The impact of technology, while providing us with the absolutely incredible access we now have and spreading art to the masses, has simultaneously killed its temporality. While there are still performances, concerts and other forms of temporary art, these can be recorded and replayed. 

At every show, almost every audience member has a phone out to record the experience. The concept of an art piece existing for one singular moment in time has been largely forgotten.

Now art is just as accessible as any other thing on the internet, and, because of that, it is easy to treat it with a nonchalance and disinterest. Art has become easily consumable.

I have an app on my phone that shows me a masterpiece painting every day. I find myself flicking past the painting, skimming the description and forgetting about it. I have the whole pantheon of human musical creation available to me, and yet I listen to the same four Drake songs. I can download any book every written by man, but I spend most of my time flicking through completely uninteresting posts on Twitter.

This kind of existence is dull. If I had been listening to the Brahms Requiem the way that I listen to most other music — quietly and in the background — I would not have had that quasi-religious, spiritual experience at 11 a.m on a Tuesday.

When good art is fully appreciated, it can be overwhelming. An experience can grip you and take you out of life. Movies are generally the best at this. 

A theater, with its massive screen, surround sound and comfortable atmosphere, is specifically designed to pull an entire audience out of their seats. The best films can be especially captivating. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan will rip anyone out of their daily existence and place them directly on Normandy Beach with bullets whizzing by and blood-tinted water lapping at their heels. 

This kind of escape is important. It nourishes us with emotionally satisfying, passionate experiences that our daily lives can fail to provide. In a concentrated package, art can cause fulfillment and joy.

But, for art to have that gripping effect, one must pay full attention to it. Unfortunately, more often than not, art is an aspect of the background of daily life. 

Society is utilitarian, and so art has become something “of use” rather than something “of beauty.” Oscar Wilde, in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, seeing this kind of shift in culture, wrote “All art is quite useless” — a bold but rather accurate claim. Art is created to be Art. To manipulate and use it for some ulterior purpose is to destroy its essence.

Music is one of the most “utilized” art forms. On every streaming service there are playlists that help with studying, playlists that cause sleep, playlists that hype you up while working out. In this form, music becomes a supplement, just like caffeine or nicotine. 

I have to admit that I’m also guilty of this, I’ve even written an article about how EDM helped me stay awake. This “use” of music (as well as other art forms) is not objectively wrong; it just doesn’t allow true appreciation of the art in question.

This article is meant to inspire you to find time to enjoy and fully experience art, especially in the moments when you feel a suffocating sense of monotony in life. It can pull you out of a library cubicle and into the grips of passionate, turbulent humanity. 

One can feel glory, pain, loss, joy and every other powerful, uniquely human sensation through the appreciation of art. Read a book carefully. Close your eyes and listen to an album. Sit in front of a painting. These are valuable, powerful experiences that will be fulfilling.

Creating, experiencing and even talking about art is a celebration of humanity. It is a celebration of creation for pleasure. It is a celebration of human emotion. It is a celebration of shared human experience. 

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