Art For the Sake of Sanity

Artists have always held a precarious position in society, being seen paradoxically as truth tellers and outright liars. Plato feared the power of poets (writing in The Republic) and most totalitarian regimes target artists and writers exclusively as ‘trouble makers’ and dissidents. In Soviet Russia under Stalin, the arts were ruthlessly manicured by cultural watchdogs so that no artist could apply a single brushstroke or write a single word without looking over his or her shoulder.

As M.T. Anderson explains in his book, Symphony for the City of the Dead, “In a society that was supposed to be understood as a huge machine, literature and the arts were supposed to be the “gear and screw” of the propaganda mechanism, allowing the government to manipulate people, who were mere “levers” in the intricate clockworks. Stalin had urged writers and artists to be “engineers of human souls.” (79).

In this way, the dubious occupation of artist became useful: they were mere engineers, fixing the human clockwork that is built to question authority and change the world. Movies and books all had to express the official party line, and artists who strayed from the path (even if they thought they were being good little artists) were arrested, tortured, and many of them exiled to the remotest depths of Siberia. Even in these conditions, art endured—however crippled—and figures like Pasternak, Akhmatova, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev continued to work, often at the cost of their lives.

In the end, they were all publicly shamed for creating music and writing that was “anti-people” and even—gasp—“pro West.” They all had friends and family arrested in an attempt to demoralize them and demonstrate, once and for all, that artists are selfish scum who need to learn their place in society. Indeed, for several years, all composer Dimitri Shostakovich’s concerts were announced in the following manner: “Today there is a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich” (Anderson 94).

Needless to say, we don’t live in Stalin’s Russia and no one is getting exiled to Siberia for writing a symphony or publishing a novel. Yet something of this suspicion and intolerance for art remains. Writers are seen as too “sensitive” and certainly too selfish, refusing to work and living in a na├»ve daydream of artistic pleasure. Even in college, those who pursue English and its related fields and seen either as directionless or outright losers. “What kind of job are you going to get with that major?” is a question I hear more times than I can count. I even had a student tell me, “did you become a teacher because you couldn’t do anything else with your degree?” Teaching, of course, being an even less-desirable field than writing (but that’s for another column).

I’ve always found it ironic that a culture that devours entertainment by the fistful is so contemptuous of the people who make it. Why would we actively discourage the next generation of screenwriters, novelists, musicians, painters, and comic book artists? Do we want the next Star Wars movies to be as bad as the Prequels? Why not look at artists—and writers, especially—the way we look at doctors or lawyers? True, we have plenty of doctor and lawyer jokes, but those are made out of a sense of powerlessness and sour grapes. We know they run our society and call the shots—and get paid accordingly. However, few people love their doctor (even when they save your life) the way they love a favorite author, someone they never even meet. Authors become part of our lives and are cherished mentors and friends, their works as much a part of your childhood as family photo albums. We clearly love writers and the books they give us…we just hate them before they become the writers we know and love.

In the end, it comes down to what makes someone a useful member of society. We always ask people when we meet them, “so, what do you do?” There are only a few acceptable answers to this question. A writer isn’t one of them, unless you have a recognizable face or book. In many ways, the situation isn’t so different from the USSR: what do you engineer for society? How do you help us? Are writers leeches not putting in their 40 + hours a week? I mean, wouldn’t we all rather sit on our duff and write a story about wizards and Wookies? Of course the very people who say this often hated college because there was “too much reading,” or “too many papers to write,” which they found unbearably taxing. So wouldn’t it make sense that someone who devotes their life to writing (and reading, since you can’t write without reading) is the very opposite of lazy, and in fact, is doing some of the most strenuous intellectual work on earth?

We might also ask ourselves, “what makes life worth living?” Naturally health and a little wealth—being able to put food on the table and take care of your loved ones. But once society goes beyond subsistence living, then we reach for something else—something deeper and more fulfilling. Even societies before the dawn of history dabbled with art, carving stone statues, drawing on cave walls, and building elaborate edifices like Stonehenge. Why? What possible good could this do for a society without heat or refrigerators or guns? Could it be that art itself is a basic requirement for functional human beings? That without it, we simply aren’t really alive in any way that matters? Sure, we can eat and sleep and do a good day’s work, but what really inspires—motivates— encourages—us to go on living?

In Arthur C. Clarke’s famous novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, he explains the incredible work and cost that goes into making the small cubicles of a moon base feel like ‘home.’ Each worker’s environment could simulate any number of locales on Earth, and along with life support each worker had all the music, television shows, and books they could carry. As he explains, “This touch of luxury was typical of the Base, though it was sometimes hard to explain its necessity to the folk back on Earth. Every man and woman in Clavius had cost a hundred thousand dollars in training and transport and housing; it was worth a little extra to maintain their peace of mind. This was not art for art’s sake, but art for the sake of sanity” (72).

Without art, all of us—our entire civilization—would go mad. Arguably, the USSR did go mad by repressing its artists so savagely. Life isn’t simply about making money and driving to work: it’s also about reading, wearing nice clothes, drinking good wine, eating good food, putting beautiful pictures on your wall, and discovering a band you’ve never heard of. That’s the “sanity” required to live a productive, meaningful life. So why ostracize the people trying to keep us sane? Why not applaud them? Or better yet, take a stab at becoming one of those people yourself, even just for an hour each day? It’s worth the cost in time and effort, and who knows, you might just add to the happiness of your fellow human beings.