“Is there a more useless profession?” The question gave me pause. We were chatting about movies, I believe, and the question was meant to be rhetorical, so my companion continued on without noticing my hesitation. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I knew I didn’t agree, but I couldn’t express why.
I could kind of see his point. Next to those working as doctors, hospice nurses, foster parents, advocates for the poor and helpless, etc., spending your life playing pretend didn’t hold a candle in comparison. But, following that train of thought, the same could then be said for artists of any kind – painters, writers, dancers, actors, photographers…the list goes on. Through that lens, spending hours searching for the right words to write down was wasted when they could be used in volunteering at the local food bank. Dedicating years to hone a skill with a camera or your body to dance en pointe was selfish when you could be learning to save lives. Really, it was a downhill spiral, resulting in this:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
being completely useless to humanity.
Which is obviously a load of horse hockey (to quote Colonel Potter.)
I think the flaw in my companion’s thinking was this – that meeting a person’s physical needs is of the utmost, and only, importance. Yes, that is exceedingly important, and we should all do what we can to help those in need, but it ignores the simple truth that people are both body and soul. A soul needs something good, true, and beautiful – needs art – just as the body needs an apple a day.
Humans are made for story, and what is art but story in a variety of forms. A dance is a wordless story in motion. A photograph or painting is a sliver of story frozen in time. Art is how we learn, how we communicate, how we deal with the harsher aspects of reality. It reveals aspects of ourselves, the people around us, and God that we might miss in other settings. In short, an artistic vocation is as legitimate and good as a career in science, medicine, farming, etc… Granted, it is a vocation that can be abused like any other, or warped to the point where it can no longer be called art (i.e. pornography), but when it captures something true, good, and/or beautiful…
…oh, it is a thing to behold.
Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is “the art of education”. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good.
The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”. – St. John Paul II, Letter to Artists