The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing. Cecilia Mabilais-Estevez, ’19 Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Honors Scholar, English and Italian, won Honorable Mention for her essay, “A Letter of Apology to Art,” in response to this prompt:
Does Art Matter?
A Letter of Apology to Art
Standing in front of Robert Ryman’s Sans titre, I was livid. This blank canvas—one that I had convinced myself I could find at IKEA, was staring at me, smirking, laughing as though to brag in my face that it was worth more than I would ever be: “Hon hon hon, look at me—I am worth more than you and, yet, I am nothing.” Probably while smoking a cigarette on the terrace of an anonymous café in the 5e arrondissement de Paris, chatting with friends about Voltaire. A blank painting, deemed important enough to display at one of the world’s most respected museums. In that moment, I decided that art was pretentious. Phony. That artists nowadays can do whatever they want and sell it at whatever price they desire. I substantiated my beliefs by claiming that art had become inaccessible—that only those who were wealthy or established enough could enter the art scene.
“I could do that.” I sneered at the countless canvases in the Centre Pompidou, believing I was above the pompousness of it all. Hon hon hon. Little did I know.
Little did I know that I could not, ever, “do that.” I could not, because, simply enough, I will not. Because I will never allot time to making my ideas tangible through paint. I will never sacrifice time for drawing, because visual art is not what embodies sunshine for me. I will never take years to search for the perfect shade of blue, or green, or yellow. I will never assign meaning to splattered paint, describing colors as emotions and splashes as anger—entangled lines as confusion. I will never “do that” because “that” means nothing to me. But, it means something to someone. It means something to a woman struggling to find comfort in the loneliness of a city—perhaps in the lack of motivation she mistakes for laziness. I don’t know what or to whom this blank canvas—or splattered colors—means, but I know, for a fact, that they matter. They matter to someone. There are songs that have saved lives—songs that have whispered, “You’re not alone” to those who needed to hear those three words most.
Between the moments we are forced into existence to the day we are required to die, there is art. There is art in the book series that guided me throughout my freshman year of high school—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There is art in the tattoo that sits on my left wrist, a reminder of what is most important to me. There is art in the books I study, in the designs on my matching pajamas. In my favorite mug—what appears to be a large, yellow latte bowl but what, to me, in the simplest of terms, encompasses home. There is art in the lyrics that strike a chord I never knew existed, one that resounds throughout me. There is art in the sound of a huge crowd singing the same lyrics amid silence. In the buildings I love, in my favorite streets. How selfish of me, to cast art aside, solely because a certain piece held no meaning for me. How selfish of me to assume that the world revolves around me and my needs—if this blank canvas means nothing to me, it must be of no importance, right?
Art matters because, while medicine physically saves lives, art does so emotionally. How do we survive however many years we have on Earth without stories, music, or cinema? Without looking forward to creative outlets that allow us to channel, either through creation or interaction, inexplicable sadness, happiness, or loss? Art matters because it gives us meaning—it fills the gaps between the mechanical necessities of life.
So, to that supposedly conceited Sans titre, the one I very impulsively deemed worthless, I owe my apologies. I apologize for sneering at your blankness, for believing my time was not worth gazing at you for even one more second. I apologize to the countless souls this piece may have comforted. Because as long as something changes one person’s life for the better without harming anyone else—no matter how minimally—it matters.