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. Brian Loane, ’19 Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Honors Scholar, English and Comparative Literature, won Third Place for his essay, “Art is Useless, And It Matters,” in response to this prompt:
Does Art Matter?
Art is Useless, And It Matters
March 4, 1861: Abraham Lincoln closed his First Inaugural Address with pure poetry:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The cannons fired on Fort Sumter a month later. We became enemies and unleashed a bloody and intimate war over the clear evil of slavery. Words of art, delivered from the highest platform by the greatest leader prevented no suffering.
Art fails to solve large scale problems that beset humans at all times. Shakespeare’s plays provide the most intense mediations on tyranny, evil, hatred, and yet they do nothing to eliminate these ugly forces from history. The poetry of Seamus Heaney, in part, gives voice to the horrors in Ireland. He crafts nearly perfect verses about bombs ripping apart pubs, but those words never actually helped to stop the violence. Art does not have a function in solving daily problems nor does it fix the universal sufferings of our species.
Poet James Agee recognizes the overwhelming suffering that characterizes so much of life, documenting the absolute poverty of cotton tenant farmers during the Depression in his book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, writing:
Each [person] is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath… sustaining for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe. So that how it can be that a stone, a plant, a star, can take on the burden of being; and how a child can take on the burden of breathing; and how through so long a… cumulation of the burden of each moment one on another does any creature bear to exist, and not break utterly to fragments of nothing.
He admits that life is a burden. That to be alive means that you will suffer. In the face of all of this pain, how can a poem, a painting, or a dance, which does not remedy that suffering, be said to matter?
Because it bears witness to humanity.
Art testifies to life, and nothing more should be required of it. Notions of practicality or functionality must be set aside. Though Heaney’s poetry does not solve the violence in Northern Ireland, it refuses to let the lives of the people who experience it slip into oblivion. His poem “Casualty” recounts one man killed by an IRA bomb: “He would drink by himself / And raise a weathered thumb / Towards the high shelf, / Calling another Rum / And blackcurrant.” Heaney continues: “In the pause after a slug / He mentioned poetry” and then considers his profession: “…that morning / I was taken in his boat… / To get out early, haul / Steadily off the bottom, / Dispraise the catch, and smile.” The poem preserves this man’s tiny habits—the way he orders drinks, engages with art, or goes out on morning fishing trips. The joys and sufferings he experienced do not fade. The poem ends with Heaney speaking to the departed soul, sending a breath of remembrance to his ghost: “Dawn-sniffing revenant, / Plodder through midnight rain, / Question me again.” Art refuses to let this man become a forgotten casualty of a bomb in a pub by bearing witness to his life.
If it attests to human life, art need not be a transcendent creation like the poems or plays I have been discussing. It can be the short diary of 12-year-old Tanya Savicheva which documents her starving family’s struggle to survive during the battle of Leningrad. There are only seven entries; the last four read: “Uncle Vasya died on April 13, 1942, at 2 am; Uncle Lesha May 10, 1942, at 4 pm; Mama on May 13, 1942, at 7:30 am; Savichev family died. Everyone died. Only Tanya is left.” Here are no perfect sentences designed to communicate a profound theme. Just simple declaratives that communicate overwhelming emotional power about one life at one time. Art preserves her brief existence, allows her story to endure. It says, “Here, at this moment, in this place, I lived, and in this place, I died.” That matters.