My turn

Art, simple or not, has meaning for all

Posted: Wednesday, October 04, 2000

More than the pastime of a privileged few, the arts are pervasive in our lives. During October, officially designated National Arts and Humanities Month, we should all take a moment to look more deeply than usual at the impact of the arts on our lives.

We Americans tend to think of the arts in their most grandiose manifestations -- concerts at Lincoln Center, Broadway plays, masterpieces at major museums and enduring works of literature. These and other cultural treasures are indeed valuable. They help define who we are and what makes us human. They represent, along with comparably great accomplishments in science, engineering, philosophy and scholarship, the pinnacles of achievement of the human spirit. But if we look no farther than those lofty peaks, we imagine the arts as rarefied ground, the air perhaps too thin for ordinary folks like us.

In a series of ads airing this month, the Alaska State Council on the Arts and local arts councils throughout the state remind us that "Art Matters," not just to the great ambitious, but to each and every one of us. The campaign recalls for us not just the accomplishments of our state's outstanding museums and concert associations, but the fundamental joys and challenges of the more humble artistic activities in which we all engage.

One of my wife's most cherished possessions is an illustrated poem composed for her on Mother's Day 1997 by our then sixth-grade son as a school art project. Laminated and hanging at the entrance of her closet, it is a daily reminder not just of his love and caring, but of the wonders and challenges of artistic expression. Most of us have lost the easy, confident expression of our feelings in words and pictures that we had as elementary schoolchildren, but we continue to make aesthetic decisions almost as unselfconscious every day. We choose the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, even the guns and fly rods with which we hunt and fish, with eyes as much on their design as on their function. We know, even if unconsciously, that good design and fine function go hand in hand, and we make our choices confidently, in accord with our personal tastes.

The designers of those and virtually all of the other products we choose and use were trained in art. If we are not ourselves designers by trade, we nevertheless ratify the quality of their skills and training as consumers, and we participate in the arts through our choices.

We are not just appreciators of the arts, however. We, too, are designers, performers and artists. Singing in the church choir, sewing a dress, crafting a Christmas wreath, tying a fishing fly, or customizing a truck are all artistic activities. The desire to do these things, as well as the way we do them, is informed by all of the art we have seen, watched, or heard in our lives. Even when we sing in the shower, the impulse to sing, to perform, to express ourselves in song, is not fundamentally different from that of the opera stars, country singers, or rock musicians we have admired. The scales we use and the notes we try our best to hit are the same as those they employ, and the wonder of artistic expression is that those same elements can produce such various products and so many pleasures.

Sometime this month take a few minutes to count the ways the arts impact your life in a single day. Be thankful for what they bring you. It doesn't take an economic impact study, a well-orchestrated arts advocacy campaign, or even a trip to local museum to realize that art matters, that the arts are fundamental to our lives and that we celebrate them every day.

Kesler Woodward is professor of art emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is chair-elect of the Western States Art Federation.

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