Art versus practicality?

A permie friend asked:

“I often am torn between the beauty of art and music, and then pondering how that energy could have been applied to figuring out how to grow food and live sustainably, helping to restore and revitalize ecosystems so that our descendants have a planet where they CAN do art and music?”

My take:

(TL; DR: Meditation and comfort, transcendence and taking joy in beauty, are arguably functions that are essential for human life. We are more than just biological organisms.)

For the entire history of humankind, even societies that seem to live hand to mouth have always had art. I think we need the arts (including music) to make life worth living.

Not only do I think we can have both; I am pretty sure it’s mandatory.

When I was a bit younger, I used to beat myself up. I thought of myself as frivolous for being called to art and humanities. I reproached myself for not having the skill or discipline to study hard science and know how to do plumbing and build bridges and stuff. But then the insight of a couple paragraphs up suddenly occurred to me. About how even the most hand-to-mouth societies have always had art and music in some form. Hmmm, I thought, So maybe the arts aren’t so frivolous after all!

I think it’s possible that USA American colonizer society is the only society in human history that has ever tried to treat music and the arts, and beauty in general, as optional. I think the results speak for themselves. The most materially wealthy society in history is desperately poor in all the ways that matter.

If the arts and music didn’t exist, I couldn’t get motivated to get out of bed in the morning, let alone lift a fork to my mouth, let alone scrabble in the soil to grow the stuff that goes on the fork.

This brings to mind a quote attributed to Winston Churchill. When someone said we have to cut the arts for the defense budget, he supposedly said something along the lines of, “Well if we cut the arts, what are we fighting for?”

I would say the same concept applies to the permie obsession with growing food. Which of course is necessary, but all too often with us white permies seems to come at the expense of all else, including building community, living near our loved ones, and working for the upliftment of all fellow humans and other fellow creatures. The extreme obsessive focus on physical food-growing feels like a big cognitive drain.

Divide and conquer! Except in this case, it’s us voluntarily dividing ourselves, by willingly going out into BFE with just one or two other people, and grubbing potatoes or whatever. When all over the world and throughout history, people have done that collectively in community.

If all we do is grow food in our own backyards or some remote acreage, what the heck are we growing food for? Just for our own biological survival? This is not what permaculture is about. And it certainly won’t make a sustainable society. It feels to me like a voluntary descent into hardscrabble times.

I might even go far to say that a society that devotes all its resources to practicality at the expense of beauty — a society that treats beauty as optional — is ultimately a society that is … impractical!! Which is definitely unsustainable.

<insert image of American Gothic painting, that iconic painting of the dour-faced farm couple (by Grant Wood; 1930>

PS. Art and music lift us to other realms. Remind us that other realms exist. As another commenter put it, art and music “help us realize the palpable aspects of other dimensions.” I think that might be why some super strict religions are against music and art, at least music and art that are not directly religious. Because it poses a threat to authoritarianism by allowing us to travel to other dimensions in our minds.

PPS. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Artists — including poets, novelists etc. — serve as a BS detector and moral compass for society. It’s surprisingly easy for a cloister of linear, factual, literal-minded people to go off the rails very quickly and lose their BS detectors. I have seen it firsthand with some of the sharpest science-brainy people I know. I have lost count of the times when I’ve been like, “Holy cannoli!! How does this person who’s so science-sharp and so much fact-smarter than me not see that the guy talking right now is obviously ‘off’ even though the sentences he’s putting together have internal validity and make grammatical sense?” In this sense the arts serve a physical, biological survival function for society too.