We can’t eat art but it feeds us

By Besufekade Mulu

Picture courtesy of Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group Via Getty Images

If there is something that remains constant about art; for the most part, is that it’s seen as a luxury. A lazy man’s pursuit. The reasons for this though, are unclear. For some, it might be because the values the STEM fields (engineering, science, maths…) bring to society are more apparent and these are objective. It either is or it isn’t. If you’re sick, the doctor gives you a remedy. If you need to wash clothes faster, you buy a washing machine.

When you put it like that. Any creative pursuit feels… pointless. Especially when the realities of being in this world hit you hard. You have bills to pay, responsibilities towards your fellowmen and pursuing an answer to fancy questions about existence or even expressing the emotions you feel every day, feels frivolous. This especially holds true when you live in a “third-world” country. Everything about being in that environment makes you question, why you’re a creative practitioner when there are so many problems and when life feels so brutal. It feels unearned and selfish even. And society, in every meaning of that word, reflects this sentiment.

The average person, living in a world where shelter, food and safety are a luxury, has less to spend on art pieces. It feels like an unwise expense. Or how we were taught in school. You know, you want a happy life, get good grades, find a job, get married. Nowhere in that equation is a career in any artistic field ever considered. Growing up with this mindset, for someone wanting to pursue a meaningful life by being an artist (whatever shape that might hold), you’re suddenly burdened with all these fears, uncertainties and pushbacks from within yourself. It’s internalized.

But this is a misconception.

A narrow focus on the objective aspects of human life, like medicine, will leave an unavoidable big void that only something like art can fill. Unlike sciences, the meaning of our existence isn’t clear-cut. Why we do what we do, isn’t always clear-cut. Heck, is there a scientist alive that can clearly define what an emotion is in the same way they can an atom? Or even something as seemingly simple as a thought? How about what happens after we die? Our reason for being?

All these questions have given birth to the arts.

Even the non-artistic institutions that have forwarded any meaningful solution to these constantly shifting puzzles, use the oldest artistic tradition in the world. Storytelling. These answers aren’t clear cut, they in fact result in more questions, but they do engage something within us and this leaves us either satisfied with the unknown or even more questions that give some of us a greater sense of purpose.

Moreover, when you look at how history was first ever recorded, although it later evolved as some sort of science, Herodotus had to rely on his creative instincts to record the first ever accounts. Some of the stuff written in the Histories was for the lack of better words, bonkers. You wouldn’t expect your history books to contain more than a series of events that happened, right? In the first history book that was ever written, the aforementioned Histories by Herodotus, you’d find things that are pretty much in line with what we have today, like eyewitness accounts and battle dates but also peculiar entries like stories of a dolphin rescuing a poet, an account of a king that ordered the sea to be whipped 300 times and other strangeness. Yet, this man, a writer, was dubbed the father of history. He was given the name because of how he recorded history.

Picture courtesy of Merikokeb Berhanu/Dawn Whitmore/Addis Fine Art

Before him, history was recorded as just a series of events (mostly battles) that happened, mostly written from the point of view of the victor (a fact that hasn’t changed to date). But Herodotus, being a man of literature, took a different approach. He wanted to explore the deeper nuances so he recorded them from the point of view of two competing narratives. He wanted to understand the reasons why these events happened the way they did and using storytelling approaches (like say, the Rashomon effect) he compiled the world’s first-ever history book.

You’ll find that very same instinct of trying to find answers to the deeper questions through artistic pursuits almost everywhere. Expressed in a variety of ways from oral folk tales, hieroglyphics, poetry, and cave paintings. And this drive wasn’t seen as separate from the more “objective” things. In some instances, it was married to sciences like philosophy. So, how did something so engrained in the fibre of our being become something that is looked down upon? Maybe our current way of life is to blame? Industrialization? High population? Maybe the hard work behind every art piece ever produced is shrouded by rigid definitions of natural talent?

What we do know is that every art form has an unquantifiable value that the world should better recognize. Especially here in the African continent. It’s our best tool to change the way others in the world see us. It’s also a way for us to preserve our identity, and our way of life, perhaps contribute to the story of mankind. In a world with so much said about us, we’re also, unfortunately, a people that rarely gets to have a say. Given this predicament, and more, can we really afford to still, treat artistic pursuits as a luxury?

We’ll leave you to find the answer!

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