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Art: a basic necessity of life

The unique individual expression of the qualities we all have in common is true art.

By Barbara Cook Spencer / March 2, 2009

Reflection: A visitor studies a René Magritte painting at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

AL BEHRMAN/AP

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I can't remember a time when I wasn't an artist, and so I can't remember ever thinking that art and beauty weren't completely necessary to life, as important as daily bread. But I never thought too much about the place of art in others' lives or how important or trivial it might be to them. Over the years, though, I began to perceive that art was considered by many, even most, people, to be a luxury – caviar – and not daily bread at all.

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My rudest awakening on this subject came when I was visiting Britain years ago. I loved driving through the countryside, staying on farms and in small bed-and-breakfast places, and visiting country stores. One day, I stopped at a little store that made its own cheese every day.

There was only one salesperson there, a young woman with snappy, black curls, who had the look of someone with a cheese doctorate. I decided to ask a few questions, but the more I asked, the more amazed she became that anyone could be so ignorant of dairy products. I think my fatal question was the one about whether or not they sold the cheese they had made that very morning. A look of total exasperation came over her face. She stopped weighing my wedge of cheese, arched her back slightly, and said with a snap that matched her curls, "Don't you know nothin' about cheese?"

The whole thing was so incongruous, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Suddenly, and without thinking, I blurted out, "No. Do you know anything about art?" I thought perhaps I'd had the last word. But she looked at me for a moment and then said, "No. But that's not something you have to do with every day, and cheese is!"

That made me finally realize that art, to most people, wasn't a basic necessity at all. For most, it wasn't inseparable from day-to-day experience. It wasn't the equivalent of "daily bread."

And yet I knew that people could no more survive this human experience without our "art food" than we could survive without eating. Is it possible to imagine all of the basic forms that surround us without their characteristic clothing of uniqueness? What if trees, animals, and human beings, for example, were all the same, with only generic identities?

It may sound as though I'm describing a world without individuality and that I'm inferring that a world without individuality is a world without art. But isn't it? Isn't individuality really life's art? After all, we share identical qualities, have identical feelings and longings, so we'd all be exactly the same if we didn't each express these qualities, feelings, and longings differently from everyone else.

And isn't that what paintings and sculptures, symphonies and songs are all about? They are microcosms of the universal fact that we're all the same but we're all different. Works of art and music highlight and emphasize the fact that the unique individual expression of the qualities we all have in common is true art. The paintings of El Greco, Vincent van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock, for example, impart the most intense vitality – but in original ways.

Throughout the history of art, paintings have included much the same subject matter – religious, country, and domestic scenes, for instance, and portraits, including portraits of the same individuals – by different painters. What artists are trying to say might not be particularly original. How they say it is through art. In fact, the truly original subject of every painting is the artist himself or herself, the unique fingerprint of original style left on each and every painting and sculpture.

How well I remember trips to the museum as a young painter. I was a student at the High School of Music and Art in New York and traipsed down to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after school. At that time, museums were temples of genius to me, housing the art of the few great painters whose work was represented there.

Now I see museums and the work they contain as fingers pointing to all of us, focusing light on the universal truth of individual uniqueness – a truth that is often lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Museums reveal the fact that originality of expression is the real art and value of life, no matter what we're doing. They inform us that if we're not being our unique selves, we're not fully alive. They show us that our inimitable selfhood is the art of our being.

Art is what each of us is, deep inside – our own beauty. And while we remain related to our fellow man by those infinite qualities we all share, our art is what makes us different. Art is expressed in the way we cook, arrange flowers, place furniture, raise our children, chair a meeting, close a business deal, or gather our friends. It's having our own voice. We challenge drabness and boredom by resisting the pressure of comparison and preserving our own individual beauty.

The great naturalist, John Muir, wrote in "The Yosemite": "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread...." So to the English cheesemaker who made me think more deeply about the place of art in daily life, I say: Yes, art is "something [we] have to do with every day." It is universal, individual, basic truth – it is daily bread.

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