by Janet Roberts

“What do you see when you look at that?” These words interrupted my concentrated study of Fred Stein’s photograph hung in the Ruess Plaza. I had come to see the WP&S Southeast Chapter Membership Show for the first time since entering a piece, and was just settling down after the slight indignity of having a metal detector passed over me to see what was causing a beep. For those of you who have not been yet, the space is large and airy, and almost swallows some of the smaller pieces in the Membership show. But it is still an elegant venue, and so I was intent on taking my time and “reading” each carefully hung piece.

The guard in question had initially made a ripple in my consciousness when he asked why I was there. I replied that I was there to see the art show, and he responded by producing a sound between a laugh and a snicker, and saying, “Art show? You mean just a bunch of pictures hanging on the walls!” I gave a weak laugh in return, and went through the metal detection process. But this guy seemed to have more issues to pursue. After questioning what I saw in Fred’s photo, he then proceeded to ask if I had a job, why I made art, and if I thought anyone would really pay the sum typed on the card next to my painting.

I remember feeling pretty rattled, but managed to say that art, like music, was a creative expression. However, I could not shake the feeling that I had failed the whole art world by not being able to immediately produce an articulate and passionate defense of the need for art. My thoughts clattered and bumped around in my head for several days, but I finally managed to tame and funnel these ideas into a more orderly group.

In retrospect, I initially decided that I would tell the guard how children seem to be naturally one with art. How they don’t need explanations but pick up crayons and scribble and create and take delight in the laying of color on paper. I wonder if he did that too, and has forgotten? I might have told him how almost everything in our culture is touched by art. Does he go to movies? Well, that is art. I noticed that he was reading a book…….another form of art. Not to mention the cover design, the careful selection of the font, and the photo or illustration on the jacket. Art is so imbedded in our society that it is hard to think of one thing that is not connected. The computer, television, furniture design, architecture, fabric, clothing……the list goes on and on.

And yet…..there is something deeper and more intimate at stake here. As an artist, I feel that aside from the multiple roles art plays in our culture and society, it is in a more abstract level that it is most important. Why DO humans feel the need to create? Why were those simple and elegant cave paintings done by our ancient ancestors? Why do children instinctively take up crayons and make marks? I think it has to do with hope, and a need to elevate ourselves to a place where anything is possible. Do animals create? Most of them operate amazingly efficiently doing the tasks they were genetically programmed to do. But in the unusual case where an elephant paints with its trunk, not only does this make the news, but people are willing to pay huge sums of money to purchase this art. So perhaps art, in fact, is there to remind us all that there really is more to life than day to day “getting through-ness”; that just maybe the children are on to something important.

What would I now say to that guard? I think I would gently point out that art might be compared to something as simple as getting that good feeling when you see your favorite color. That it’s kind of like recess in a long school day. That the world would be awfully grim without the many forms and faces of art. That as creatures who are hopefully evolving towards a higher and more spiritual level, it is a very good thing to sometimes forget the dailyness of life and play with imagination and creativity. And if all that failed to get the point across, maybe a brand new box of waxy smelling brightly colored Crayolas would do the trick.