Why the arts matter in this digital world? My contribution to #WhatIsTheValueOfArt

I was asked me to write a piece on ‘Why the arts matter in this digital world?’ Nice easy one that, really simple: shouldn’t take more than a dozen words… So where to start?

The Tate Gallery, London and the Turner collection.

I took my kids there when they were younger; the wee fellah was only 5 or 6, but very much a child of the digital age. Him and his older sister had a ‘puter which they shared.

It had the usual kid’s educational software and games and you could even connect to the internet if you had five minutes and liked the sound of dialing telephones.

So there we were, in the Tate, his sister had wandered into the next room and me and him were standing in front of one of JMW’s more ethereal works, Norham Castle, Sunrise – if you don’t know the work, there’s a blistering sun, a castle blur in blue and an animal standing in the foreground; maybe a horse, maybe a cow.

He’d been complaining about having to walk so far and yet for a few seconds he was quiet, transfixed by this painting. His arm reached up and his finger hovered within an inch of the canvas pointing to the animal before I said quietly, ‘Don’t touch.’

He was overawed, something I’d never seen before.

As we walked away, he kept turning his head and looking back at Norham Castle and the grazing ungulate.

Whether he remembers that moment now, I’m not sure, but something passed between JMW and my son, something there are no words for.

The rain is on as I write, I can hear the gutters emptying in a soulful rhythm, the clouds unfurled, patter against the tin roof, like an obscure John Cage composition.

I’m reminded of those moments when art stretches an arm out, grabs us by the neck and pulls us inside it; those moments when despite, and in spite, of the technological swamp of smartphones, video cameras, broadband connectivity and blogs that tell us what to think or when, art manages to transcend our plugged in existences – if you haven’t felt its tug then I’d suggest you aren’t human.

Let me put it like this, our first act as human beings was to draw a line in the sand, not in search of roots or grubs, but as mark to say ‘I am here’.

Whether that mark was in the sand or maybe on a cave wall, the act of making that abstract mark defined us as human beings.

We are art, our nominal definition of Homo sapiens depends on our ability to recognise that we have made a mark.

Everything that came afterwards, whether it be primitive rock art or Grand Opera, is the defining characteristic of our humanity.

And if you’re now struggling, it’s very easy to see whether art is important. All you need to do is subtract it from our world.

Get rid of music, theatre, TV, film, paintings, design, sculpture… let’s all in live in grey boxes, wear the same grey garb and stare at the same grey walls every night.

So there, it’s not that important really, is it?

Is art relevant in the digital age?

The digital age would not exist without it. Going back to the Greeks, technology is ‘Craft Knowledge’; they didn’t differentiate between art and science, mathematics was as much art as the Elgin Marbles.

So maybe the question posed at the top of the page is fallacious, maybe we should be asking whether the digital matters in the world of art?

That is the world that you and I exist in. That is the world that brings wonder to the face of a six year-old. That is the world that defines us. It is a world that could not be unless we made it so.

You may wander around the museums and galleries of this earth with a camera stuck to your eyeball and an audio guide explaining everything, but the digital only exists because some African hominid, lifted her arm, drew the first line in the sand and dared the rest of us to cross it.

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