the place of art in society

Society seems to place much more emphasis on STEM than the arts and humanities. International students (in the US) who are STEM majors receive a visa extension, tech companies continue to be the largest, most media-exposed companies. 

And I understand why. Scientific development is what drives our human race forward. The ability to innovate is one of the few traits that differentiate us from other animals. But even then, humanities, is after all, what makes us human. Why can't we value them of equal weight?


In my design fundamentals class yesterday, the professor showed us a TED Talk by a graphic designer-turned-artist. While her work was striking, her conclusion struck me more.

"You know, I have to tell you, it's really difficult for someone like me to come up on stage at this conference with these unbelievably brilliant minds... And it's very, very common for designers and people in the visual arts to feel that we're not contributing enough, or worse, that all we're doing is contributing to landfill."

I was absolutely taken aback - “All we’re doing is contributing to landfill.” The statement is at once so derogatory but also so honest. She speaks a collective concern that we’re all too afraid to question.

Because after all, what is the utility of art? While code can build apps and lead to self-driving cars, art ultimately creates, for lack of better words, pretty things for us to look at. 

After spending a lifetime in the art industry though, the speaker, Bantjes concludes the value of art: its ability to inspire. "Inspiration is cross-pollinating. So a piece of mine may inspire a playwright or a novelist or a scientist, and that in turn may be the seed that inspires a doctor or a philanthropist or a babysitter."

I find that so beautiful, because art seems like magic. The value is inherent in all industries and professions, and it connects us. But at the same time, it's difficult to quantify, "and we tend to undervalue things in society that we can't measure." 

Even for artists, the merit of your design is often measured upon numbers - can your logo design land the client deal, will your design attract a consumer in the 30 millisecond span they’ll look at it?

Ultimately, that’s become the orthodox way to value art in society - by its monetary value. And while I contend that companies must be driven primarily by profit, I believe that there must be a place - an intersection - where art can both be regarded by its aesthetics and its practical contributions to society.

Watch the whole TED Talk here, by Marian Bantjes.