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What use is art?

Climate change protesters have recently centred some of their protests around famous works of art including Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers and John Constable's Haywain. Following the latest climate change report from the UN, which highlights that governments' actions to cut carbon have been woefully inadequate, I would not argue against the need to protest. I am, however, unsure of the use of art as a target for protest.

Van Gogh's Sunflowers in the National Gallery

When attaching their own image of an apocalyptic future on top of the Haywain, One of the just stop all your protesters asked the poignant question:

“When there is no water, what use is art? When billions of people are in pain and suffering, what use then is art?”

This question makes me think about questions of what makes human life meaningful, and for me, art is fundamental to this. According to Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist writing in the 1940s, there is a hierarchy of needs that must be met to allow us to be happy. Basic physiological needs, such food, water, rest and shelter, are at the foundation level of this hierarchy. Only when this level is fulfilled can we move on to higher level needs.

Moving up through the levels of needs, there are then requirements for safety; love and belonging; self-esteem; and self-actualization. Creativity lies in this top level, to be enjoyed once the more basic needs are secure. Under this model, it is indeed the case that in a world where we have inadequate resources due to climate change, people would not be able to engage in creativity and the enjoyment of art.

However, I believe that creating and enjoying art is an essentially human activity, and can be powerfully important in even desperate circumstances. Not having one's basic needs met would be dehumanising and affect a person's sense of worth and value. While this would make it hard to engage in and enjoy arts, perhaps this is when they are most important to us.

When a person's basic physiological needs are not being met, this is likely to have an impact on their mental health, their feelings of self-worth and their sense of belonging and community. At this point, engaging in creativity can have great value. Both in providing an escape, and a short time of freedom from other concerns while we are able to concentrate on a creative activity and find a calm space. Creativity can bring a sense of self-esteem and accomplishment, as well as a sense of community and belonging.

Without self-esteem, human accomplishments, and community our lives would be greatly impoverished. We should not neglect out planet for their sake, but we shouldn't dismiss the power of art to move us and help to show us what is important to us as humans.

I think it is important to have these debates, to help us focus on what it is important for us to engage in, and what we wish to save. I'd love to know your views on whether creativity has to wait until all of our other needs have been fulfilled, or whether taking time out to create can help us to achieve a basic level wellbeing and self-belief. And should art be a legitimate target for protest?

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