Do we need art?

Do we need art? This is the question I found myself thinking about (not rhetorically) as I walked home from dropping my daughter off at preschool this morning, pushing my littlest in our chariot through the snow (we’ve gotten a lot of snow this year). One person who lives between our house and the school only shovels a narrow strip of sidewalk so I have to either go around, into the road, or push my 60 pounds of progeny at a 45 degree angle on one set of wheels through the narrow bit. Not really that big a deal, but I chose to go home through an alley today rather than repeat the morning’s lopsided gesture.

And I had one of those moments in the alley when everything feels exactly like itself, and I felt completely present. Available to the moment. Even the wood grain of the electrical pole seemed distinct and interesting–it was that kind of morning. If you live in Edmonton, you might be familiar with Kari Duke’s winter landscape paintings–that’s the kind of light we had early today. And it was warm enough to let my little guy play in his blue snowsuit and rainbow monkey hat in the snow in our yard for a while before we came inside. I wish I had a picture.

Anyway, about the time I got to the electrical pole, and the spruce just past it, I found myself thinking about whether life needs art, or whether this kind of experience of absolute presence could do. I try to get there, by various methods, as often as I can, but it seems to me that trying doesn’t usually get us all the way. Presence is a gift. (Or, if you want to put it less mystically, it’s not completely under our conscious control).

In any case, it occurred to me in the alley, wondering if life requires art to be meaningful, that what life requires of us is that we make some kind of response. In this sense, art is a form of responsibility.

Not the only form, but an important one, one I value deeply but can imagine getting on without under duress as long as I had certain other things–love, compassion, a sense of shared humanity, the kind of joy that children have which appears spontaneously and without terrible regard for what happened a few moments before. Presence. I keep circling back through these same words and thoughts these days, these months–presence, resilience, response, responsibility, the given. What we can give, and what we can’t. What we can accept. What is unacceptable.

What arrives, what departs, what is too precious to keep to oneself–what can’t be found or if found can’t be held forever, no matter the will for it, the desire.

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