In a chaotic world, full of injustice, fundamentalism, political unrest, poverty, religious persecution and environmental catastrophe, some may wonder, why do we need art and artists?
Why should we invest time, energy and money in art, instead of, say, some scientific or technological advancement?
I ask because I’m a musician, and also because my husband just released a musical project under the name “Small Opera”. When reflecting on the music he created, he really thought hard about how he could describe the inspiration behind his recent work to family and friends, in a way that would be relatable or meaningful to them. Another layer of his analysis was also in what the work meant to him personally, and why he’d devoted all this time to it to see it to its completion.
It’s weird that he felt he had to justify his work and validate it in some way, but I also get it. We live in a thriving neighborhood, with lots of community building activities and a great need for more. I think my husband was trying to justify what this project meant not only to him but for the community as a whole.
It got me thinking about my own journey and career as an artist, and when considering all that’s at stake in the world, it raised the question: what’s the point of art and artists?
“…artists play a large role in advancing the life of humanity”
So I turned to the Baha’i writings to learn about what the central figures and institutions of the Faith have to say about the role and value of the arts in this day and age.
Art as a means of prayer and worship
The Baha’i teachings point out that partaking in the process of creation, striving for excellence in one’s craft, and appreciating the effects of another’s creativity, are all ways to worship the Creator:
I rejoice to hear that thou takest pains with thine art, for in this wonderful new age, art is worship. The more thou strivest to perfect it, the closer wilt thou come to God. What bestowal could be greater than this, that one’s art should be even as the act of worshipping the Lord? That is to say, when thy fingers grasp the paintbrush, it is as if thou wert at prayer in the Temple. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet written to an individual Baha’i.
Artists promote the well-being and harmony of people
In order to create, artists often invoke the powers of reflection, meditation, and prayer. By calling on the Divine in the creative process, artists seek to tap into Divine wisdom and understanding. The Baha’i teachings point out that integrating that Divine spirit into an artist’s work will naturally address and promote humanity’s well-being and advancement:
O people of Baha! The source of crafts, sciences, and arts is the power of reflection. Make ye every effort that out of this ideal mine there may gleam forth such pearls of wisdom and utterance as will promote the well-being and harmony of all the kindreds of the earth. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah
The light which these souls radiate is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its peoples. They are like unto leaven which leaveneth the world of being, and constitute the animating force through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah
Artists are professionals at process
Artists, by the very nature of creating art, constantly engage in the process of discovery. From the moment a musician sings a note, or a painter’s paint brush touches a canvas – and until their work is performed or exhibited – they practice patience and courage throughout the creative process. Artists understand failure and the work involved in achieving a desired outcome. They are professionals when it comes to the process of action, reflection, consultation, and prayer. Because of these attributes, artists play a large role in advancing the life of humanity:
It hath been revealed and is now repeated that the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet to an individual Baha’i.
Artists perceive the Divine Reality of things
Just as scientists help society progress with new cures and discoveries, artists have the capacity to aid society’s spiritual progress. By mining Divine Reality through prayer and meditation, artists tap into the power of the spirit and the spiritual world, and bring it into material existence for all of us to experience:
By the power of the Holy Spirit, working through his soul, man is able to perceive the Divine Reality of things. All great works of art and science are witnesses to this power of the Spirit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks